It was only one week ago that Khabib Nurmagomedov steamrolled the hope and dreams of yet another title challenger, adding yet one more chapter to his book of domination. It was a one-sided wipeout, and in the awe of the moment, it seemed like there was no end in sight to his reign. He is so relentless, so sadistic, it is hard to imagine someone equalling his intensity for 25 minutes, or fending off his infinity gauntlet of takedowns.
Saturday night served as a good reminder that there may be a matchup we are forgetting. If we were to create a list of attributes that combined, offer the best chance against Nurmagomedov, we’d want someone who could force the champion to respect his knockout power. We’d need a fighter who is experienced in big fights and won’t shrink in the spotlight. We’d insist on someone with the stamina to handle a fast-paced fight. And finally, we’d absolutely require someone with real wrestling chops to ward off clinches and takedowns.
The sum total of those necessities point to one man: Justin Gaethje. With all due respect to Tony Ferguson, who certainly deserves the next fight against Khabib and certainly has a chance to win, it’s Gaethje who wields all of these important assets and specializes in the two most urgent: fight-changing power and a wrestling pedigree.
“If you’re a lightweight in the world and you watch me perform you know I’m a problem,” he said on the ESPN+ post-fight show. “I’m going to kick his leg off. It’s going to take 4-5 of those. Everybody tries to run and get away from wrestling. In order to stop a takedown, you have to meet force with force. That’s what you do, and that’s what I will do. I will go in there and I’m going to embrace the grind. I’ll be in shape. If I’m in shape, then I don’t get tired. If I don’t get tired, I’m explosive. And if I’m explosive, you’re in trouble.”
All four of Gaethje’s UFC wins have been knockouts, but in all of the last three, he’s showed some new maturity to his striking game. Formerly a put-your-head-down-and-swing brawler, Gaethje has flashed significant refinements in his approach. A major change has been increased patience. He no longer feels pressured to end every fight in the blink of an eye. He’ll set up offense and work an opponent to the legs and body instead of barging forward with kill shots. By lessening the pressure on himself, he’s delivered even better than ever, with consecutive finishes of James Vick, Edson Barboza and now, Donald Cerrone. Gaethje had lessons to learn after the first two defeats of his career, and he’s made the adjustments.
This approach takes on extra importance against Nurmagomedov, who feasts on overaggressive opponents by changing levels for takedown attempts. His shots are quick and powerful and tenacious. To defend them, you need power, technique and stamina. Gaethje, with a career takedown defense rate of 80%, has it all.
His wrestling fundamentals alone make him arguably the most difficult matchup for Khabib in the top 10. Gaethje started wrestling at the age of four, was a two-time high school state wrestling champion in Arizona, and was a Division I collegiate All-American at Northern Colorado. Combine that with his ability to throw heat-seeking uppercuts on low-arriving foes, and Nurmagomedov has his work cut out for him to employ his regular game plan.
Yes, Gaethje has been taken down before. In his UFC career, both Eddie Alvarez and Michael Johnson have accomplished the feat. But those men prefer to focus on the striking arts, so a had the element of surprise at their disposal. Nurmagomedov does not have that luxury. Everyone knows his plan, so he can not employ it by ambush.
Gaethje looked sensational against Cerrone in the UFC Vancouver main event. In 4:18, he landed 40 of his 61 throw strikes, attacking Cerrone from the legs up before wobbling him with a crushing overhand right, then finishing with ground strikes. While he didn’t need to employ his wrestling, Gaethje made it clear that his offensive development better situates him for most kinds of matchups.
Most likely, he will not get Nurmagomedov right away. He said he would prefer to wait to fight the winner of Ferguson-Khabib, feeling confident he earned the title shot. For a guy who’s never met a fire fight he didn’t like, it’s just another sign that he’s matured.
None of us want to wait, but most of us want to see it. Like Gaethje, we’ll have to absorb the lesson of patience.
Gaethje’s always been a human highlight and win or lose, that’s not likely to change. The improvements in his skill set uniquely position him against Mr. Invincible. Gaethje may still be an underdog, but his makeup has all the elements to be Khabib’s kryptonite.