To say Jon Anik is excited to call Saturday’s lightweight championship fight at UFC 254 would be an understatement.
The lead play-by-voice for the UFC will be calling the action for the 12-fight card on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, headlined by the 155-pound title unification bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje.
Anik has called a plethora of the promotion’s biggest fights over the years—including Nurmagomedov’s successful title defense against Conor McGregor at UFC 229—and when asked where his anticipation levels are heading into this weekend compared to past headliners, he admits that Nurmagomedov vs. Gaethje is right up there.
“I’ll reciprocally say to myself, ‘what fights can I put above it,’” Anik told MMA Fighting while appearing on What the Heck. “As great as (Israel) Adesanya vs. (Robert) Whittaker was in front of 60,000 people, it might be on line with it. I don’t know if I can put that fight above Khabib-Gaethje. Certainly most would argue that the biggest fight I’ve ever called was Khabib vs. Conor and when I had to call a brawl after, I think that will always be hard to top.
“I think Rose Namajunas’ finish of Joanna Jedrzejczyk will probably be the craziest championship fight I’ve ever called given the circumstances of their first meeting. But this is huge. When I say on the broadcasts, ‘Have you ever seen anything like Justin Gaethje,’ I think most people would say they have not. He really is a special guy [that’s] looking to break through and do what, obviously, no man before him has been able to do.”
In the eyes of many, Gaethje holds many intangibles that could give Nurmagomedov issues. Of course, time will tell when the cage door locks.
But to become champion, “The Highlight” will have to defeat the man that no other has been able to defeat in Nurmagomedov. This will be the first fight for “The Eagle” since the passing of his father, Abdulmanap earlier this year. So when Anik spoke to Nurmagomedov in the fighter meetings ahead of Saturday, the 28-0 champion revealed that Gaethje wasn’t necessarily on his radar in the past.
However, as time has gone on and Gaethje went on his current run, Nurmagomedov’s competitive juices began to flow.
“What else can you say about Khabib Nurmagomedov,” Anik said. “Much has been made of him losing his father Abdulmanap and rightfully so. When we get to these fighter meetings, these fighters have been asked every question in the book so I spent a lot of time trying to figure out a thoughtful way to ask them questions and I asked Khabib if he had talked to his father about Justin Gaethje as a potential opponent.
“Because of Islam Makhachev’s presence in this lightweight division, oftentimes when they would talk about lightweights—Abdulmanap and Khabib—they would talk about the fighters as a possible future fight for Islam, or a future fight for Khabib. When they used to talk about Gaethje, they would talk about him more in the context of a possible opponent for Islam Makhachev back in the day. But you can be sure the challenge of Justin Gaethje has brought Khabib’s excitement to the surface.”
Gaethje enters his first undisputed title shot on an impressive four-fight winning streak, which includes first-round finishes of James Vick, Edson Barboza and Donald Cerrone. As impressive as those performances were, it was his most recent fight that opened up everybody’s eyes.
In the main event of UFC 249, Gaethje completed a masterful performance against Tony Ferguson with a fifth-round TKO to capture the interim lightweight title.
With those factors—along with Nurmagomedov’s career-long run of dominance—Anik was asked if, from a competitive standpoint, if Saturday’s title fight is the greatest lightweight title fight on paper in UFC history.
“I think you can certainly make that argument and I know sometimes when we speak in GOAT, or best ever, pound-for-pound, it gets lost on some fans, but I don’t think people are overstating that,” Anik explained. “You can’t lose sight of Gaethje’s body of work outside of the UFC when you talk about his lightweight greatness. He did defend a major belt five times and I also believe that if there was a number one skill you would need to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov, it’s defense—the ability to keep him off of your leg and get up when he puts you down.
“Of all the people that Khabib has fought, and of all the elite lightweights on paper, who is the lightweight best equipped to get up? Tony Ferguson is outstanding fighting off of his back and doesn’t mind hanging out on the bottom, but if you had to pick one lightweight who has the best skill set, that is best equipped to get the f up after repeatedly being taken down, I think Gaethje might be the best option.”
Nurmagomedov’s storied history and ability to thrive in pressure situations taking on Gaethje, who has an unusual, yet self-assuring mental approach—where he expects the worst to happen at all times—serves as a fascinating recipe for a world championship fight in the eyes of the voice of the UFC.
“He does seem unusually immune to pressure,” Anik said of Gaethje. “If you were to hook me up to a heart monitor before this interview, and him up to a heart monitor before he fights Khabib, I might have more anxiety to chop it up with you then he does to go fight. He is so comfortable, not just in the chaos, but in combat, in walking out there. He’s never been intimidated in a wrestling setting, so if you think he’s intimidated by Khabib’s MMA wrestling, you just haven’t been paying attention.
“So the pressure certainly resides with the man who is currently 28-0. I do believe Khabib thrives off of that pressure and the more pressure that’s on him, the better he has performed. His performances have gotten progressively better. You can call the Iaquinta fight an outlier, it was a short notice, weird situation. It’s a fascinating matchup and I understand where Justin Gaethje stands from a betting perspective and, I’ll just say, that two-fight losing streak was the best thing to happen to a, then, 20-0 Justin Gaethje.
“I just think menatlly, physically, and emotionally, he couldn’t possibly be in a better place. Confidence is literally dripping out of his every pore. I’m excited to see what Gaethje can do with the opportunity.”