Historically, it is a bad idea to bet against Khabib Nurmagomedov.
With a 28-0 record, putting money on one of the UFC lightweight champion’s opponents beating him has literally never worked out. Not once.
And yet, if you were going to build an opponent with all the specific skills that might just convince someone there was an upset brewing against Nurmagomedov, that fighter would probably look a whole lot like Justin Gaethje.
Gaethje is one of the most vicious strikers in MMA. He’s capable of absorbing a tonne of damage without slowing down. And, most importantly, he’s got an NCAA Div. 1 wrestling background, which may make it hard for Nurmagomedov to take him to the mat.
Unsurprisingly, the Dagestani champion still doesn’t give his opponent much of a chance in their UFC 254 main event on Saturday.
“I know he knows how to wrestle, but what about wrestling for 25 minutes? It’s going to be like I told (former heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier), ‘When you fight with Stipe Miocic last time, you grabbed his leg one time and took him down he got up very quickly and that’s it, you finished,’ “ Nurmagomedov told reporters at a pre-fight press conference in Abu Dhabi this week. “Other minutes all going stand up.
“Between me and D.C., big difference. If I’m going to try to take (Gaethje) down once and his defence is good, I’m going to go all night. I’m going to go all night. This is the big difference between U.S. wrestling and Dagestan wrestling.”
It’s fair to say that Saturday’s main event is the biggest UFC fight of 2020. Nurmagomedov’s presence alone ensures that any fight he’s in is going to get major mainstream attention, especially after he dismantled Conor McGregor in their blockbuster matchup two years ago.
That win was consistent with everything Nurmagomedov has ever done in his career. Whoever he has been matched up against, he’s taken them down and proceeded to maul them until the referee steps in.
There’s a feeling that Gaethje could be different, though. It might be wishful thinking on the part of fans and media wanting to see Nurmagomedov challenged.
Since losing back-to-back fights to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier a couple years ago, Gaethje has taken a giant leap forward in his game. Where he was once hailed for his wildness in the octagon, he’s now slightly more patient with his shots. He has finished four straight opponents, and cut out some of the mental errors that cost him against Poirier and Alvarez.
Against Tony Ferguson in May, Gaethje won every striking exchange and punished one of the best lightweights ever for four and a half rounds before referee Herb Dean stepped in.
If Gaethje can stuff Nurmagomedov’s takedown attempts, there’s a real chance he could win the fight standing up.
That’s a big ‘if’, though.
“Very good kicks, he has very good kicks. They all good when they stand up,” Nurmagomedov said about Gaethje. “But when I grab them, it changes a little bit. I think that more than (Poirier and McGregor), he knows how to wrestle. He’s going to be a little bit hard.
“But I prepare myself to take him down 100 times. It’s going to be very interesting Saturday night.”
Apparently, the UFC is anticipating that Saturday night’s card will be the biggest in company history.
That’s according to UFC president Dana White, who told TMZ that his team was expecting UFC 254 to break the pay-per-view purchase record set by UFC 229, when Nurmagomedov fought McGregor.
“This thing is trending off the charts for us right now,” White said. “It is trending bigger than (UFC 229) right now … Will the trend hold? One of the things that is a big negative for us is that it is not in primetime (in North America) and it is hard to message that to people.”
It’s worth noting that White’s job is to promote fights, so making UFC 254 sounds like a huge deal is an obvious move from him. It’s probably worth taking with a grain of salt, but it does speak to Nurmagomedov’s drawing power that he’s even being discussed in the same breath as McGregor when it comes to selling fights.
AROUND THE OCTAGON
It’s a bit top-heavy, but there are some very fun fights on the rest of the UFC 254 card beyond the main event. In particular, the co-main event between former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker and Jared Cannonier should be incredible. The winner is getting the next shot at current 185-lb. king Israel Adesanya. The stakes are high, but even without that added incentive, the style matchup itself is really interesting … Francis Ngannou has been understandably frustrated by his lack of activity. The guyhas only fought once in the last 16 months and that fight lasted 20 seconds. Just book him against Miocic for the heavyweight championship already … Leon Edwards was removed from the UFC rankings due to inactivity. The man is arguably the second-best welterweight in the world, so this needs to get sorted out quickly.
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