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UFC 254 card: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Justin Gaethje full fight preview

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight champions Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje will unify the titles TODAY (Sat., Oct. 24, 2020) at UFC 254 inside Flash Forum on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Nurmagomedov is on a quest for greatness, and from most appearances and quotes from the Dagestani combatant, that journey may be nearing its completion (or not?). Before “The Eagle” can continue to chase Georges St-Pierre and 30-0, however, he has an extremely dangerous man in front of him. Gaethje entered UFC a decorated and undefeated brawler, but he’s since refined his game to grown significantly more deadly. He presents a new stylistic threat to Nurmagomedov, as Gaethje is — at least on paper — the best wrestler Khabib has ever faced inside the Octagon, and he can throw some major heat.

Let’s take a closer look at the keys to victory for each man:

Khabib Nurmagomedov

Record: 28-0
Key Wins: Conor McGregor (UFC 229), Dustin Poirier (UFC 242), Rafael dos Anjos (UFC on FOX 11), Edson Barboza (UFC 219), Michael Johnson (UFC 205), Al Iaquinta (UFC 223)
Key Losses: None
Keys to Victory: If you have seen even one of Nurmagomedov’s bouts in the past five years, then you know his strategy. His combination of chain wrestling along the fence and top control has equaled a level of dominance arguably unmatched inside the Octagon.

Once opponents fall into Khabib’s positions, they do not escape.

While it’s true that Nurmagomedov’s overall gameplan of smashing opponents never changes, there is one variable that seems especially important here. Against Edson Barboza, Nurmagomedov immediately ran at his foe to close distance and wrestle. Opposite other dangerous strikers like Dustin Poirier, Nurmagomedov was more measured in his attempts to find an entry.

Is running at Gaethje dangerous? Sure. But given the choice between taking a punch on his entry or having his leg chopped from the first bell, immediate and extreme pressure seems the better choice. Gaethje’s low kick is his best weapon, and in a five-round fight, it’s the most likely to turn the tide.

Nurmagomedov can shake off a hook if it means he’s able to enter the clinch or into the hips. That’s where Nurmagomedov wants to be, where he’ll be better able to pressure his foe into the fence and work on emptying that gas tank.

Justin Gaethje

Record: 22-2
Key Wins: Tony Ferguson (UFC 249), Edson Barboza (UFC on ESPN 2), Donald Cerrone (UFC Fight Night 158), Michael Johnson (TUF 25 Finale), James Vick (UFC Fight Night 135), Luis Palomino (WSOF 19, 23)
Key Losses: Dustin Poirier (UFC on FOX 29), Eddie Alvarez (UFC 218)
Keys to Victory: Gaethje may have improved in a big way, but at its core, his game is still focused on doing major damage and forcing fighters into grueling experience. By throwing such brutal low kicks with little regard for his own leg, Gaethje pretty much eliminates range kickboxing as an option for his opponents, forcing them to come closer into his “zone of death.

Gaethje mentioned the importance of staying off the fence several times, and it could not be more accurate. Nurmagomedov is absolutely elite in the realm of taking down and controlling his opponents near the fence — it’s a realm where a wrestler’s collegiate experience does not carry over.

Gaethje needs to be standing in the center of the Octagon. Even chasing Nurmagomedov too close to the fence is risky, as a single ducked swing could find him with his own back to the cage. No, Gaethje has to control the center and swing that shin like a baseball bat at every possible opportunity toward Nurmagomedov’s legs.

In the open, Gaethje has his best chance to defensively wrestle. If he cannot stop the shot there, this fight was never going to go well for him. His first priority has to be maintaining that position, which will at least give him a chance.

Otherwise, starting combinations with body shots and mixing in the uppercut would be wise moves opposite the undefeated champion.

Bottom Line

We’re talking about legacy more than titles.

Nurmagomedov is already the greatest Lightweight of all time. His accomplishments are already incredible. However, Khabib has made it clear on several occasions that retiring undefeated is the goal, and that requires continued perfection and calling it quits at precisely the right moment.

A loss throws a wrench into his plans for the first time.

As for Gaethje, he’s established himself as an elite Lightweight, and his reputation as the most exciting man alive is pretty bulletproof. However, the ultimate goal is to become undisputed champion, but winning here would not make that his legacy. Instead, Gaethje would be remembered as the man who stopped Khabib Nurmagomedov when it seemed impossible.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 254 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN 2/ESPN+ at 12 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 254: “Khabib vs. Gaethje” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

At UFC 254, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje will go to war. Which man walks away with the title?

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