The lightweight title fight for the ages is finally here - who will reign supreme over the UFC's deepest division?
UFC 254 has some truly superb match-ups on its Saturday morning/afternoon card from "Fight Island"; the rematch between Ion Cutelaba and Magomed Ankalaev following their extremely controversial first meeting is (hopefully) going to FINALLY take place after multiple last-minute cancellations, former middleweight champ Robert Whittaker takes on the surging Jared Cannonier in a brilliant #1 contender fight, and even the prelims offer some tantalizing scraps such as a surefire barnburner between prospects Nathaniel Wood and Casey Kenney, Cowboy Oliveira taking on a 12-0 Kazakhstani prospect, and Khabib's cousin Umar Nurmagomedov will make his UFC debut.
All of those great fights however pale in comparison to the main event, where the dominant 28-0 Dagestani lightweight king looks to take out his most dangerous challenger to date in one of the most violent men in the history of the sport.
Since virtually everyone knows who the two main attractions are, let's dive right in to the stylistic match-up this fight presents.
The Dagestani Demolisher
As dominant as Khabib Nurmagomedov has been throughout his career, he is still very much a specialist - Khabib's grappling and ground and pound are second to none, but on the feet, while he has developed a solid jab and a serviceable stand-up game, he is still light years behind the elite strikers in the division when it comes to pure striking.
Thankfully his relentless takedowns and mauling top-game instill such fear into his opponent's that they become afraid to take risks or let their hands go, making Khabib's time in his opponent's wheelhouse much safer and even makes him a threat - just ask Conor McGregor.
Though everyone remembers Khabib's brilliant overhand right which dropped the Irishman, few remember that for extended periods (particularly in the third round), Khabib was not only holding his own on the feet, but even beating McGregor with combinations and his consistent jab.
Of course McGregor would easily outclass Khabib in a pure striking match, but mixed martial arts isn't quite so simple - as we've seen from plenty of grapplers in the past, the fear of being taken down by a dominant grappler can turn even the most devastating striker into a sitting duck.
That being said, Khabib has still been clipped and hurt on occasion, most notably in the first half of the opening round against Michael Johnson and during an exchange with Dustin Poirier in his most recent outing.
Khabib's ability to ragdoll extremely talented fighters is certainly impressive, but fans have long wondered if a truly elite wrestler would be able to nullify Khabib's offense and could force the ground specialist into a purely striking affair.
After all, though Khabib inevitably finds ways to take all of his opponent's down, it's as much about his tenacity and relentless chain wrestling as it is about his technique, and even his late father remarked how Khabib was much more successful in sambo and judo than he was at freestyle wrestling.
The most credentialed wrestler the champion has fought to date was arguably Al Iaquinta, a standout high school and community college wrestler, but that bout was difficult for both fighters given that the fight was made on less than 24 hours' notice with both men training and weighing-in to compete against different opponents.
In their title tilt, Iaquinta was able to nullify Khabib's grappling for extended periods throughout the five rounds in which they fought, and when Khabib was able to get the New York native down, Iaquinta was able to survive without taking too much damage.
On the feet however, the threat of Khabib's takedowns made Iaquinta extremely hesitant to throw hands and Nurmagomedov's jab and awkward offense not only kept Ragin' Al at bay for the entire fight, but had him easily outstrike the "superior" striker in every round.
It may now have been the champion's most dominant performance compared to some of his other maulings, but it was still lopsided and given the circumstances it was a good outing nonetheless.
It did however raise concerns about how Khabib would fare against a truly elite wrestler that had the confidence to let their hands go - and that is where his latest challenger comes in.
Though few people see him as a wrestler given his fighting style (in fact he has never even attempted a takedown in the UFC, and has refused to follow his opponents to the ground even after knocking them down), Justin Gaethje is easily one of the most credentialed freestyle wrestlers in the lightweight division and by far the most accomplished wrestler Nurmagomedov will have ever faced in the Octagon.
An NCAA Division I All-American and a multiple-time Arizona state champion in high school, Gaethje brings a lifetime of wrestling experience to the cage and uses his wrestling "in reverse" to great effect, using his background to force his opponents to stand and trade with him at all times.
Fans have been quick to point out Gaethje's somewhat underwhelming (for a man with his accolades at least) 80% takedown defense in the UFC, however with his wildly chaotic fighting style early on in his UFC career, that number is extremely deceiving.
The few times he has been taken down, Gaethje's opponents have changed levels in the midst of wild brawling exchanges, the type of exchange that Khabib is certainly not going to want to engage in and something that Justin himself has since learned to avoid.
Even when his opponents have gotten him down however, Gaethje has easily popped back up to his feet without fail, even when utterly exhausted - the measly 17 seconds his opponents combined have been able to keep Gaethje on his back shows just how quickly he has been able to return to his feet.
The problem of course comes in the form of his opponent - Khabib has managed to ground all of his opponents and when he does so, he is remarkably effective at keeping them on the mat and sticking to them like glue.
The outcome of this fight hinges almost entirely on Gaethje's ability to keep Khabib off of him, or, failing that, on being able to outlast Khabib and stuff his shots later into the fight.
Embracing the Grind
An overlooked aspect of this massive fight is cardio - while Khabib certainly has great cardio, his incredibly aggressive style (almost like the grappling equivalent of Gaethje's) uses a ton of energy and we've seen Khabib take extended breaks during many of his fights to extend his gas tank over the course of five rounds.
