This weekend sees perhaps the biggest UFC show of 2020 go down on Abu Dhabi’s Fight Island. UFC 254 sees the return of undefeated UFC Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. He faces off with interim champ Justin Gaethje in one of the most highly anticipated fights in some time.
The card isn’t all that deep outside of the main event, having lost a number of fights to COVID-19, but with a number of solid clashes filling the undercard, it should nonetheless be fun.
Here are the predicted outcomes for UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gaethje.
#1 UFC Lightweight Title: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje
Despite previous UFC events featuring massive fights such as Conor McGregor vs. Donald Cerrone, Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier, and Israel Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa, it’s safe to say that this one might be the biggest of 2020.
Nurmagomedov – arguably the UFC’s biggest star since McGregor’s pseudo-retirement earlier this year – hasn’t fought since September 2019’s UFC 242. That event saw him thoroughly dominate another interim UFC Lightweight champ, in that instance, Dustin Poirier. So can he do the same to the current one?
Gaethje, of course, wasn’t supposed to have this shot at Khabib. UFC 249, back in April, should’ve seen The Eagle finally defending his title against Tony Ferguson. But naturally, for the most cursed fight in UFC history, fate stepped in, this time in the form of COVID-19.
UFC 249 was thus postponed, and when the event was rescheduled for May, it had to go ahead without Nurmagomedov. The Russian simply couldn’t get into the US, and Ferguson then made the error of agreeing to fight Gaethje instead, with the interim UFC Lightweight belt on the line.
Of course, what followed was Gaethje’s biggest win to date. Ferguson had been on a massive 12-fight win streak, but The Highlight simply destroyed him over five rounds. Showing far more patience than he’d done before, Gaethje timed his strikes perfectly and broke El Cucuy down with his brutal punching power.
Whether he’ll be able to do the same to Nurmagomedov, though, is another thing entirely. On paper, at least, Gaethje does sound like a difficult match for the reigning UFC champion. Firstly, The Highlight is probably the most powerful striker in the UFC’s Lightweight division. His leg kicks are absolutely vicious, and his punching power is unparalleled, as we saw in his KO wins over Cerrone and Edson Barboza.
More to the point, Gaethje is also a genuinely excellent wrestler. Is he going to look to double leg his opponents to the ground? Well, no. In fact, Gaethje has rarely looked for takedowns throughout his entire MMA career.
However, as an NCAA Division I All-American, he’s well-versed in that realm and has rarely been taken down in the UFC. And when he has been put on the ground, he’s always been able to bounce back up.
But then the same was said for previous opponents of Nurmagomedov like Abel Trujillo, Michael Johnson, and Poirier. And to date, nobody has been able to stop the Dagestani’s takedowns. And it’s not like Khabib is a grappler and nothing but, either.
In fact, his stand-up has improved to the point where he was able to use his jab to comfortably outbox Al Iaquinta in their 2018 fight. And unforgettably, he also dropped McGregor with a right hand in their infamous clash at UFC 229.
Essentially, what makes Nurmagomedov such a difficult opponent isn’t so much his wrestling skill nor his striking. It’s actually the fact that even for a Lightweight, he’s deceptively fast. Nurmagomedov can close the distance seemingly faster than any other fighter, and once he’s got a hold of his opponent, they’re usually going to hit the deck.
Sure, he’s looked hittable at times – most notably against Johnson in 2016 – but his chin has always held up, and like everyone else, Johnson was eventually grounded and mauled.
Gaethje certainly has a chance to win here. He’s got the power in his hands to knock out anyone, even Nurmagomedov. But can he really prevent The Eagle from closing the distance and grabbing him? If he can’t do that, then he’s going to be driven into the fence and taken down, and from there, he’s probably going to lose.
I’m betting that for all of his improvements in patience, Gaethje just isn’t going to be quite fast enough to stop that takedown. It’ll be business as usual as Nurmagomedov surprises everyone yet again with how quickly he can get inside, and once Gaethje’s on his back, he’ll be doomed. I’m going with the UFC champ to retain his title by rear-naked choke again.