1. Gaethje’s Wrestling
Justin Gaethje’s wrestling ability is a much-guarded secret during his time in the UFC. I think the reason is pretty simple, just look at Colby Covington. Colby came in and wrestled every opponent, a lot of them ending in decisions. The “casual” UFC fan may describe the fights as boring and Dana seemingly agreed, as it looked like Colby was about to be cut just before his outburst in Brazil, despite winning all of his fights. Justin knew he had the ability with his hands and after overcoming some losses, has seemingly found his feet in the lightweight division, without the need to fall back on his wrestling.
You could argue that Khabib has kept with the same style that nearly saw Colby cut. I think the difference here is the support (support = money) that Khabib brings in from the Russian audience. This is made clear by the fact the PPV has been made earlier so that the UFC can cash in once again from the popularity Khabib has in one of the biggest populations in the world, whilst still being at a reasonable time for US and UK audiences.
So, how good is he at wrestling? Justin is an NCAA Division One All-American out of the University of Northern California, so basically, he is up there with some of the best. One thing that I found very interesting in the UFC Countdown show was that Justin’s Head Coach Trevor Wittman described Khabib as the best wrestler in the UFC. That must mean that Khabib is a better wrestler than Justin? And that is coming from the Head Coach…
Will Gaethje try to take Khabib down? Possibly, but unlikely in my opinion. Just go back and watch Khabib’s fight with Abel Trujillo to see how good he is off his back. Justin will highly likely be looking to use his wrestling to defend takedowns and keep the fight on the feet.
2. Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov
As you are probably aware, Abdulmanap was not only Khabib’s father but also his mentor and his hero. Nurmagomedov Snr. died due to Coronavirus in early July. The death shook the UFC and left a deep feeling of sadness and loss within the whole MMA community, with even Conor McGregor expressing his sympathy for his arch-rival. His death also brought home the seriousness and very realness of this pandemic.
The big question now is how does Khabib rebound from losing the father that was always there (even if it was not always in person) to offer advice and create game plans. One thing that can’t be underestimated is Khabib’s focus and determination. The masterplan that was created with his father was to go 30-0 and then retire. I think this will only drive Khabib to further greatness.
3. Gaethje’s Confidence
Gaethje is riding a tidal wave of confidence that is bigger than most others after picking apart a Tony Ferguson that hadn’t lost for over eight years. Another interesting take away from the UFC Countdown show was how Gaethje claimed that he surrounded himself with people who want to beat him up, whereas Khabib surrounds himself with effectively “yes men” who constantly tell him he’s the best in the world. Justin clearly sees this as a huge advantage and hopes that Nurmagomedov underestimates him, possibly in the same way that Tony did.
You cannot look past the confidence of Khabib either. Not many fighters will ever hold a record of 28-0, especially not in MMA, where there are so many ways to lose. Both fighters will be careful not to be over-confident, as this could play into their downfall.
4. No Crowd
You can only see the fact that there is no crowd there as an advantage to Justin Gaethje. You only need to look at his fight with Ferguson to see why. Trevor Wittman did need to still calm Gaethje down and you can only imagine what he would have been like with a screaming, raucous crowd behind him. Justin has had a regular tendency to feed off the crown and this is not always to his benefit.
Khabib on the other hand would likely have a big support from the crowd on Yas Island. Could those fans turn on him and begin to boo is he turns it into a five-round smothering contest? Unlikely but certainly possible with the amount of money they likely would have had to pay to see a fight.
5. Khabib Ring Rust?
I know, I know, it’s a long shot but it’s not impossible! We last saw Khabib fight over a year ago, at the start of September 2019. Khabib never really takes much damage and I am sure he has been training hard, especially after the death of his father and also after seeing the dominant display that Gaethje put on against Ferguson.
A year is still quite a long time to be inactive. We saw Conor return after over two years and although he looked fantastic, Cowboy was a way to ease back into the mix in my opinion. We saw many people’s GOAT: GSP have a successful return after a four-year lay-off and beat the middleweight champion, Michael Bisping. In another breath, you have Dominick Cruz returning after three and a half years to be outclassed by Henry Cejudo and Ronda Rousey’s 48-second loss to Amanda Nunes after a one-year lay-off. We also have Randy Conture’s one-and-a-half-year layoff as champion before his TKO loss to Brock Lesnar. Is it possible that Khabib will come into the fight behind the pace because of his reasonably large break? I would say it is unlikely but it is still something worth pondering.
I don’t remember the last time I was this excited for a fight. I know it’s easy for me to come out and say now but for the last few years I always saw Gaethje as the biggest threat to Khabib’s title reign, I just didn’t think we would be getting the fight this soon! My prediction for the fight is Gaethje by KO in round 2. No doubt it will be another fiver down the drain though…