Khabib's "breaks" regularly consist of him staying on the feet and keeping his opponents at bay with his constant jab, conserving energy until he can go back to his wrestling. It's here where the threat of being taken down, and typically the damage his opponents have already suffered from said takedowns, that Khabib enjoys a relative sense of safety on the feet. And that's where Gaethje's old, "reckless" attitude may mean all of the difference.
As we've seen time and time again, when the going gets rough, Gaethje bites down on his mouthpiece and embraces the chaos. He is not a fighter that gets discouraged or can be broken inside of the cage - no matter how badly he is getting hurt, no matter how exhausted he is, no matter what his odds of survival seemingly are, Gaethje never stops coming forward and trying to inflict as much damage as possible on his opponents.
That leaves two distinct styles Gaethje can embrace to pick up a win over the dominant Dagestani: option one, undoubtedly the preferred method, utilizes Gaethje's wrestling background as well as his rather underrated footwork and a more controlled pace (what fans refer to as "Gaethje 2.0", which is how he has been fighting since his loss to Dustin Poirier) to nullify Khabib's wrestling and most importantly, keep Khabib at a distance where Justin is free to land his bombs; option two, the backup plan, embraces Gaethje's old style of utter chaos in order to force Khabib to constantly work for every inch inside the Octagon, making the fight ugly and the pace unrelenting to tire out the champion and break him down for the later rounds.
The primary strategy for team Gaethje heading into Fight Island is surely the first option as we're likely to see an aggressive yet (comparatively) reserved "Highlight" Saturday afternoon, picking his shots at range like he did against Tony Ferguson and shucking off Khabib's takedown attempts while avoiding any clinch time with the champion.
How the fight progresses from there depends entirely on how successful Gaethje is at keeping Nurmagomedov away from him; if he can stop Khabib's shots and stay off the fence, fans are bound to witness the champion suffer a brutal and lopsided defeat just like Ferguson did earlier this year.
Ferguson, as one of the best strikers in the division, was completely outclassed on the feet and reduced to an insanely durable punching bag for nearly five rounds in Gaethje's last fight, Justin showcasing the incredible improvements he had made since his early UFC appearances and receiving almost no damage from one of the most dangerous fighters in the division aside from a slick uppercut knockdown he quickly recovered from in round two. If Khabib finds himself forced to stand and trade with Gaethje, he is in for a very rough night and he had better hope his chin isn't as durable as Ferguson's lest he wish to receive career-altering damage.
If Gaethje fails to stop Nurmagomedov's wrestling, or finds himself trapped in grappling/clinch exchanges, then the second option becomes Gaethje's chance at victory - he must turn the bout into an absolute dog-fight, refusing to give an inch and forcing Khabib to work at every turn, throwing relentless offense whenever there is any space in order to make Khabib fearful of closing the distance and keep him constantly on edge.
Here Khabib's chances of winning drastically improve, but Gaethje still gives himself a solid shot at victory thanks to his favourite method of fighting - a pure contest of will and desire.
In this case it will be all about endurance and whether or not Gaethje can inflict enough damage to wear down the champion and force a stoppage in the latter stages of the fight, or even steal enough rounds on the scorecards to win a decision if he can avoid suffering much damage on the ground and inflict enough of his own in whatever opportunities he can find.
It will also be interesting to see whether Gaethje's famed leg kicks will play a factor in this fight - conventional wisdom says that Justin will avoid throwing them entirely to prevent Khabib from catching them and possibly scoring takedowns, but if he can set them up smartly (such as how he did against another famous leg kicker in Edson Barboza, by feinting to draw a reaction before throwing them) they could pay dividends in slowing Khabib's shots down and preventing the champion from driving through to the fence with his usual gusto.
If he is unsuccessful in stuffing the takedowns and is forced into his backup plan, throwing leg kicks may very well help Gaethje slow down the champion in the later stages of the fight as well.
There was also some added drama surrounding the weigh-ins today - Khabib looked visibly drawn when he stripped down and stepped onto the scale with many fans pointing out the official that read his weight did so while the old-fashioned scale was still moving up, indicating that he was over the 155 pounds that the official read out loud.
The champion was visibly relieved when he "made" weight and the incident was one more in his documented history of having rough weight cuts (though he hasn't officially ever missed weight).
There's also the fact that it will be Khabib's first outing since losing his father earlier this year, who doubled as his head coach for his entire career; his passing may cause Khabib to be more motivated than ever and reach an entirely new level, or it could cause him to fight emotionally and tire himself out or become reckless, or he could fight exactly the same as he always has - there's no telling how it may affect the champion tomorrow in Abu Dhabi.
No matter what happens when the two enter the cage on Fight Island though, fans will be in for a treat as two of the most driven and aggressive fighters in the sport clash for the lightweight crown.
It is also another massive event that shows the combat sports world that you don't need "bad blood", manufactured animosity, or constant trash talking to draw huge numbers. In fact, both of the top fights on this card feature fighters that have been nothing but respectful of their opponents, even to the point of praising their foes before they do battle inside the Octagon. It's just one more reason tuning into UFC 254 is a necessity for every fight fan.
Pick: Justin Gaethje by 2nd round (T)KO
Quick Picks for the Rest of the Main Card (11am PST)
Jared Cannonier (T)KO over Robert Whittaker (do not miss this one)
Alexander Volkov DEC over Walt Harris
Phil Hawes (T)KO Jacob Malkoun (ps. what on earth is this on the main card for?)
Lauren Murphy DEC Liliya Shakirova (again, wtf is this on the main card for?)
Ion Cutelaba (T)KO Magomed Ankalaev (good underdog pick)