UFC 254 will close out Fight Island for now when the two best lightweights in the world collide. Undefeated lightweight champion Khabib “The Eagle” Nurmagomedov takes on interim lightweight champion Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje Saturday night.
Nurmagomedov is considered by many as the most dominant champion in UFC history. Even though Nurmagomedov only has two title defenses to his name, he’s still been able to dominate by taking his opponents down and mauling them until they give up. Nurmagomedov is 28-0 as a professional, with many speculating that if he reaches 30-0, he’ll retire.
Khabib burst onto the UFC scene in 2012 and won his fight by third-round submission. Khabib set the record for most takedowns in a fight with 21 when he took on Abel Trujillo in 2013. Khabib is one of - if not the best - wrestlers the UFC has ever seen. His opponents know what his game plan is, but they can’t do anything to stop him from taking them down. Khabib’s most prolific fight came when he was set to face former double champ Conor McGregor at UFC 229. The two did not like each other at all, and this was a classic grappler vs striker matchup. During the buildup for the fight, McGregor personally attacked Nurmagomedov and his family. Khabib never retaliated and just let McGregor talk.
When it was time to fight, McGregor went silent. Nurmagomedov had his way with McGregor, even knocking down the former double champ with an overhand right. At one point during the fight, Nurmagomedov had taken down McGregor, and began trash talking him, telling McGregor to talk back while getting mauled. Nurmagomedov ultimately submitted McGregor in the fourth round to defend his title. Due to a post-fight brawl, Nurmagomedov wouldn’t fight again until almost a year later at UFC 242 against then interim champion Dustin Poirier. Poirier had his moments, most notably securing a guillotine choke on Nurmagomedov in the third round that Nurmagomedov later admitted was close to making him tap out. It wouldn’t be enough though as Nurmagomedov would secure a rear naked choke in the third round to defend his belt once again.
Nurmagomedov is a special talent. We’ve seen successful wrestlers come and go in the UFC, but none of them have been as dominant as Khabib. No one has even come close to beating Nurmagomedov, but many people speculate that Gaethje can do it.
Nurmagomedov loves to wear his opponents out and make them mentally quit before he finishes them. Gaethje is one of the mentally toughest people to grace the octagon, but all Nurmagomedov understands is winning, and this Saturday, Nurmagomedov will be just as determined to take out the next challenger and cement his legacy as the greatest fighter of all time.
Gaethje is without a doubt the most exciting fighter to ever fight in the UFC. Gaethje was undefeated when he entered the UFC, holding an impressive 17-0 record. Gaethje’s first UFC fight was against perineal contender Michael Johnson in July 2017. Gaethje got hit a lot, and even was almost dropped on two separate occasions, but Gaethje’s heart and will to survive helped him come back and TKO Johnson late in the second. The bout earned both men “Fight of the Night” honors, and the fight was considered by many the “Fight of the Year.”
Gaethje would next face former lightweight champion Eddie Alveraz at UFC 218. Gaethje and Alvarez went to war in this fight, but with almost a minute left in the fight, Alvarez would land a knee that would knock Gaethje out and end Gaethje’s undefeated streak. Gaethje looked to redeem himself when he took on Dustin Poirier next, but Poirier landed a clean left hand that had Gaethje in trouble and unable to recover. Gaethje was ultimately TKO’ed early in the fourth round. Knowing he didn’t come to the UFC to fail, Gaethje got right back to work and went on to finish James Vick, Edson Barbosa, and Donald Cerrone all in the first round by TKO/KO.
Gaethje got his chance to fight for the interim lightweight title when Khabib vs Tony Ferguson fell out due to travel restrictions with the coronavirus pandemic and Khabib being stuck in Russia. The UFC were determined to put on an event, and in May of this year, matched up Ferguson vs Gaethje for the interim lightweight title. Ferguson held the record for the most wins in the lightweight division and was expected to beat Gaethje and finally get his title shot — and chance at Nurmagomedov.
Gaethje had other plans. He beat and battered Ferguson to TKO him in the fifth round, becoming the new interim lightweight champion. Gaethje threw the belt down, stating he wants the undisputed belt, and not an interim. Gaethje went to a D1 school for wrestling, but we never see his wrestling because he loves to strike. With a lack of proof of just how good Gaethje’s wrestling is, many people doubt if he can stop the takedowns of Nurmagomedov. Gaethje knows he didn’t come this far just to let this opportunity slip by, so look for Gaethje to give it everything he has to walk away as the new undisputed UFC lightweight champion.
Nurmagomedov and Gaethje are fighting for way more than just a title. These two men are fighting for legacy. Nurmagomedov’s father crafted him into who he is, and Nurmagomedov did everything for his father. Nurmagomedov’s father wanted him to retire at 30-0, and now that Nurmagomedov’s father passed away earlier this year, there are speculations on if that will still happen. Nurmagomedov is fighting for his father’s honor way more than he is for the belt, but Gaethje might play spoiler.
Gaethje is a great striker with an incredible ability to take a punch. Even though we haven’t seen his wrestling, you don’t go to a D1 school for wrestling by luck. Gaethje could very well be the one to beat Khabib and hand him is very first loss. This is a very intriguing fight and I don’t want either man to lose, but ultimately, I’m picking Gaethje to win by decision.
Catch all of the amazing fights this Saturday afternoon on ESPN+!