Unbeaten fighters like Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0) have a special aura.
Israel Adesanya (20-0) has it, white hot newcomer Khamzat Chimaev (9-0) has it, and Nurmagomedov has it in spades. The same sense of invincibility doesn’t exist outside contact sports, where champions like Floyd Mayweather (50-0) can compete for years without losing.
So how good is Nurmagomedov? Does he deserve to be placed in the pantheon of all time great sportspeople? Has he beaten all-comers including high-ranked opponents who might have otherwise been champions? And how will he fare against the latest challenger, the big-hitting, quietly-spoken Justin Gaethje (24-2)?
To understand the mindset of the current lightweight UFC champion you need to explore his homeland. Nurmagomedov was born and raised in Dagestan, a forbidding, mountainous region in Western Russia. Dagestan borders Chechnya and Georgia and is something like the wild untamed west of American folklore. Dagestanis are famed for their fierce fighting spirit, and despite a population of only 2.9 million, the region is almost unconquerable.
Nurmagomedov is a modest religious man who shuns the trappings of wealth. He fights for pride and the honour of representing his people. He does not indulge in trash-talk, although incautiously did leap from the UFC octagon to fight a disrespectful member of Conor McGregor’s team after that bout.
Nurmagomedov is a Sambo fighter, a style of combat not widely known or utilised. He employs a devastating wrestling game to take down and monster his opponents on the ground. Nurmagomedov was filmed as a toddler wrestling a bear cub, so it is fair to say he is familiar with taking powerful and stubborn opponents to the ground. His recently deceased father coached him throughout his career, and he rounds out his training camps with the American Kickboxing Academy.
Nurmagomedov’s most high profile victory was over Conor McGregor, and we can learn a lot from the bout. McGregor is a legendary mind-game strategist and has successfully rattled the majority of his defeated opponents. The fight lead up was ugly with the McGregor camp throwing every possible barb and insult toward the Russian. Nurmagomedov responded with a steely determination to get the job done, promising he would make McGregor beg for his life. And McGregor did beg for his life, which was in jeopardy.
The fight did not follow the expected script though, and to everyone’s astonishment, Nurmagomedov won the stand-up portion of the fight. McGregor is a knock-out artist with a somewhat limited ground game, and it was expected he would have a sizable edge while the fighters were upright. That did not eventuate, and Nurmagomedov dropped the Irishman with a huge overhand right before he took the fight hit the ground and Russian went to work.
The fight taught us that Nurmagomedov cannot be broken mentally. It highlighted his under-rated stand-up and showed his ruthlessness. When McGregor succumbed to the Russian’s choke and meekly tapped his submission, Nurmagomedov did not stop. It was pay-back time for all the trash-talk, and the referee had to prise the choking arm from McGregor’s face lest he be killed. A formidable ground game like Nurmagomedov possess is only unbeatable when combined with world-class stand-up skills. An opponent must be fearful of both for the wrestling to dominate. The fight also taught us that Nurmagomedov is no one-trick-pony. He can stand and trade with the very best.
So how will Nurmagomedov fare against Justin Gaethje, a man with a similarly humble disposition? Gaethje is no slouch and utterly dismantled the highly regarded Tony Ferguson in his most recent bout. Gaethje has a very solid wrestling background, which will be vital if the fight is to be competitive. His stand up is among the best in the entire sport, and Gaethje seems to find strikes instinctively from almost any position. His two losses have come when he got caught up in the moment, abandoned his strategy.
Gaethje loves to fight, he does so without fear, but his losses demonstrate the importance of strategy. Standing in the centre and throwing wild punches while your opponent does the same might make for an exciting spectacle, but is reckless stupidity unbefitting a professional. Former champion Cory Garbrandt almost destroyed his fighting career by engaging in such madness.
So who wins at UFC 254 and how? Gaethje presents a real challenge to the Nurmagomedov unbeaten streak. The challenger will need to avoid being taken down, which is easier said than done, and he’ll need to strictly follow his pre-fight game plan. Gaethje will definitely have a striking advantage, and if he can thwart the take-downs long enough the Russian may struggle to formulate a solid Plan B.
Thus far everyone has fallen prey to the relentless wrestling of Nurmagomedov, and Gaethje will need to perform at a level that no other fighter has achieved. Gaethje is certainly a worthy opponent who has dedicated his life to the sport, worked his way into contention, and nobody would begrudge him a championship belt if he prevailed.
Khabib will be fighting to honour his late father, and the bout will likely have additional significance. He is not 28-0 without good reason. Nobody has been able to blunt his obvious method of attack. He has fought all-comers during his career and barely lost a single round. The fight will be a must-see spectacle, pitting two quiet and humble professionals who deserve the success that comes their way.