4 Ways Justin Gaethje Can Beat Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 254
Some assignments are easier than others.
Nevertheless, whenever a big UFC pay-per-view show nears, the B/R combat sports team comes together to map out ways the main event underdog can spring an upset.
Our inkling that Justin Gaethje might break through against Tony Ferguson looks darn good these days, while our long-shot cases for Felicia Spencer against Amanda Nunes and Paulo Costa over Israel Adesanya don't.
This one, with Gaethje back in the underdog seat five months later, sits somewhere in the middle.
Odds posted by DraftKings suggest it would take a $315 bet on Khabib Nurmagomedov to yield a $100 profit if the champ retains his lightweight title and a $100 wager on Gaethje to make $255 if the challenger wins.
So if an upset occurs, it would be a big one.
Because Nurmagomedov hasn't lost in 28 professional mixed martial arts matches—including 12 inside the Octagon—putting forth ways in which Gaethje can take his 0 is a bit of a task. But we like it that way. And since he came through for us last time, it's his cause we'll take up again.
So, in the spirit of Holly Holm, Forrest Griffin and Keith Jardine—architects of three of the UFC's biggest surprises over Ronda Rousey, Shogun Rua and Chuck Liddell, respectively—we assembled a short list of ways in which the dangerous contender might walk away in title-winning style come Saturday evening.
If you're on Team Gaethje, click through to see if our ideas jibe with yours. And if you're riding with the master of the "Dagestani handcuff," don't say we didn't warn you.
Rev the Engine
Khabib isn't typically one to worry about stamina.
Because he's usually got his opponent smothered, mauled and mentally defeated by the time a fight reaches the late going, he's not often been called upon to gut one out in rounds four and five.
Against Gaethje, however, that could change.
The American is one of the best-conditioned fighters on the UFC roster, and if he's able to effectively manage his energy in the fight's first half—as he did against Ferguson in May—he will still present an awfully challenging, and violent, obstacle in the championship rounds, as Ferguson found out.
Gaethje landed 83 strikes in the first three rounds in that fight, and he continued down the stretch with 60 more in the next two rounds before matters were halted at three minutes, 40 seconds of the fifth.
"If my legs are in shape I don't get tired," Gaethje told ESPN's Brett Okamoto. "If I don't get tired I can get back up. If I can get back up, I can hit him like a truck. I only gotta kick him eight times in the calves before he's compromised. There's lot of factors. I'm gonna work on being me, stay in shape. It's all cardio."
Keep the Posture
It's no secret that the champion wants the fight on the mat.
Once things get up against the fence and go horizontal, they tend to stay horizontal. Nurmagomedov nearly always finds a way to establish position, limit his foe's ability to escape and bring matters to a halt either via submission or after a requisite amount of ground-and-pound punishment.
Gaethje, again, is a different animal.
The 31-year-old was a Division I wrestler at the University of Northern Colorado and placed seventh in the nation to earn All-American status at 157 pounds in 2010. He's rarely been taken to the mat in 24 fights overall and has an 80 percent takedown defense across six fights in the UFC.
Khabib is admittedly a bit more terrifying than previous opponents, but if Gaethje can avoid prolonged time in the Russian's clutches, his chances of winning a vertically oriented battle go way, way up.
Weaken the Legs
The boxing adage goes something like "kill the body and the head will die."
Well, if Gaethje is intent on upsetting one of the sport's most dominant champions, he might want to tweak it to "punish the legs and the chin will be there."
Now the interim champ at 155 pounds, Gaethje wrested that title from Ferguson thanks to a steady diet of leg kicks that left the streaking Californian—who'd not lost in eight years—unable to effectively evade the equally steady torrent of shots to the head.
Gaethje landed 30 kicks to Ferguson's legs across 23-plus minutes, limiting the frenetic movement that had been his trademark and ultimately rendering him a bloodied, woozy mess before the fight was stopped.
Nurmagomedov isn't accustomed to such an attack, and it will be interesting to see how he reacts if Gaethje's shots to the foundation reveal heretofore unseen cracks.
Punch, Punch, Punch
Can Khabib take a big shot from a real KO puncher?
We'll almost definitely find out on Saturday.
Gaethje has earned 19 of his 22 pro wins by knockout, and in the Ferguson triumph, he blended jarring power with previously unseen patience that allowed him to continue the barrages well into the late going.
Given that he's such a capable wrestler and has been difficult to take down in the Octagon, the needle moves to Gaethje's side for as long as the fight resembles anything close to a boxing match.
And if Nurmagomedov's ability to shoot and/or move has been impacted by damage to the legs entering the final 10 minutes, go ahead and start fitting the interim champ for the full-fledged belt.