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UFC 254: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje Toe-to-Toe preview - A complete breakdown

Phil and David break down everything you need to know about Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje for UFC 254, and everything you don’t about the best street tacos in Texas.

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Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje this October 24, 2020 at the Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

One sentence summary

David: We’re at nearly 3000 words. Can I use this segment to take a creativity break here?

Phil: Unstoppable force meets... another unstoppable force, as the Violence Idiot puts his thinking cap on for a more cerebral approach to the most dominant fighter in the sport right now.

Stats

Record: Khabib Nurmagomedov 28-0 Justin Gaethje 22-2

Odds: Khabib Nurmagomedov -345 Justin Gaethje +285

History / Introduction to the fighters

David: The wait is finally over! Oh right. This is Khabib versus Gaethje, not Khabib vs. Ferguson. We take what we get in MMA. It’s kind of weird. In a lot of ways, this feels like an inauguration. Nurmagomedov fought like an uncrowned king for much of his UFC career, but by the time he was officially recognized, titles were vacant, groins were pulled, weight was cut haphazardly, and charter buses were under literal attack by raging Irishmen. It’s funny to hear people talk about ‘legacies’ when Khabib is largely just getting started. More important than what this fight means for Khabib, this fight is the stamp the division needs to move forward again.

Phil: Khabib has never been the most active UFC champion, but this year has been a particularly tough one for the pride of Dagestan. He was kept out of the country by the COVID-19 virus, which would go on to claim his father and mentor, Abdulmanap. It raises questions about how Khabib will perform in his return fight without the man who was an inspiration to him and many others in the region, questions which the media has elected to ask with their traditional subtlety and grace, generally hammering in variants of SO HOW ABOUT YOUR DEAD DAD, ARE YOU GOING TO BE ABLE TO FIGHT WITHOUT HIM? HIM DYING MUST HAVE SUCKED RIGHT? ALSO CONOR MCGREGOR DO YOU WANT TO FIGHT HIM AGAIN?! HE’S POPULAR ISN’T HE. It has not been a pleasant experience to watch Khabib’s facial expression while listening to this.

David: Gaethje could have been just another Action Fighter. Someone who threw caution and neurons to the wind, doing everything to garner the slow clap from fans in exchange for brain damage. He could’ve have Eddie Alvarez-light (or is it Chris Leben-heavy?) Instead he and his team realized ‘oh damn this kid is some hot shit.’ And so it’s gone. Gaethje, armed with more than high pressure and lots of volume, has settled into his current incarnation: a pressure fighter without the chaos and lack of defensive acumen. Since losing to Alvarez and Poirier, he’s looked kind of unstoppable. Sure, his matchups have been favorable. Barboza’s one-note. Cerrone is old, and has gay people to worry about now. James Vick is MMA’s version of cotton candy: a fighter with no impressionable skills and questionable loyalty. But Ferguson? And the way he did it? Suddenly, we’re not just talking about a contender. We’re talking about a problem for the entire division.

Phil: Those wins were ones which it would have been easy to pick Wildman Gaethje to walk away with. I remember being against Gaethje getting matched up with Barboza for his UFC debut, partially because I thought it was a forgiving matchup which wouldn’t give us a good idea of the Highlight’s ceiling. But it was how he dealt with Cerrone, Barboza and Vick which gave pause going into the Ferguson match. Gaethje fought almost clinically in wiping them out, and had the performance of his career against Ferguson. He looks like someone who is suddenly finding out that fighting smart is just as fun as getting stuck in there, and that it has a lot of ancillary benefits, like title shots, less brain damage, and, well, winning.

What’s at stake?

David: Bla bla Khabib’s legacy. Bla bla Gaethje’s transformation. This is one of those rare fights where I genuinely don’t give a damn about anything else except this matchup. That doesn’t mean I expect it to be a great fight. As a matter of fact, I don’t. But unlike most fights, I fully anticipate a fight in three acts. And that’s cool with me. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a good movie. I thought watching Russell Crowe lose his shit and kill a bunch of people with an overpriced truck would hit the spot (Unhinged). It did not.

Phil: The UFC is obviously trying to line up a McGregor shot against the winner, but due to Khabib’s clear revulsion for the Irishman it looks like McGregor will have to... earn his shot (a chorus of gasps). So, next up it’s looking like the Poirier-McGregor winner. Other than that, lightweight is a little odd at the moment: Ferguson is looking like his time on the shelf has eroded him, but there’s always Michael Chandler and Charles Oliveira I guess.

Where do they want it?

