Opinion | Justin Gaethje could be the foil to Khabib Nurmagomedov’s reign of dominance

Justin Gaethje
Image: @UFC on Instagram

There is nothing flashy about Justin Gaethje’s style of fighting—no fancy footwork or slick striking techniques. The former World Series of Fighting lightweight champion is more of a bite down on a mouthpiece, march forward relentlessly and shove his fists in your face kind of fighter. Couple that with a criminally underrated ground game, and you have the recipe for big problems for reigning UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.

During an appearance on The MMA Hour, Gaethje implied that he would be the “toughest out” for Nurmagomedov out of all the other title contenders, including Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier and Tony Ferguson.

“I think my wrestling credentials alone would benefit me so much in that fight, my ability to stop the takedown,” Gaethje said. “…You can’t fail or prosper without going out there and taking that chance, so I’ve gotta put myself in a position, and I think as opposed to anybody else at the top of this division, I would be the toughest out for [Nurmagomedov]. No doubt.”

The social media warriors swarmed immediately following the show to ridicule and poke fun at Gaethje’s comments considering he already has back-to-back losses on his resume to Poirier and former UFC champ Eddie Alvarez. It’s a common stance taken by those dwelling in the useless world of MMA math.

There is a keen awareness of the relative insignificance of the Fighter A plus Fighter B equaling Fighter C argument amongst hardcore fight fans. That ancient, overused mantra that styles make fights stands true to this very day.

Gaethje can’t offer Nurmagomedov the champion vs. champion fight like Poirier, the blockbuster show like McGregor or the payoff of a long-awaited grudge match like Ferguson. What he can offer, however, is a reminder that names are irrelevant when the four ounce gloves are on and the cage door closes. Let the people talk and the fighters fight.

And boy, would a fight between Justin Gaethje and Khabib Nurmagomedov be splendidly violent.

Nurmagomedov doesn’t just beat opponents. He drowns them. It has become all too common seeing world class fighters gasping for air with an incomprehensible look of exhaustion plastered on their faces—all while Nurmagomedov is postured on top of them, raining down punches, elbows and a few insults in between. As the fight against McGregor proved, there is no surviving a run-in with the lightweight king without a strong wrestling game.

Despite McGregor’s obvious improvements in his takedown defense, his failure to control the head when attempting to sprawl out of danger is indicative of the steep learning curve that comes with preparing for such a relentless grappler. It’s a subtle, yet integral technique, that a former NCAA Division I All-American wrestler like Gaethje wouldn’t miss.

The mere fact that Gaethje has such a strong wrestling background might come as a shock to those that have grown accustomed to his aggressive, caveman fighting style. Yet, that style only works because he can constantly walk forward without the fear of being taken down. If Nurmagomedov was unable to consistently secure takedowns against Gaethje, it would change the dynamic of the entire fight by putting the champ in a slugfest with the division’s power-hitting zombie.

Nurmagomedov packs one hell of a punch as well, and any misstep on the feet could quickly lead to a comatose slumber. However, his striking isn’t as refined as Poirier and Alvarez. A fighter like Gaethje would rather take his chances trading hooks and overhands than getting caught up in a dangerous web of sambo techniques.

On the feet, mano e mano, Justin Gaethje would have a real shot at being the first man to defeat Nurmagomedov.

He has the chin to withstand a hefty amount of punishment, and he’d be able to push forward and get off his offense without being completely forced into a defensive shell. Rarely have we ever seen Nurmagomedov have to fight off his heels, but Gaethje could be the one opponent capable of giving us those moments.

For all of the remaining skeptics, look no further than the myriad of upsets in the last four months alone: Henry Cejudo beating T.J. Dillashaw by TKO; Poirier out-pointing Max Holloway and Kamaru Usman controlling Tyron Woodley on the ground for 25 minutes for a lopsided decision. Each of those bouts fell in the impossible category before reality told a completely different story.

Any fighter aiming to knock Nurmagomedov (27-0) off the mountaintop might have as little as a puncher’s chance of pulling it off, but those are real enough odds for Gaethje, who commonly uses his fists to rewrite the narrative.

For the right fighter under the right circumstances, sometimes a puncher’s chance is all that’s needed.

This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 4/23/2019.