Khabib Nurmagomedov’s greatest threat: Justin Gaethje was right under our nose this whole time

Khabib Nurmagomedov, Justin Gaethje, UFC 254

Justin Gaethje didn’t need a shtick, funky fighting style or exalted name to beat the odds set by the black suits in Vegas at UFC 249. The blue collar slugger simply bit down on his mouthpiece and went to hell and back with a man that makes weight for fun.

An emptied arena that surely would have been rollicking stirred in silence as he stood in the blood-spattered cage the victor, after knocking off previous No. 1 contender Tony Ferguson. UFC lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov’s name had previously been tied to Ferguson, Conor McGregor and even MMA legend Georges St-Pierre.

Who would have ever thought it’d be in neon lights next to Justin Gaethje’s?

Not even the most diehard MMA fans could flex their muscles for predicting such an outcome. Few expected Gaethje to be the man to photobomb the UFC’s blockbuster dream fight. Even fewer believed he’d be able to do so in brutal and dominant fashion.

Ferguson hadn’t lost a fight in over eight years, and the Gaethje hype train was buried six-feet deep after back-to-back losses to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier. The MMA world spent the better part of the last two years enamored with Nurmagomedov fighting Ferguson or gifting a championship rematch to McGregor—all while Justin Gaethje worked in the shadows, piling up wins over Donald Cerrone, Edson Barboza and James Vick.

But no one looked in his direction because few actually believed he could change. He was labeled a punch-drunk fighter incapable of sticking with the sort of game plan necessary to crack into the lightweight elite.

Never mind the fact that both of his only losses were Fight of the Night performances. The book was out on Gaethje, who was supposedly more of a popcorn fighter than technician.

Boy, were they wrong.

Gaethje essentially went from a brawler to sweet scientist in an effort to outpoint one of the division’s most creative strikers.

Sure, the thunderous haymakers were still present and accounted for in the fight, but they were also more measured and limited in frequency. Gaethje didn’t blow the gas tank this time out. He put his foot on the pedal when the fight called for action, but he was also willing to let up a bit and keep things in cruise control long enough to ensure he had enough energy saved up for the championship rounds.

It was proof that the notion of a fighter only being as good as their last fight is half-baked mumbo-jumbo.

Gaethje might have allowed himself to get baited into a game of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots on far too many occasions, but he is also a world class athlete with the ability to change for the better—hence the oft-used “going back to the drawing board” phrase.

The MMA world judged him before giving him a legitimate opportunity to right his wrongs and improve as a fighter. He got even by shattering fan perception of the lightweight hierarchy, entirely. The greatest threat for Nurmagomedov isn’t Ferguson, McGregor or any of the other growing list of 155-pound contenders on the UFC roster.

It has always been Gaethje.

An All-American former NCAA Division I wrestler with the striking technique to accompany the dynamite he carries in both fists—the reigning interim champ was made to give Nurmagomedov problems.

Stuffing every takedown attempt from the Russian mauler might be impossible, but Justin Gaethje has the technical ability to make him work in ways we haven’t seen in the UFC. Even the biggest naysayers would like the upset odds more if the fight stays standing. It’s the only way to keep from drowning underneath Nurmagomedov’s ferocious onslaught of ground-and-pound.

Of course, this is all assuming Gaethje doesn’t get goaded into a money fight with McGregor. The former champ-champ has kept his Twitter fingers busy in an effort to commandeer the spotlight. Granted, he’s the biggest show in town from strictly a pay-per-view numbers perspective, but Nurmagomedov (28-0) is still the undisputed king of the promotions lightweight division.

Gaethje’s previous calls for a fight with McGregor went unheard as he worked his way up the rankings, but now, he’s in a position where he holds all the cards. He could oblige the trash talk and take the big-money fight or wait for an opportunity to test himself against arguably the greatest lightweight in MMA history.

Perhaps the best answer lies in the fact that an upset win over Nurmagomedov would put him in a position to potentially do both.

Ferguson spent over six years putting together a 12-fight win streak just to watch it go up in flames in a bout that was never supposed to happen in the first place. Gaethje was the ultimate opportunist in angling to step in line once the fight between Nurmagomedov and Ferguson was scrapped. It’s a bit ironic that he now finds himself in a similar situation.

There is no clear timetable for a return for Nurmagomedov, who is reportedly dealing with a Coronavirus-related tragedy. Fighting is probably the last thing on his mind at the moment, and rightfully so.

Cue the rambunctious Irishman looking to expedite his way back to the forefront of the lightweight title picture. The only difference this time is Gaethje being the man sitting in the driver’s seat. Will he ease off the gas and wait for Nurmagomedov or put the pedal to the metal in a full-on sprint towards McGregor?

It’s like the Ferguson fight all over again.