David: One of the things I love about Khabib’s rise to power is that we finally have a dominant grappler ruling the roost. As a result, there’s a ton of great technical analysis that finally goes beyond ‘angles, footwork, feints, angles, etc’. No, I’m not a grappling nerd who is sick of seeing strikers dominate. My favorite prizefighters are Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales. What does that tell you? And so I don’t want to rehash all the things that make Khabib technically great. Yes, his bodylocks and the way he baits out the wrong underhooks and inferior leg placement against the fence are the best in the game, as Barboza found out. His ability to reset his posture in the middle of a scramble for more options are second to none, as McGregor experienced. There’s even a lowkey creativity to his level changes, as we saw against Poirier, feinting jabs and switching to lead left hooks (he’s got some!) to get in deep. But what I actively like the most about Khabib’s game is his recklessness. It’s not a trait people typically associate with him. But I do believe it’s central to his game. How many fighters can you name from any era that could get away with that many dive bomb single legs? How many fighters with head movement as bad as Khabib’s can get away with an entire round of exchanging against their comfort zone? I don’t believe Khabib is deliberately reckless. But it takes a No Fear, Whatever Man attitude to use entire rounds to gather more information gradually, despite not pushing the pace on your preferred axis. I suppose you could argue that this happens because Khabib’s style in general is too high-energy to maintain for the full duration of a fight. Which is true, sure. But that doesn’t explain why Khabib has been known to do this early on in fights.

Phil: Khabib remains the most enigmatic elite fighter on the UFC roster, perhaps in combat sports in general. There’s no-one like him, and particularly not at the lower weight classes (I do think he probably most resembles a vastly sped up Daniel Cormier in general approach, directionality and defense, but even then the similarities pretty much end there). As with any undefeated fighter, the challenge is in parsing where practicalities meet myth. The murkiness of this hinterland is exacerbated by the way that Khabib is such a pure specialist. The unbreakable grip strength, the outgrappling of specialists two, three or even more weight classes above him, these are things which are all spoken of in reverent, fearful tones by gym mates and (perhaps less credibly) Ali Abdel-Aziz. The man they describe is literally unbeatable by other lightweights. At the other end of the spectrum are his somewhat ugly defensive habits, with a tendency to jerk violently away from strikes and flail in a way which is (as mentioned) reminiscent of DC, and the way that his style has been dominant but uneven- with clear “break” rounds against McGregor and Iaquinta. In between the two lives a man who is a physical phenom, with blinding speed and power, and who has been a genuine innovator in MMA when it comes to cage wrestling: dismantling posts, attacking with all four limbs for control when he is on top at almost all times and drawing out a systemized and idiosyncratic approach for this part of MMA which is both so unique and so un-systemized for many other fighters.

David: Gaethje has changed, but we’re not talking about a transformation. He’s always had access to a treasure trove of facepunching tools. The problem is that he was a wind-up toy. Once the bell rung, he only had one mode, and it didn’t turn off until one person was sleeping. But the things that made him good are also the things that make him great. MMA has had elite brawlers before: Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva, Robbie Lawler. I don’t mean ‘brawler’ in a Technically Unsound But Powerful way. Even Liddell, easily the technical worst of the bunch, mastered timing. But we’ve never had brawlers this dynamic. Even Shogun was never this dynamic. Gaethje has access to a ton of weapons. But what I like most about his weapons is that his progressions don’t always ‘play by the rules’. Sure, you’re not supposed to throw leg kicks at close range. And your feet should never be side by side when throwing punches. But a rulebook is not Gaethje’s mentor. Or his instinct. In the past, these “technical errors” were largely punished. I hate using this example because I love Michael Johnson, and I think there’s another universe where he starts MMA earlier, has a promotion that believes in his potential, and is groomed accordingly[/rant over]. But Johnson had a lot of success because he would just murder Gaethje everytime Gaethje stood in the pocket after a low kick. Justin still does this. Except now he gives himself options to reset. And he’s not as interesting in willing himself out of danger with offense.

Phil: I think it was after the Poirier fight when Gaethje described how he had decided to change the approach. The development since has been both impressive and yet not out of the ordinary: we’ve spoken before about how Gaethje’s sheer offensive presence means that he only needs a slight tuning of approach to yield disproportionate rewards, and there were a lot of parts of his game which were just waiting in place for him to make a slight twist. He always had effective offensive footwork and great punching mechanics, and so he just needed to put that footwork into reverse every now and again. A so-weird-it-might-actually-be-true factor might be simply that Gaethje had terrible eyesight, and getting it fixed meant that he was able to step back and see punches coming rather than waiting to catch-and-pitch counters. It is a bit too neat, I think- we’ve seen Gaethje being calmed down by Trevor Wittman against Ferguson, and I think that even with better eyesight, the man who first came to the UFC just would have waded into the brawl anyway. Footage of Gaethje training shows him constantly breaking off to the side with slips and sidesteps, and he’s perhaps the only Khabib opponent I can remember who has repeatedly stressed the importance of not getting backed into the cage. That being said, it’s going to be impossible to really measure how effectively Gaethje works in the key dynamic of this fight: he is a (sort of) a victim of the way that the UFC typically sorts its fights, especially in the lighter weight divisions, namely that exciting strikers only get matched up with other exciting strikers. Aside from his physical strength, Gaethje has always shown quick hips and fantastic explosion at getting up from takedowns, and was historically difficult to score on in his collegiate wrestling career. But, he hasn’t fought any kind of real takedown threat in recent years, so you’re left mulling over him fighting back control from Luis Firmino, and then thinking: how the hell did he end up in knock-down, drag-out brawls with Luis Firmino in the first place.

