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UFC 254: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje alternative stats

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A detailed breakdown of the position-by-position statistics to watch out for in Saturday’s UFC 254 fight card from Fight Island.

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The UFC closes out its second stint on Fight Island during the pandemic era with a special 2pm ET main card start time this Saturday. In what may now be a more anticipated matchup than Tony Ferguson, lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov returns to Abu Dhabi to defend his strap against an interim champ in Justin Gaethje who may just have all the tools necessary to make Khabib look mortal.

The main card, while not as stacked as originally composed, is still a nice lineup for a Saturday afternoon, kicking off with the never-intentionally-wobble-in-a-cage-fight rematch between Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cutelaba.

But our focus will be on the main event in all its gloriousness, so let’s jump into the numbers.

Remember, what you’re about to read are not official UFC statistics. They’re alternative stats generated from official statistics designed to (1) give more weight to the recent present than the distant past and (2) not let one huge or horrible performance dominate the data. See the notes at the bottom for definitions of certain statistics.

MMA: UFC 249-Ferguson vs Gaethje Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje

Will Khabib finally stand across the cage from a man who won’t let him dictate the position of the fight and with more standup chops than Gleison Tibau? We should have an idea within the first few minutes.

35 seconds.

That’s the total amount of time Justin Gaethje’s spent on the ground in his seven-fight UFC career so far. And he was in top position for some of it. Gaethje’s only spent a measly 17 seconds on his back since coming over from the World Series of Fighting.

Gaethje’s opponents are 2-of-10 on their takedown attempts against him in the UFC. Of nine attempts from distance, Michael Johnson found success once, and Eddie Alvarez landed the only clinch takedown ever attempted against Gaethje in the UFC – a lower body attempt – the same type Khabib attempts 165% more frequently than an average lightweight and with 60% accuracy (44% average).

In a piece for ESPN, Marc Raimondi examined the scoring of takedowns and the potential for “contentious consequences” on Saturday since pretty much everyone believes Gaethje’s game plan will be to win a standup striking war while Khabib will try to take the former WSOF lightweight king “…to the deepest ocean and drown him.”

But Khabib’s far more than a masterful takedown artists. Of the 2:19 he spends on the ground every five minutes, he’s got control 99% of the time, and he throws 62% more power strike volume to the head and body than an average lightweight. But fights are about damage, not necessarily volume, and in that same top control position, Khabib connects with power at a rate that’s 82% above average. A typical lightweight will land 14.2 power shots to the head or body per five minutes (P5M) of ground control, while Khabib clocks in at 25.8.

In addition to the question of Khabib’s success taking Gaethje down on Saturday, perhaps equally as important is the question of how will Khabib fare at keeping Gaethje down?

In the two times Gaethje’s been taken down in the UFC, he’s rocketed back to his feet within 17 total seconds. While the sample might be small – welcome to the world of MMA analytics, my friends – Gaethje’s standup rate is ungodly high: 34.5 P5M. A typical lightweight stands up 2.4 times per five minutes on their back. While Khabib is better than average at keeping opponents down, he’s only slightly better by 13%. So even if Khabib gets Gaethje to the canvas, if he can’t keep down or at least pressed against the fence, it could quickly turn into a long night for the champ.

If Gaethje can keep the fight in the open space of distance, the stats say it should be his for the taking.

Only two seconds separate the time each fighter’s spent at distance in the Octagon (65:54 to 65:52). Khabib maintains a pace of roughly average striking volume with a little more head jabs and a little fewer power strikes. He doesn’t land exceptionally well nor does he mix up his strikes to the body and legs, and that’s probably because hooking head shots help set up his 3.2 distance takedown attempts P5M, which he lands at a 36% clip (1.4 and 30% average).

Gaethje’s distance game in the UFC has been suffocating, but in a very hittable way. Not a man of many head jabs, Gaethje drops 52.9 power bombs P5M in the position, connecting at an outstanding 60% rate (38% average, 36% Khabib).

The reason his accuracy is so high is because leg strikes make up 30% of his power volume and those are far more accurate than head attacks (85% leg accuracy for Gaethje). Usually leg attacks make up only 10% of a fighter’s distance power volume (and only 4% for Khabib), but Gaethje tenderizes the legs early and often and ends up with a +7.5 power strike differential P5M because of them. While Gaethje also tends to dish out a bit more damage to the head, he’s a net absorber of power strikes to the body (-6.1 P5M). But his whopping +9.4 power differential to the legs swings the overall differential back to his favor.

In the power department, two of three knockdown metrics favor Gaethje while the other is roughly tied. If Khabib can connect, Gaethje’s head is frequently available for damage. 33% of opponent power strikes to Gaethje’s head find their target (28% average, 25% Khabib) and he absorbs 66% more of those shots P5M than a typical lightweight. Khabib’s dropped two others before and has a knockdown percentage (the third metric) that’s slightly better than Gaethje’s.

If he’s going to implement his 4-of-8 submission game, Khabib will probably need to get the fight to the ground and either keep Gaethje there or slip in something as Gaethje’s trying to get back to his feet.

Each man would seem to have a clear path to victory in what easily could be the most anticipated matchup of the year. Who will be able to keep the fight in the areas where they have the greatest advantages? We’ll know soon enough on Saturday.

Bring on the glorious fights!

Statistical Notes: A bout closeness measure towards zero means a fighter tends to be in blowouts (win or lose) and towards 100 means they tend to be in very close fights. Strike attempts are per an entire five minute round in each position (P5M) and are categorized as jab or power. A jab is just a non-power strike. Strikes are documented based on where they land or are targeted (head, body, legs), not the type that is thrown (punch, elbow, kick, knee). Visible damage rate is per five minutes the fighter is not on his back. It’s hard to bust up someone’s face while lying on your back. Damage percentage is per power head strike and distance head jab landed. Knockdown rate is per five minutes at distance or in the clinch off the cage. Knockdown percentage is per power head strike landed while standing. It’s really hard to knock someone down if they’re already on the ground. Knockdown/Damage round percentage is the percentage of rounds with at least one knockdown or busted up face, respectively. Clinch control is having the opponent pressed against the cage. Ground control is having top position or the opponent’s back. Submission attempts are per five minutes of ground control minus time spent in the opponent’s guard plus time spent with the opponent in guard.

Paul writes about MMA analytics and officiating at Bloody Elbow and MMA business at Forbes. He’s also an ABC-certified referee and judge. Follow him @MMAanalytics. Fight data provided by FightMetric.