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UFC 254 is one of the most anticipated fights in UFC history. Lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov, looks to defend his title against Justin Gaethje and improve to 29-0. Khabib as seemed invincible in his 28 career fights thus far. The only trouble he’s seemed to be in recently was against Dustin Poirier. Now, he takes on the heavyhanded Gaethje in hopes to continue his rise as MMA’s most dominant fighter.
If you haven’t read The Evolution of Justin Gaethje Part 1, I suggest clicking here to see the improvements made.
Khabib Nurmagomedov will come in and look to do what he always does: smash. It is up to Gaethje and his coach, Trevor Wittman, to devise a gameplan to negate the grappling of the champion and claim the belt for their own.
In this article, we build off of what we learned about the evolution of Gaethje and dive into the Tony Ferguson fight to see the tools into practice for a shot at beating Nurmagomedov.
To first know what we have to do to beat Khabib, we need to see where he follies, which is a tough task to do. Khabib hasn’t been hurt much in the octagon and when he is, the intimidation of Khabib forces the fighter to make bad decisions.
Chinks in the Armor of Khabib Nurmagomedov
To see where Khabib struggles, we have to go all the way back to the Michael Johnson fight. No, we’re not talking about the “wobbled” shot that people point to that shows Khabib having chin issues (he doesn’t). Michael Johnson is a unique challenge for anyone, including Khabib Nurmagomedov. Johnson is incredibly long for a lightweight and does a good job staying out of the pocket against Khabib.
One thing you will see from Johnson, especially in the first round, he circles Khabib instead of moving in and out. Right out the gate, Johnson circles to his left, Khabib’s right.
We see another example of Khabib slowing down his fight due to footwork against Conor McGregor. In the first round, McGregor marches at Khabib and presses him to the cage, a change in pace from what we’ve seen. McGregor’s mistake was when Khabib shot the takedown in the middle of the ring, he threw a knee and didn’t exit.
The key is staying light on his feet and for Gaethje to fight slowly and smart. When there’s a lot of motion or pressure, Khabib seems to hesitate on taking a shot and will shoot uncomfortable take down attempts. Moving in and out on a line will only get a fighter pressed up against the fence, right in Khabib’s wheelhouse.
Should Gaethje find himself in the middle of a shot in the center of the cage, he should take notes from Jose Aldo or when Al Iaquinta fought Khabib for the belt (shoutout, Ed!)
Another myth about Khabib is his chin. While we did see Khabib rocked in the Poirier fight at IFC 242, he tends to get on his bicycle and get out of trouble. You will not likely knock Khabib out with one strike. Khabib needs a bludgenoning. That’s where Justin Gaethje vs. Tony Ferguson comes into play.
The Evolution of Justin Gaethje II: Tony Ferguson
The fight with Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 was a bludgenoning. But, Ferguson did not look to get to the ground in a meaningful way. Against Justin Gaethje, Ferguson was looking to out-will Gaethje and that backfired. Gaethje was not the same fighter as he was fighting Poirier or Alvarez. He has been much more calculated and patient. Let us begin.
Early on in the fight with Ferguson, you’ll notice that Gaethje is light on his feet and is actually circling. I’ve put the gifs with him and Michael Johnson side by side for comparison. While circling Tony Ferguson is much easier than circling Khabib simply because Tony is circling himself. But Gaethje does a good job staying out of the phone booth with Ferguson early on in the first round and he would punish Ferguson any time he tried to get in range, especially later on.
Gaethje wasn’t perfect in the Ferguson fight too. He displayed some bad positions that he needs to really avoid like the plague when he and Khabib are locked in the cage. In the graphic above, you can see Gaethje has the first round jitters and resorts to the “old Justin Gaethje.” We haven’t focused on this in part one but Gaethje will occasionally go into instinct mode and fight completely how his coach, Whittman, has trained him not to. Here, Gaethje steps in right as Ferguson is switching stances. He fires a left hook and Ferguson dips out the way. Gaethje’s shot now has his back and hips exposed, which is certain death against Khabib Nurmagomedov. Khabib does not switch stances and will be in position to get at Gaethje’s hips in this situation.
Khabib has improved as a striker tenfold since joining the UFC. But when compared to the standup of Gaethje is not a comparison. Here in the first round we see Gaethje making the fight ugly. Often times, Tony Ferguson’s bad striking is attributed to his quirkiness when, in fact, it is just poor technique. Here we see Ferguson expose himself and Gaethje pushes Ferguson back and punches again. Khabib likes to use his strikes to set up a clinch so he can get to the hips. Once to the hips, he drives into the fence and gets the fight to the ground. This push will be in the back pocket of Gaethje when Khabib shies away as he comes in for the clinch and has the Gaethje missiles coming his way.
