UFC 254: Can Khabib Nurmagomedov stay perfect against Justin Gaethje?

Khabib Nurmagomedov is not only 28-0 as a professional, but he’s rarely lost a round. He’s rarely come close to losing a round.

He lost the third round in his grudge match with Conor McGregor in 2018, but came back to submit the dual champion in the next round.

But on Saturday on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, Nurmagomedov will face perhaps his most significant challenge as he defends his lightweight title in the main event of UFC 254 against interim champion Justin Gaethje.

Nurmagomedov is a -340 favorite at the MGM Grand sports book in Las Vegas, while Gaethje is +270. The line has begun to swing in Gaethje’s direction after it favored Nurmagomedov in the early going.

That may be because of the striking.

Gaethje will present a challenge to Nurmagomedov unlike any he’s ever faced. Nurmagomedov fought McGregor, an elite striker, at UFC 228, but was able to take advantage of McGregor’s lack of a wrestling background to win the fight by submission.

Russian UFC fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov, choke holds UFC fighter Dustin Poirier, of Lafayette, La., during Lightweight title mixed martial arts bout at UFC 242, in Yas Mall in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday , Sept.7 2019. (AP Photo/ Mahmoud Khaled)
Khabib Nurmagomedov choke-holds Dustin Poirier during their lightweight title bout at UFC 242 on Sept. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Khaled)

Gaethje is a different style of striker than McGregor, but he’s just as dangerous. But Gaethje is also a former collegiate wrestler who has the combination of skills that Nurmagomedov has never faced at this level.

The interim champion praised Nurmagomedov’s striking, but said it was made better by how proficient his grappling is. UFC president Dana White is one of those who believes that Nurmagomedov’s hands are vastly underrated.

But he conceded that having that grappling background puts pressure on someone to defend the strikes.

“He hits hard,” White told Yahoo Sports of Nurmagomedov. “When you have a guy who wrestles the way he does and does the damage that he does when he gets you on your back and makes it hard to get up, you all of a sudden start focusing on not getting taken down and that allows him to be able to land some big shots on people.”

Trainer Javier Mendez said that Nurmagomedov’s hands are good enough that he regularly outboxed boxers in sparring sessions at AKA.

He understands the difficulty that Gaethje presents, but said he feels Nurmagomedov would win even if it were a striking match.

Mendez said that it’s clear that Nurmagomedov prepared himself well even without his father, who died in July of coronavirus-related complications, and said he doesn’t see how Gaethje will be able to defend himself on the ground if the fight gets there.

“I don’t believe he can [get back up if Khabib gets him down],” Mendez said. “I believe that because I’ve never seen him on the ground, and if you don’t practice on the ground all the time, all the time, all the time, I don’t see how you can all of a sudden be fantastic there if you never go there. I believe he has a good ground game, but I don’t believe it’s as good as it needs to be to keep Khabib off of him.

“If Khabib does take him down, maybe not the first time or the second time, but the third time, it’s really going to be tough for him.”

Gaethje’s power is remarkable, and his new style of less is more was brutally efficient at UFC 249 when he finished Tony Ferguson after dominating him for four-plus rounds.

Nurmagomedov is on another level, though, so taking the title will require a huge leap again for Gaethje. It’s not impossible, but it will be the most difficult challenge he’s faced.

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