UFC 254 breakdown: Is Gaethje's style Khabib's kryptonite?

UFC 254 preview with Lou Finocchiaro on Follow The Money, where he's doing his best to handicap human emotion in the main event Khabib Nurmagomedov against Justin Gaethje, also looks at a couple other intriguing matches from the card.

Undefeated UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov has become a global superstar and is looking to cement his status as one of combat sports’ all-time greats.

At UFC 254, Nurmagomedov faces perhaps the toughest stylistic challenge of his career when he fights interim lightweight champion Justin Gaethje, the sport’s most exciting and most violent fighter.

The fight also comes at a difficult time in Nurmagomedov’s personal life following the July passing of his father and lifelong coach Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov.

The defending champ hasn’t competed in more than 13 months and during that time Gaethje has looked unstoppable.

Here is a breakdown of the pivotal championship matchup.

TALE OF THE TAPE

Khabib Nurmagomedov
Nickname: The Eagle
Fighting out of: Dagestan, Russia
Age: 32
Height: 5-foot-10
Weight: 155 pounds
Arm reach: 70 inches
Leg reach: 40 inches
Stance: Orthodox
Average fight time: 13:47
Background: Sambo
MMA record: 28-0
UFC record: 12-0
Notable wins: Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier, Rafael dos Anjos
Notable Accomplishments: Reigning UFC lightweight champion (two title defences); two-time World Combat Sambo Federation gold medalist (2009, 2010); NAGA men's no-gi world champion (2012); headlined biggest PPV event in UFC history (UFC 229); UFC’s No. 2-ranked pound-for-pound fighter behind Jon Jones

Justin Gaethje
Nickname: The Highlight
Fighting out of: Arvada, Colorado
Age: 31
Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 155 pounds
Arm reach: 70 inches
Leg reach: 40 inches
Stance: Orthodox
Average fight time: 10:11
Background: Wrestling
MMA record: 22-2
UFC record: 5-2
Notable wins: Tony Ferguson, Donald Cerrone, Edson Barboza
Notable Accomplishments: Won interim UFC lightweight title; Division 1 All-American wrestler at University of Northern Colorado (2010); former World Series of Fight lightweight champion; nine post-fight bonuses (five Fight of the Night, four Performance of the Night)

MOST DOMINANT vs. MOST VIOLENT

That’s how this title unification bout is being marketed and it’s not hyperbole. Nurmagomedov is the most dominant fighter in the UFC. He’s one of several unbeaten champions but the difference with Nurmagomedov is he seldom loses a round. Every time Nurmagomedov has gone the distance he swept the scorecards, meaning he won every round on all judges’ scorecards. In fact, the only round Nurmagomedov has lost, according to the judges, was the third round against McGregor at UFC 229. Of course, Nurmagomedov responded by tapping out his rival the very next round.

His 28-0 record is basically unheard of at the highest levels of mixed martial arts and Nurmagomedov has alluded in the past to wanting to reach 30-0 before potentially leaving the sport. If he managed to do that then he’d no doubt be considered MMA’s most dominant champion ever.

You can simply search up photos of Tony Ferguson’s face after UFC 249 as evidence that calling Gaethje the UFC’s “most violent” fighter is apt.

Gaethje is electric and he can quantify just how electric in the form of post-fight performance bonuses. He has fought seven times in the UFC and has already accumulated nine performance bonuses thanks to his ability to inflict damage and his willingness to go out on his shield.

COMMON OPPONENTS

Nurmagomedov and Gaethje have a combined for 52 professional MMA bouts and have three common opponents: Michael Johnson, Edson Barboza and Dustin Poirier. This is how they each fared in those challenges.

Johnson: Nurmagomedov dominated Johnson at UFC 205 in November of 2016, submitting him in the third round with a kimura. Johnson welcomed Gaethje to the UFC eight months later and the two put on a Fight of the Year performance in which Gaethje emerged with a second-round TKO win.

Barboza: Nurmagomedov faced the dynamic striker in late 2017 on his climb to a title shot. Each round was an absolute mauling with the judges scoring the bout 30-25, 30-25 and 30-24 for Khabib. The scorecards were not required when Gaethje and Barboza met last March as Gaethje put the Brazilian to sleep with a right hook midway through the opening round.

Poirier: This is the one opponent that resulted in different outcomes. Gaethje fought Poirier in April of 2018. It was a back-and-forth brawl for more than 15 minutes before Poirier rocked Gaethje and the referee saved Gaethje from further damage. Nurmagomedov’s most recent fight was at UFC 242 against Poirier and Nurmagomedov ended the fight with a rear-naked choke in the third round.

STRIKING vs. WRESTLING

There doesn’t appear to be any secret game plan for either fighter here. Really, there never is with these two. Nurmagomedov will take you down and smash you. Gaethje will force you to stand and trade strikes. Is the path to victory as straightforward as that though?

MMA Fighting recently pieced together a compilation of fighters and trainers talking about how underrated Nurmagomedov’s striking ability is.

On the flipside, Gaethje has become known for his aggressive striking and durability but some forget he also has high-level wrestling in his arsenal.

Despite being a Division 1 All-American, Gaethje has only attempted one takedown in his UFC career. Will Gaethje continue using his wrestling in an exclusively defensive manner or could we be in for a surprise?

“One thing that I think that we were able to do very well was keep our most important weapon hidden and with Justin Gaethje, he’s a extremely good wrestler and he’s got a very unique style in wrestling,” Gaethje’s trainer Trevor Wittman told reporters in Abu Dhabi this week. “He hasn’t had to use it. Again, it’s very hard to go and game plan against someone’s wrestling when they haven’t showed it.”

Wittman’s influence has been integral to Gaethje’s recent success. Each of Gaethje’s first three fights in the UFC were Fight of the Night winners, however his performances were chaotic, sloppy and reckless – which to that point was all MMA fans had come to expect from the inaugural WSOF lightweight champ.

It worked against Johnson in his debut but the game plan backfired against Eddie Alvarez and Poirier. Gaethje absorbed 420 significant strikes (317 to the head) in those three fights and something had to change if he was going to have success at the sport’s highest level. After those back-to-back losses, Gaethje and Wittman made adjustments and in his next three fights he was only hit with a total of 40 significant strikes.

Gaethje’s interim title fight with Tony Ferguson was more evenly matched statistically – Gaethje out-struck Ferguson 143 to 136 – but it was a mostly one-sided beating and Gaethje’s most thoroughly impressive performance of his career.

Gaethje lands 7.74 strikes per minute, which ranks first all-time in UFC history regardless of weight class. That won’t matter if he can’t defend Nurmagomedov’s takedowns. An encouraging stat for Gaethje supporters is the fact Gaethje rarely gets taken down and has only been in bottom position for 17 seconds in his entire UFC career.

X-FACTORS

One thing to monitor will be Nurmagomedov’s pace and conditioning after a gaunt Nurmagomedov looked rather relieved when he made the 155-pound title fight limit at Friday’s weigh-ins. Nurmagomedov is typically stoic on the scale and has missed weight just once in his UFC career and that was back in 2013 prior to his fourth UFC outing. Gaethje can push the pace unlike anyone Nurmagomedov has faced before so if Nurmagomedov’s weight cut ended up depleting some of his fight night energy reserve then we’ll see the champ dig deep.

If preparing to fight a savage like Gaethje wasn’t daunting enough, Nurmagomedov is still dealing with the death of his father Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov.

Nurmagomedov was coached by his father his entire life and this was the first fight he prepared for without the help of Abdulmanap. Win or lose, this will be a significant challenge for the champ both physically and emotionally.

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