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Can Justin Gaethje Cut The Eagle’s Wings?

For years people have been anticipating what has turned out to be the most cursed fight in MMA history; Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Tony Ferguson. The fight has been booked five times, five times it has failed to happen and now more than ever it seems like this fight is destined to never happen. Khabib has expressed interest in retiring if/when he makes it to 30-0, if he had it his way he would probably defend his 155 belt one more time and end his career in a superfight with GSP. Thanks to a dominant performance by Justin Gaethje at UFC 249, Tony Ferguson now appears to be out of the picture. It’s highly likely Gaethje is next in line for Nurmagomedov, the question now is does Gaethje have what it takes to give The Eagle his first defeat?

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Dustin Poirier (who has faced both men) believes Gaethje has the best odds of defeating Khabib. Poirier also predicted Gaethje would defeat Ferguson, so despite the fact he was able to gut out a win over Gaethje, it’s evident he has a massive amount of respect for his abilities. Others seem to think Gaethje doesn’t have much of a chance, which is reflected in the early odds for the fight (most have Khabib anywhere from a -285 to -350 favorite). I tend to agree with Poirier’s assessment of the match up and I believe a bet on Gaethje is a smart one, especially a gamble on a 3rd or 4th round TKO. 

In Khabib’s 28-0 run, his closest fight (despite winning all judges’ score cards 30-27) was against Gleison Tibau. Tibau is #2 on the all time UFC takedown list with 84 takedowns behind only GSP who has 90 ( Khabib was 0-13 on takedown attempts while Tibau was 1-6, one of the gleaming stats that made many feel the decision was wrong. Tibau was also the more efficient striker, landing 28 of 87 (32%) significant strikes to Khabib 25 of 101 (24%). However, Tibau spent a great amount of time with his back glued to the cage defending Khabib’s takedowns and it was evident the judges were swayed by Khabib’s relentlessness. While Tibau is undoubtedly a great MMA wrestler with a solid background in BJJ & wrestling, I’m not sure he’s a better wrestler than Justin Gaethje.

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Gaethje started wrestling at age 4, was a 4-time state finalist for Safford High School in Arizona (2-time State Champion) and graduated with a record of 191-9. Gaethje also earned All American Status as a junior in 2010 wrestling for Northern Colorado, placing 7th in the NCAA tournament (the first in his school to earn that honor since 1970). Gaethje hasn’t shown much of his offensive wrestling skills in his MMA career, but if you look up his earliest fights you can definitely see why he was an All American wrestler. These days he mainly uses his wrestling skills to keep fights standing, a great idea considering his KO/TKO rate (19 KO/TKO in 22 wins).

So far in Geathje’s UFC career he has been “officially” taken down twice, once by Eddie Alvarez and once by Michael Johnson. Anybody who’s a folkstyle wrestler who watched Gaethje in those fights probably didn’t recognize any takedowns because control was never established. Michael Johnson had Gaethje hurt when he got his “takedown” and despite having college wrestling experience it was evident he didn’t have the skills needed to prevent Gaethje from getting back to his feet. Since Gaethje’s losses to Alvarez and Porier he hasn’t just not been taken down, he’s finished every opponent and hasn’t taken near the damage he took in his first three UFC fights. He’s fought more calm and calculative, a huge reason he was able to fight so well for nearly 25 minutes before finishing Ferguson. Because Justin finished his previous three opponents in the first round, many had doubts his cardio would be good enough for 5 rounds until he proved it at UFC 249. Now that we know he has the discipline to pace himself properly for a 25 minute fight, he appears to be an even more dangerous foe for Khabib.

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I wrote a previous article for Unknown MMA with the argument that Khabib may be the GOAT of MMA. Anyone who accumulates a 28-0 MMA record while officially only losing 1 round in their career, as well as having never shown damage after a professional fight, has to be considered for GOAT status. Though Khabib has fought plenty of dangerous people, I don’t think he’s ever faced a specific match up as dangerous for him as Justin Gaethje. If Khabib can’t take Gaethje down early or at least pin him on the fence and nullify his dirty kickboxing, he will likely get hit a lot more than he’s used to and nobody can eat shots from Gaethje for too long. It’s just as imperative for Khabib to get Gaethje down early as it was against McGregor, except in this match up he’s having to accomplish that goal against an extremely athletic D1 All American wrestler instead of somebody who grew up in a country that has almost no wrestling in its culture.

Is Khabib the “GOAT”?