David: Whoa whoa whoa. Don’t you dare badmouth Luiz Firmino. I had him improbably beating Tatsuya Kawajiri by a razor close decision (in an admittedly awful fight, granted) at Bushido 8. That was prime Kawajiri too.

Insight from past fights

David: Khabib is not the perfect fighter. One of the things that frequently happens in a Khabib fight is that his patented dive bomb single leg just kind of goes nowhere. Khabib has managed to weaponize his surroundings (the cage). Forcing him into the center of the octagon is just another weapon he loses if you can do it. Granted, a lot of his opponents don’t have the speed to separate or close the gap, switching from a defensive to an offensive posture and vice versa. McGregor, as skilled as he is, isn’t about gracefully moving in and out of the pocket. He’s about expertly timing his strikes once he’s inside, but I wouldn’t call him ‘fleet of foot.’ Same thing with Poirier, Barboza, etc. All of these fighters are agile punchers, but they don’t have functional lateral movement (Poirier’s fine, but again, I don’t consider him fast in this specific area). For example, here’s a thought experiment. Take Jose Aldo. Now — to make lightweight — fill him with some of Texas’ best street tacos. How does Khabib’s dive bombs look against Aldo’s patented limp leg? Not good. Gaethje’s athleticism isn’t the sublime Greek bust that is Aldo, but he has enough speed and lateral movement to keep Khabib in the center. Or at least enough to be in position for counter bombs. What’s interesting here is that this fight has the potential to make Khabib look awful. In which case, everyone will do their usual overreactions and welcome the ‘Gaethje Era’ and talk about how grappling died the day Khabib lost or something. Or...Khabib does what he always does, which is drag you into a grindfest until you’re nothing more than a slab of meat on a hook. Gaethje may be an elite striker, but so is Conor and look how awful his timing and speed was in round three once he endured 10 minutes of grip control.

Phil: I will tentatively say that I trust New Gaethje’s footwork to hold up more than Conor’s, a historically dreadful fighter when backed into the cage with a notably sketchy gas tank. That ability to simply sit on a previously-alien mid-range countering game for round after round against Ferguson spoke of a discipline which we just haven’t seen from Gaethje in the past.

X-Factors

David: If this becomes a Famous Last Words moment, it won’t be hard to explain why. I wouldn’t read much into it, though. This generation’s intellectual palate is full of too many Sam Harris’s’s and not enough David Humes. Just look at how people process Occam’s Razor these days. You can get away with getting your facts wrong — damn, I shifted my body the wrong against this twisting bodylock — as long as you understand the truth — stay away from the f’ing fence.

Phil: I think there’s two things here: the Khabib mystique, which I think has affected a lot of fighters before they ever got in there with him. Secondly, and we have to say it, it’s Abdulmanap. Much as I think a Gaethje win will unfairly mythologize the Khabib who fought under his father’s eye, it can’t be avoided that Khabib has had perhaps his single closest fighting and familiar relation taken away in a single stroke. It casts a sad shadow over the whole event.

Prognostication

David: I still have to believe that Gaethje’s general fight motion is gonna be a unique problem for Khabib; a dynamic that will force him into the grappling exchanges he lost when Gleison Tibau just shrugged him off. Granted, that fight was the impetus for Khabib’s shift. And Tibau was always three weight classes too big. But I think Gaethje can recreate some of these exchanges. Just enough to catch him with a hot one. It’s not gonna be easy, but I think round one will be the signal. This fight is very If-Then for me. If Gaethje can successfully defend Khabib’s takedowns in round one, the rest of the fight is his. If not, he still has a chance. Whereas Khabib doesn’t win in either scenario. Justin Gaethje by Decision.

Phil: I have picked against Khabib a lot. I think I just don’t understand him, if I’m quite honest, and he’s been a humbling fighter to watch from that perspective. Something in me rebels against the idea that a specialist like him can dominate the sport in this way, and he proves me wrong time and again. I do think Gaethje is a somewhat unique challenge: the attritional damage, the explosion against the initial shot, the improved cage craft and footwork, and so I’m going to pick against the champ again. I am ready and even looking forward to seeing him prove me wrong again though. It is a genuinely illuminating experience. Justin Gaethje by TKO, round 3.