At the end of the first round, Gaethje tallied up seven leg kicks total. Being as powerful as he is in the kicking game, I would like to see him ratchet that up a notch against Khabib.
Justin Gaethje Must Stick To The Gameplan
The second round against Tony Ferguson was a disaster for Gaethje. He was knocked down and fought on instinct. So much so that Wittman had to remind him to stick to his game plan. To be abundantly clear, if Justin Gaethje has a lapse in his game plan, it will be the beginning of the end of for Justin Gaethje. Khabib will capitalize and the gas tank deficit will be widened to where Khabib can take over the fight.
Seen here, Gaethje slips an hook and pivots out, which is really good. The small critique here would be to capitalize on this misstep and land something while Khabib is out of position. Also, notice, the hips exposed again after over-committing on the follow up strike. Luckily for Gaethje this time, he’s fighting Tony Ferguson and not Khabib Nurmagomedov.
If Justin Gaethje has the type of second round he had against Ferguson against Khabib, the fight will be over. The mistakes made against Ferguson will be punished against Khabib.
Turning the Red Tide: Justin Gaethje Out For Blood
The third round marked a return to the plan for Gaethje. After an insightful instruction from Wittman, Gaethje settled in and showed us something he’s never shown in a fight: the ability and willingness to go five full rounds.
After being knocked down with an uppercut at the bell of the second round, Gaethje comes out composed. When adversity inevitably finds him against Khabib he will have to be composed as well. He doesn’t rush in and blitz Tony, he is lulling him into a false sense of security.
As mentioned at the top of the article, footwork is key. Right here we can see more lateral movement from Gaethje as Ferguson presses him to the fence. Gaethje fakes to his left and shifts right, escaping danger. As a matter of fact, Gaethje does an exceptional job when Ferguson is on the prowl of circling and staying away from the cage, always looking for a better position.
Khabib likes to enter the hips on an overhand before he shoots. Many people respect the striking of Khabib, rightfully so, he uses it well to set up his takedowns. Here, Gaethje shows he can wobble his opponent, and not get sloppy. The second half shows him walking into the long jab of Tony Ferguson and pressing forward anyway. With the aversion Khabib has to forward pressure, this could be a great mindset to have, giving that he’s mindful of the clinch still.
Gaethje does a good job here anticipating the hook from Ferguson and dipping his head. He keeps his eyes on the hips of Ferguson.
Early on in the fourth round, Gaethje kicks at the leg of Ferguson and sees that it is finally compromised. This is where he really starts to pour on the leg kicks when there.
Gaethje is still doing a great job staying off the fence, he hasn’t been pushed against the cage once. Here, Gaethje exits on an angle instead of on the center line, where Khabib likes to shoot on.
The Poirier fight is the only time Khabib has seemed mortal. Poirier’s mistake was once he had Khabib backpedaling, he continued to pursue. You’re not going to knock out Khabib with one or two punches. It is going to take a beating like Ferguson took to win this fight. Here we see Gaethje in a similar situation. Instead of stalking, he realizes Tony is getting away and resets in the middle of the cage.
We’re going into the fifth round and look at this big, goofy smile Justin Gaethje has on his face.
From now on, it is just a beating from Gaethje. You can see here when Gaethje wobbles Ferguson, he isn’t hunting. He’s there for five rounds and forces Ferguson to meet him in the middle of the ring again.
More bullying from Justin Gaethje here, and this fight is all from over. The mental strain from being pushed around is breaking for a lot of fighters. Frustrating Khabib will play greatly into the favor of Gaethje. More of this will be needed.
The finish is a culmination of all of Gaethje and Wittman’s work since losing to Eddie Alvarez. After fighting such a great, near perfect, fight, Gaethje has his prey limping away. It is time for the kill and he knows it. One more strike and Herb Dean has seen enough and calls off the fight.
The Verdict: Perfection Required
Justin Gaethje, even if he does almost everything perfect, it is still a tall order for him to kill the king that is Khabib. He must fight a perfect fight. Gaethje must stay out of trouble and get done what 28 others have failed to do thus far. Doing so will have his names in the history books as the man who slayed the dragon from Dagestan.