“Is Khabib the GOAT?” Article here

Many people who have never wrestled competitively have a tendency to lump wrestlers into one basic category and are unable to acknowledge the stylistic differences within wrestling. Not all wrestlers are the same and different skill sets are very important when you consider certain match-ups. As a collegiate wrestler Gaethje was known for his athleticism and scrambling ability, which will be a huge asset in avoiding Khabib’s takedowns as well as staying off the cage. Footwork will be extremely important for Gaethje, as well as getting a good read on Khabib’s set-ups to engage in wrestling scenarios. Gaethje will not be looking for a grappling match, he will avoid it like the plague and connect with heavy shots when Khabib gets in range. With Gaethje’s newfound patience it will likely be harder for Khabib to set up his takedowns or push Gaethje against the cage, he will need to be extremely smart in how he engages Justin. All it takes is 4-5 of Gaethje’s low leg kicks to start showing an effect and it only takes one of his left hooks or overhand rights to end a fight. Khabib will not be an exception to that rule, he will need to be even more cautious than he was with McGregor because Gaethje likely won’t tire as fast and won’t fear the takedown as much as Conor.

Because Gaethje is so athletic I don’t believe Khabib will try to work takedowns in the open, he’ll probably look to pin him against the cage and work his takedowns from there. Khabib is the best in MMA at working takedowns against the fence, as well as keeping people down once he gets them there. If Justin allows Khabib to grind on him against the cage for extended periods of time, even if Khabib struggles to take him down it will wear on Justin and take steam off his power punches. While this is a general game plan Khabib carries out on all opponents, this skill set will probably be the most important when it comes time to fight Gaethje.

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I see this fight going one of two ways. Either Khabib will do to Justin what he’s done to everybody else, or Justin will do what he’s done to nearly everybody else. For Justin, it may be the first time we see him get taken down and controlled. For Khabib, it may be the first time we see somebody nullify his wrestling, keep the fight standing and land shots that do damage. Though anything is possible, I don’t see Khabib winning a striking battle for any extended period of time or Justin out-wrestling Khabib for extended periods of time. If Khabib can’t control the fight early it’s likely he gets beat up just like anybody else who is forced to stand with Justin. It’s also very possible we could see that “I can’t do anything to stop this” panicked look on Justin’s face like we’ve seen from so many others once Khabib grabs ahold of them. Khabib has proven over and over that he’s on a different level than other fighters when it comes to his MMA wrestling skills, but you never know who may come out of nowhere and “shock the world”. Not many expected Holly Holm to shrug Ronda off at will before knocking her out, I won’t be too surprised if Gaethje is able to do something similar vs Khabib.

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The biggest x-factor may be the eye surgery Gaethje got as he entered the UFC. Before the eye surgery Gaethje had to get his hands on his opponents to know where they were. Gaethje got to 17-0 with poor eyesight and has only had his new eyes since 2017. No longer does he have to fight in a phone booth, he can fight at various distances and his striking has become much more effective as a result. For whatever reason it seems rare that people mention this fact about Gaethje, but it may be the biggest difference maker in the match up against Khabib. Having to put your hands on Khabib to know where he is seems like a terrible situation to be in if you’re trying to avoid his wrestling, so the fact Gaethje can see what’s going on and fight at a further distance is massive.

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Khabib and Gaethje are only 31 years old and Khabib has been fighting professionally since 2008 with Gaethje fighting professionally since 2011. It appears both men are in their prime, making this the perfect time for them to match up and test their skills vs each other. My anticipation for this fight is greater than any other potential fight that could be booked in 2020 and I have a feeling many other MMA fans feel the same. Gaethje is a bonus machine for a reason and truly lives up to his monaker “The Highlight”. “The Eagle” has always flown above his competition, dominating unlike anything we’ve seen in MMA.

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I truly have no idea who is going to come out on top, which is the biggest reason I can’t wait to watch. I’m a fan of both men equally, admiring both their dedication to family as well as their approach to fighting. My prayers go out to the Nurmagomedov family, I can only imagine how tough this time is for them right now. If for some reason the fight has to be delayed because of things happening with Abdulmanop Nurmagomedov, I will be the first to defend Khabib when MMA fans start crying and saying they want to see his belt stripped. Khabib defending his belt is very important for the UFC but family is definitely the higher priority, I’ll be sure to remind myself of that while impatiently waiting for this fight to get booked. ■

Jason Marlowe, UnknownMMA

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