Inside the UFC 254 Main Event: Paths to Victory for Khabib and Gaethje

UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gaethje PPV on ESPN+


News flash: Huge UFC fight on Saturday.

Familiar names, but different start time, as UFC 254 goes live from Fight Island in Abu Dhabi for an early morning start with the PPV main card starting at 11 a.m. Pacific time and 2 p.m. on the east coast.

It’s a big, big pay per view, with lightweight champion Khabib “The Eagle” Nurmagomedov going for his third title defense against interim champion Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje. Early projections from UFC president Dana White have this fight trending to do higher numbers than even the mega selling UFC 229: Khabib vs. Conor McGregor card. Not sure if that’s true, but the point remains, this is a massive fight that MMA fans won’t want to miss.

With the UFC 254 PPV on ESPN+ just a few days away, it’s time to break down the main event between Khabib and Gaethje because even though Nurmagomedov is a -335 favorite, both fighters have keys to victory. Seriously, this fight is much closer than the odds suggest.

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Wrestling Beats Everything, Even Bears

Examining all the different facets of mixed martial arts, it’s well understood that a strong wrestling base can neutralize basically every other discipline of MMA. It’s tough to knock a guy out when you’re flat on your back (although it has been done before).

Wrestling, especially in a five-round championship fight, allows the aggressor to maintain top position and control. And, while there are a few fighters out there with exceptional Brazilian Jiu Jitsu games, able to submit opponents while on their backs, it’s generally understood that wrestling beats just about everything else.

In no way is this more true than when reviewing the style of Khabib Nurmagomedov, whose wrestling is so dominant that he’s only lost one round in his entire 28-fight MMA career. Khabib’s wrestling is a bit different from American folkstyle wrestling and Greco-Roman wrestling. He comes from a combat Sambo background and has different setups for his takedowns.

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From kneetaps, to chain wrestling against the Octagon fence, to takedowns in open space, Khabib has put every single opponent he’s faced on their back, and from there it’s just a question of if he’ll finish the fight, or punish the opposition with brutal ground strikes.

For those who have only been watching Khabib during his title reign, they’ve seen more facets of his game, as he’s become more and more comfortable on the feet. Against Al Iaquinta at UFC 223, when he first won the title, Khabib went entire rounds without even attempting a takedown. Then, against McGregor, Khabib landed a knockdown overhand right. Those moments are the rare exceptions from a fighter who has built his legacy on wrestling, and against Gaethje, Khabib has made no mistake that he plans on sticking to his roots to bring the fight to the ground.

Speaking with ESPN’s First Take, Khabib laid out his entire game plan for the UFC 254 PPV main event, stating “I feel I’m going to make him tired and I’m going to finish this guy … my goal on this fight, make him tired and choke him out.” It’s a very similar gameplan to his last two title defenses against McGregor and Dustin Poirier, both of which ended via fourth-round submission.

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Really tough to doubt Khabib calling his shot when he’s done it numerous times before.

A Wild, Unorthodox, and Violent Approach

Justin Gaethje may not be the most well known fighter amongst casual MMA fans and the general public, but he definitely made major inroads at UFC 249, when he beat Tony Ferguson via fifth-round TKO to claim the UFC interim lightweight title.

A former champion at the World Series of Fighting, Gaethje joined the UFC in 2017 and instantly made a name for himself with his kill-or-be-killed aesthetic. His violent striking approach and unorthodox style have made him an instant fan favorite, win or lose.

See, no one leaves a Justin Gaethje fight unscathed. Least of all, Gaethje.

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Looking at all of his UFC fights, every single bout has ended via knockout, but paying close attention to his last four, it’s important to recognize the evolution of Gaethje’s game heading into the UFC 254 PPV on ESPN+.

A winner of four-straight bouts by KO/TKO, Gaethje has refined his forward pressing, gladiator style. Known for taking too much damage early in his career, Gaethje has made major adjustments in his striking game, implementing increased defensive responsibility, while mixing up traditional, heavy handed boxing with tibia and fibula shattering leg kicks.

The leg kicks, in particular, have been cited by many MMA analysts trying to highlight Gaethje’s advantages over Khabib. By landing those vicious kicks, Gaethje very well could slow Khabib down and take his legs out. Then again, the momentum of kicking would make Gaethje more susceptible to the takedown, so it’s unclear if he’ll even try to use that particular weapon.

What is clear, is that Gaethje intends to “ruin Dana White’s day,” by beating the undefeated Khabib.

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Considering his hands have looked exceptional of late, it would make sense for Gaethje to focus on his boxing. With 19 of his 22 wins as an MMA pro coming via knockout, Gaethje has tremendous power, which makes it that much more dangerous for Khabib to enter for takedowns. And, while Gaethje has never attempted a single takedown of his own inside the Octagon, he is an accomplished wrestler with a perfect style of defensive wrestling for mixed martial arts.

A Stylistic Summation

In the end, what we have here is a fascinating stylistic matchup between the most dominant wrestler MMA has ever seen and a total wildman with insane knockout power.

In one respect, it’s easy to envision Khabib landing takedowns, implementing the ground and pound and dragging Gaethje into deep waters before forcing the submission. From another vantage point, it’s plausible that Gaethje lands a big punch while Khabib is looking for a takedown, completely altering the trajectory of the fight.

There’s only one way to find out though, and that’s to tune in for the UFC 254 PPV main card on ESPN+, which kicks off at 11 a.m. PST / 2 p.m. EST.

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UFC 254 Pay Per View Main Card (on ESPN+ PPV) 11 a.m. PST / 2 p.m. EST

  • Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje — world lightweight title fight
  • Robert Whittaker vs. Jared Cannonier
  • Alexander Volkov vs. Walt Harris
  • Phil Hawes vs. Jacob Malkoun
  • Lauren Murphy vs. Liliya Shakirova
  • Magomed Ankaleev vs. Ion Cutelaba

UFC 254 Prelims (on ESPN+ & ESPN) 9 a.m. PST / 12 p.m. EST

  • Stefan Struve vs. Tai Tuivasa
  • Alex Oliveira vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov
  • Da Un Jung vs. Sam Alvey

UFC 254 Early Prelims (on ESPN+ & ESPN) 7:30 a.m. PST / 10:30 a.m. EST

  • Casey Kenney vs. Nathaniel Wood
  • Liana Jojua vs. Miranda Maverick
  • Joel Alvarez vs. Alexander Yakovlev

*Fight card subject to change

Dan Shapiro is a writer, editor, musician, and producer currently based in Los Angeles. In addition to covering some of the biggest fights in combat sports history, he’s also hunted down the world’s best sushi, skied the northern hemisphere in July, and chronicled Chinese underground music for publications like CNN, the New York Daily News, VICE, and Time Out. Dan also conjured up a ghost at the Chateau Marmont while out on assignment for RoadTrippers. Follow him on Twitter here.

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