Actual or not: Gaethje will get Nurmagomedov's title after which name Conor McGregor
The wait for UFC fans eagerly awaiting the battle between provisional lightweight champion Justin Gaethje and world title holder Khabib Nurmagomedov will soon be over. The popular fighters will meet on Saturday at UFC 254 on "Fight Island" in Abu Dhabi.
Gaethje will rely on power strokes and athleticism to bring Nurmagomedov (28-0) his first defeat. Gaethje must also be ready to slow down the relentless pressures Nurmagomedov with wrestling, takedowns and the ability to dominate his opponents by pushing them to the side of the cage and controlling the action.
The UFC 254 main event will feature one of the most anticipated fights of the year. The provisional lightweight champion Justin Gaethje meets world champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. Gaethje has won four times in a row, including three times in the first round, while Nurmagomedov (28-0) appears to be unbeaten. The middleweights Robert Whittaker and Jared Cannonier compete against each other in the co-main event.
Buy UFC 254 here
UFC 254: Khabib versus Gaethje
• Saturday, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
• 10:30 am ET on ESPN2 and ESPN + PPV
What if Gaethje wins? Could there be a reputation for a certain popular former champion?
The co-main event is also very fascinating. Former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker takes on Jared Cannonier, with the winner potentially taking a middleweight title against champion Israel Adesanya.
Will Cannonier, fifth in the ESPN division rankings, move up with his fourth straight win, or will Whittaker consolidate his position as the division’s number one?
ESPN MMA experts Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, and Jeff Wagenheim split the real and non-real headings in UFC 254.
Real or not: Justin Gaethje will finish one of the most dominant runs in MMA history on Saturday
Justin Gaethje earned a fight night bonus every time he stepped the octagon. Check out the best moments as he battles for the preliminary lightweight title. Order UFC 249 here on ESPN + espn.com/ppv.
Raimondi: There is no harder matchup for Nurmagomedov in the UFC lightweight division than Gaethje. That distinction was once reserved for Tony Ferguson, but Gaethje's breakdown from Ferguson at UFC 249 in May was eye-opening. This is not the same Gaethje who earlier lost to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier in his UFC run. His development under coach Trevor Wittman has been incredible. The ruthless, free running Gaethje has disappeared. He's just as aggressive as never before, but Gaethje is now technical and tactical to go along with it. Gaethje is now using his aggression as part of his strategy instead of being a potential albatross. He's not nearly as threatened. Gaethje is really one of the most dangerous and violent strikers in MMA.
The longer Gaethje stays on his feet against Nurmagomedov, the better. In a pure stand-up fight, Gaethje wins. But that's a big job. Nurmagomedov is arguably the best MMA wrestler of all time. Nobody puts their will into a fight better than the UFC lightweight champion. Everyone knows they are going to wrestle and no one can stop it. Gaethje was a Division I All-American wrestler and has an exceptional defense. It is difficult to predict who will contain Nurmagomedov's wrestling and argument at this point. In a five-round fight, Nurmagomedov will eventually defeat his enemy. And when he does, he's usually either doing harm or working for a submission.
One of the big questions is how Nurmagomedov's wrestling will affect Gaethje's strike. Will the takedown threat affect any part of Gaethje's effectiveness at kickboxing? It's one way – just ask Conor McGregor, whom Nurmagomedov dropped with an overhand right when he fought at UFC 229 in 2018. While Gaethje has the skills to become competitive and possibly even win, playing against Nurmagomedov is a breeze. He's one of the best of all time, he's still in his prime and because we can only predict the future by looking at history, Nurmagomedov must be the choice.
Real or not: Gaethje won't stop Nurmagomedov from pushing him against the cage, and that will prove to be crucial
Unlocking Victory shows how effectively Khabib Nurmagomedov switches off against the cage and how Justin Gaethje can counter.
Wagenheim: The cage is Nurmagomedov's friend. If an opponent is trapped against the fence, the fight will undoubtedly go to the canvas and that is where the fight begins. So fending off Khabib is just a matter of staying in the center of the octagon? It is not so easy. Nurmagomedov will attempt a takedown in open space and if his opponent defends successfully, Khabib will just keep attacking him. The champion's chain wrestling attack keeps the other fighter on the defensive and guesses where the fight will ultimately end: against the cage.
Nurmagomedov has not been held in a fight without multiple defeats since 2013. So it is not a problem to project that he will bring Gaethje onto the screen once or twice. But do you know what Khabib hasn't had since 2013? A finish on the first round. This indicates that Gaethje has more than one chance to fight where he is most dangerous – in stand-up – because that is where every round begins.
How does Gaethje keep the fight going so long that it does the damage for which it is known? Well, considering that none of Nurmagomedov's previous 28 opponents had an answer to that, I'm not going to give an answer but a riddle: when does a takedown not defend a takedown?
It is when your offensive performance is so relentless that Khabib himself remains on the defensive and cannot get his wrestling attack in rhythm.
Do you remember how McGregor's trainer John Kavanagh assessed his husband's fight with Nurmagomedov in 2018? He said they spent so much time at training camp honing McGregor's defensive wrestling that his notoriously accurate and deadly stand-up attack got to the point on fight night. "We focused too much on defense," said Kavanagh.
Gaethje cannot concentrate on staying out of danger. He must go into battle with an attitude of endangering Nurmagomedov. If that's his mental approach, he has a chance to go out with the belt. If not, no shot.
Real or not: if Gaethje wins, he calls McGregor. If Nurmagomedov wins, there will be no callout
Georges St-Pierre talks about a possible UFC comeback and his potential interest in fighting Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Okamoto: You see, that makes the news that McGregor will fight Poirier on January 23rd, so strange to me. Or at least the timing of the news. Why is McGregor so optimistic about the fight against Poirier when the lightweight championship is just around the corner? And I say this, I wouldn't be shocked if the UFC (or McGregor) dragged their feet on the Poirier rematch paperwork just to see what happens on Saturday. Because yes, if Gaethje wins, he calls McGregor. And I think McGregor would want it.
If Nurmagomedov wins, things are far less clear. No, I don't think there will be a "callout" per se. But I think if Nurmagomedov wins he will be asked about a fight with Georges St-Pierre and he will honestly answer that yes, this is a fight he wants. Whether it happens or not who knows? But it is brought up.
Real or not, Robert Whittaker will remind people why he's among the top two middleweights in the world
Darren Till and Robert Whittaker take turns and drop to the mat at the start of their matchup.
Helwani: That is very real. I think people are getting some sleep on Whittaker, who is going to fight on Saturday, because they want a new matchup for champion Adesanya. If Cannonier beats Whittaker, it seems like a no-brainer to find Adesanya vs. Cannonier next to book for the middleweight title. However, if Whittaker wins it gets a little more complicated because Adesanya beat Whittaker in a very convincing way just over a year ago and I believe there isn't much demand right now to see this rematch anytime soon.
As a result, I feel like the public is somewhat subconsciously ignoring Whittaker going into this fight. But lest we forget that Whittaker looked great against Darren Till in July and Cannonier hasn't fought in about 13 months. These two factors favor Whittaker. This is by far the biggest fight in Cannonier's career while Whittaker has been here before. Plus, this will be the toughest fight in Cannonier's career, and if he wins he'll undoubtedly deserve a title shot. But I don't think a "W" is easy, and I think Whittaker is on a mission to prove that at 185 he's still the man.