UFC 254 Preview: Why Is Justin Gaethje the One To Spoil Khabib’s Perfect Record?

UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gaethje PPV on ESPN+


To date, 28 men have tried and all 28 have failed. So, why is UFC interim lightweight champion Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje so special that he realistically has a shot at becoming the first fighter to beat Khabib Nurmagomedov?

This Saturday, October 24 (11 a.m. PST / 2 p.m. EST), at UFC 254, Gaethje will attempt to become the first person to defeat Khabib in a professional mixed martial arts fight. The UFC 254 PPV main event on ESPN+ is widely considered to be the biggest and most important fight of 2020, and Gaethje is prepared to play spoiler.

But realistically, what are his chances?

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Three years ago, if anyone would have suggested that Gaethje would be the one to knock Khabib from the ranks of the unbeaten, they likely would’ve been laughed out the room. Back then, Gaethje was just suffering his first professional loss, a brutal knee knockout against Eddie Alvarez at UFC 218. Roughly four months later, he would suffer a second KO loss, this time against Dustin Poirier. The back-to-back losses had Gaethje headed for the “also ran” category of hopefuls who never quite made it over the hump.

A few years later, pundits are legitimately imagining how Gaethje might finish Khabib in the UFC 254 PPV main event on ESPN+. It’s all because of his career resurgence.

Following the loss to Poirier, Gaethje went back to the drawing board to fix up some defensive holes in his MMA game. Working with longtime coach Trevor Wittman, Gaethje refined his game, although it would be more than a year before anyone could see a noticeable difference in his style because he rattled off a trio of first round knockouts and no opponents were able to penetrate his guard.


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Absolutely buzz sawing through James Vick in less than 90 seconds, completely flattening the taller fighter with a single punch, Gaethje needed just two-and-a-half minutes to knock Edson Barboza out in March 2019. Six months later, Gaethje finished Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone out in less than a round, and it appeared that he was the same old “Highlight,” all offense and no defensive sensibility.

That all changed this May at UFC 249 against Tony Ferguson, when Gaethje fully displayed how far he has come since suffering those back-to-back knockout losses, the only two losses of his career.

See, unlike Vick, Barboza, and Cerrone, Ferguson pushed Gaethje to the next level. Where those other opponents could not command any respect from Gaethje, Ferguson was able to do as such. But in the pocket, Gaethje showed his poise and defense.

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Gaethje has actually said on many occasions that the hardest punches to take are from a forward pressing, hard charging opponent. It’s a big reason why he always moves forward, like a battering ram, bringing maximum momentum into every strike.

Lesser foes like Vick, Barboza, and Cerrone could not stop Gaethje in his tracks, essentially allowing “The Highlight” to play his game. Ferguson changed that, forcing Gaethje to bite down and trade in close range. Even as the challenge rose, Gaethje found a way to assert his dominance and impose his will through crisp and heavy handed boxing.

He also managed to calmly avoid taking any major damage, which was a far cry from his former iteration, when he boldly predicted that he would eventually get knocked out one day.

This whole backstory has plenty of merit, I promise, but it’s not merely that Gaethje has become a defensively responsible striker. In fact, he likely won’t even box too much against Khabib in the UFC 254 main event. The key here is evolution.

Basically every time Justin Gaethje has needed to make adjustments, change his style, and evolve, he’s found a way to do so. He’s adapted his game to meet most every challenge, and when you’re facing the greatest lightweight in UFC history, a certain level of introspection and self-awareness is absolutely crucial.

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There’s also another factor here: the intangibles.

Gaethje has been in quite a few wars during his nine year professional MMA career. He’s bled his own blood and made others bleed even more. Finishing 19 of his 22 wins via knockout, Gaethje has mixed punches with elbows, thrashing leg kicks, and knees. He’s even forced the cageside doctors to step in and intervene on a number of occasions when opponents were too stubborn to quit, yet thoroughly battered.

Gaethje is able to turn it up to eleven when it matters most, while most humans only know how to live with the dial maxed out at seven or eight, and that makes him truly special, and completely unpredictable.

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Sure, he’s currently sitting as a +275 underdog in this fight. Khabib is the 28-0 UFC lightweight champion after all. But, Gaethje has all the weapons and tools to land a fight changing shot on Nurmagomedov, and that can never be counted out.

Calling himself crazier than Khabib, Gaethje vows to mix it up with the champ and draw blood. That’s absolute crazy talk coming from a crazy man, and yet, it’s not impossible to think that a bit of plasma very well may change the complexion of the UFC 254 PPV main event on ESPN+.

If there will be blood is anyone’s guess; however, if Justin Gaethje is looking for blood, that is a terrifying proposition, and a major reason why “The Highlight” is a live dog at UFC 254 and has a legitimate shot at dethroning Khabib, the UFC’s most dominant champion.

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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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