Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje – UFC 254 Main Event Preview

Khabib Nurmagomedov

Finally! The biggest MMA event of 2020 is almost upon us. UFC 254 is the final show from the premier MMA promotions current run on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi.

In the main event, we have a lightweight unification bout. Long-time king of the 155lb division, Khabib Nurmagomedov is the favorite with odds at -340 according to Sports Betting Dime, but it will be a tough test of his career when he battles interim champion, Justin Gaethje.

So, why is Khabib Nurmagomedov such a favourite against a formidable opponent like Justin Gaethje?

‘The Eagle’ is nothing short of a phenom. Nurmagomedov has raced to 28-0 during his professional MMA career and in all honesty, he’s made it look easy. The undefeated Russian fighter has gone 11-0 inside the octagon and has barely lost a round in the UFC.

Nurmagomedov took his game to the next level when he captured the UFC lightweight title back in 2018. Since then he has scored back-to-back highlight wins over his bitter rival Conor McGregor and former interim champion Dustin Poirier. The 32-year-old not only managed to beat two outstanding fighters, he did it in style. Nurmagomedov dominated every facet of those bouts before ultimately submitting both men in the third and fourth round of their respective fights.

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Nurmagomedov also hold several over high-profile wins over the likes of former lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos, feared Brazilian knockout artist Edson Barboza and the always game Al Iaquinta.

The proud native of Dagestan has a clear route to victory in his fight against Gaethje. It’s the same as every other fight. Nurmagomedov has just got to wrestle, wrestle and wrestle some more. For our money he’s the best grappler in MMA history. No-one is able to prevent his takedowns. No-one is able to keep up with his relentless ground attacks. Nurmagomedov will most likely get this done by dominating Gaethje on the mat before ultimately forcing his tired opponent into submission.

A relatively young champion with the world at his feet you’d be forgiven for assuming we will enjoy many more Nurmagomedov fights after this one. Unfortunately, the relentless wrestler seems dead set on retiring at 30-0. So, in theory, this very well could be the penultimate fight of Nurmagomedov’s career. A match-up with welterweight legend Georges St-Pierre has often been discussed. As has a rematch against either McGregor or Poirier who are currently in talks to duke it out for a second time in January 2021.

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Before all of that Nurmagomedov has a scary opponent standing in his way. Gaethje is in the form of his life. ‘The Highlight’ is fresh off the biggest win of his career at UFC 249, where he battered and stopped long-time contender Tony Ferguson. Gaethje was a huge, short-notice underdog against ‘El Cucuy’ who came into the fight on a 12-fight winning streak. Nevertheless, he systematically beat Ferguson for almost five full rounds before referee Herb Dean mercifully stepped in to wave off the fight.  

Prior to that Gaethje showed his ruthless streak taking out three of his lightweight rivals, all inside the first round. Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone, Edson Barboza and James Vick all succumbed to the heavy hands of Gaethje crazy quick.

The 31-year-old may be a big underdog but he’s definitely a live one. Gaethje has more than a few tools to cause his Russian opponent all sorts of problems.

Firstly, he is undoubtedly the most credentialed wrestler Nurmagomedov has ever faced. Gaethje was an all-American, division I wrestler during his days in college. He almost never uses his grappling in fights, but this is certainly one where he’s going to need it. It’ll be interesting to see if he’s able to resist Nuramgomedov’s wrestling advances.

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Gaethje best shot at getting a win at UFC 254 is by using his power strikes to inflict damage. In 22 wins, Gaethje has scored 19 knockouts. He’s got serious power and if he’s able to land it we could have a new unified lightweight champion. ‘

The Highlight’ is also one of the best leg attackers in the game. His low kicks are nasty. And although you’re unlikely to score a KO with them, they are worthwhile, especially down the stretch against a guy who is known for a ridiculous pace throughout the middle and late rounds.

Gaethje’s next opponent is pretty much set in stone if he manages to pull off the upset at UFC 254. It’ll be the Nurmagomedov rematch. It’d be huge and there’s no doubt fans, fighters and promoters will demand a re-run.

Who do you think will win the UFC 254 main event? Khabib Nurmagomedov or Justin Gaethje?