Justin Gaethje is well aware of the skills his next opponent brings to the table, and he’s preparing himself to have a specific mindset to overcome them.
Gaethje, the UFC interim lightweight champ, isn’t overly concerned about whether his wrestling defense will hold up against the relentless Sambo attack of undisputed titleholder Khabib Nurmagomedov. Instead, he’s focused on getting the champion in his sights and turning their fight into an absolute war.
“We’re not wrestling anymore,” Gaethje said during an appearance on Michael Bisping’s Believe You Me podcast. “There’s gonna be a zone in front of me, it’s not very big. It’s gonna be a zone of death, and I have to represent death every time he enters this zone. That’s what I’m the best at, creating carnage. Creating car crashes.
“So my only goal when I step in there is to create as many car crashes as possible. Whether it be our bodies hitting, our heads hitting, our f**king shoulders hitting, my fist hitting his head, his fist hitting my head, it doesn’t matter – I need to create car crashes because it’s the only way to beat this guy.”
Gaethje meets Nurmagomedov in a unification bout set for UFC 254 on Oct. 24. at a location still to be determined. So far, Nurmagomedov is a perfect 28-0 as a professional fighter.
After stopping the 12-fight win streak of Tony Ferguson in his most recent outing, Gaethje has now won four straight. With his famed knockout power, durability, and Division-I All-American wrestling background, Gaethje has long been considered a potential foil for “The Eagle.”
Gaethje also expects things to go wrong in the fight. One of the reasons he won’t be too discouraged if Nurmagomedov outwrestles him in the early stages of action is the fact that he’s currently being tossed around by some of the brightest American wrestling talents in his training, including Big Ten Champion Ryan Deakin.
He’s also not dismissing Nurmagomedov’s standup skills. He sees the current lightweight king as elite in multiple categories.
“It’s a fight,” Gaethje said. “We watch this sport and we understand that there’s levels, me and Michael really understand that there’s levels, and this is a fight on the highest level. There is no fight with more skill sets, other than submissions – you could bring submissions to the table, but who the f**k needs that? Outside that, this represents the pinnacle of the sport. He’s 28-0. I have two losses, both of those were fights of the year.
“I have never not come out of the cage without my opponent being absolutely broken from physical damage. He’s never walked out with a lot of physical damage, so we’re going to see who can impose their will and only one of us will. I do think it’s going to be a battle for the ages.”
Gaethje takes particular pride in this being a USA vs. Russia battle, as he never expected to represent his country competitively on any level growing up in small town Safford, Ariz. He knows that for 25 minutes, he has to fight the “perfect” fight.
His task would be much easier if Nurmagomedov were to show any cracks in his game. Asked if he’s picked up on any of the champ’s weaknesses, Gaethje speculated that there are aspects on the psychological side that could be exploited.
“I think his biggest weakness is I believe that he thinks he’s infallible,” Gaethje said. “I think if you told him that or brought it to his attention, I believe that he would be very good at explaining to you how he does not believe that, but I believe that he surrounds himself with people who stroke his ego. I believe that culture – this is what I’m counting on anyways – they can stroke your ego, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it over there. I’ve seen fighters really just surround themselves with a posse that really pumps them up and jacks them up.
“At the end of the day, he breathes oxygen. His brain needs to get oxygen. If I can short-circuit that oxygen supply for half a second, then he’ll go to sleep.”