There aren’t too many contenders left in the UFC’s lightweight division that have a shot at overthrowing undefeated champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Having defeated some of the best fighters in the division, including Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier, Edson Barboza, and Al Iaquinta, “Eagle” seems posed to fly solo for the foreseeable future. That is, of course, unless Justin Gaethje has anything to say about.
While streaking lightweight contender Tony Ferguson is likely to land the next shot at Khabib’s shiny UFC belt, it is “Highlight” who stands to pick up a matchup with the undefeated Russian sometime in 2020. After all, Gaethje is coming off a scintillating first-round knockout finish over veteran Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and has now won three fight in a row via knockout. Pair his punching power with an elite wrestling background and Gaethje is a tough test for anyone.
When the time comes to step inside of the cage against Khabib, Gaethje is confident that he’ll produce a different outcome than every other opponent the Russian champion has faced.
“No, it will not be the same,” Gaethje said during a recent appearance on the “UFC Unfiltered” podcast (shown above). “Nothing will happen on the cage. We will fight in the center of the octagon. As much as he’s going to want to fight on the edge of the octagon, we’re going to fight in the center. I’m going to throw massive shots, most of them are going to come right through the middle, and I’m going to take chances, throw knees, and if he takes me down that’s fine.”
Gaethje, who has won each of his four UFC victories by way of knockout, is one of the best finishers in all of MMA. While extremely entertaining, Gaethje’s fighting style often overshadows his true talent as a fighter. Because despite his love for throwing leather and seeing what happens, the 30-year-old menace is an incredibly good wrestler, evident by his collegiate days at the University of Northern Colorado where he was an NCAA Division I All-American.
“The thing about folkstyle wrestling, folkstyle wrestling doesn’t happen anywhere else other than the United States,” Gaethje said. “I only wrestle folkstyle. I very rarely wrestle freestyle. In folkstyle, I think the biggest factor is, you’re allowed to expose your back without giving up points, which means you scramble. So whenever he goes to take me down, I’m going to be flipping and rolling in ways that he’s never felt in his life. That’s folkstyle wrestling, being able to expose your back.
“What he’s done his whole life, these guys could never expose their backs to get out of a takedown because they were giving up points, and that’s the first thing you learn in freestyle is don’t expose your back. So you go straight to your stomach, and you give up a takedown. They also never have to get up. They just lay there for 15 seconds, then they stand them up automatically. In folkstyle wrestling, you get rewarded for getting up and escaping.”
While Gaethje has admitted that Khabib is the best lightweight in the world today that doesn’t mean he’s losing any confidence in a future matchup. Instead, “Highlight” believes his scrambling ability will allow him to get back to his feet each and every time should Khabib take him down.
“If one man can hold you down, then two can do whatever they want to you,” Gaethje said. “You cannot hold me down. I will get up, and I will scramble in a different way than he’s ever known. I think I have more power than anybody ever has consistently had in the lightweight division.”
Khabib, who is perfect at 28-0 throughout his professional MMA career, has only lost one round in his entire UFC tenure. That came against McGregor back at UFC 229 last year in which Khabib ended up submitting “Notorious” in the fourth round. Despite all of Khabib’s success and gleaming accomplishments, Gaethje feels as if his game is tailor made to put the Russian in enough trouble to which he can’t return.
“The only way to stop a takedown is to meet force with force,” Gaethje said. “You don’t try to sprawl away. Whenever you do a sprawl, you don’t throw your hips away; you drive your hips into the mat. That’s how you stop a takedown, so I’ve wrestled my whole life and hit so hard. I guarantee he’s going to be in trouble. Dustin (Poirier) had him in trouble, and Dustin was on the fence the whole time.”
Assuming Khabib locks horns with Ferguson his next time around the UFC lightweight king would then have to fend off Gaethje sometime in the second half of 2020. If he’s able to defeat both lightweights and push his overall MMA record to 30-0, Khabib would have essentially cleaned out the deepest division in the sport en route to becoming the best pound-for-pound fighter of all time.