Pick Khabib’s opponent for 30-0 fight at your peril – Gaethje has already ripped up one script, and is ready to do the same again
Justin Gaethje has already destroyed one subplot in the story of Khabib Nurmagomedov's career and he will relish the opportunity to rip up the script entirely when they meet in the octagon this weekend.
When this year began, the main narrative in the UFC's 155lbs fold was of a match-up between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson finally coming to fruition.
The 28-0 champ against a man on a seven-year, 12-fight winning streak. A fantasy fight which would finally – at the fifth time of asking – take place. Fans had their calendars marked for April 18 in Brooklyn.
Then came Covid. What happened next is well-known: the fight fell through and the world came crashing down in painful ways extending far beyond the octagon, not least for Khabib personally.
A Khabib-Ferguson showdown remains the fight that never was, a dream for MMA fans destined never to become a reality.
What was very real, though, was the destruction that Justin Gaethje dished out when he stepped in to replace Khabib and fight Ferguson in Las Vegas in May.
For the better part of five rounds, Gaethje dismantled Ferguson with a brutal, calculated display of striking which displayed a hitherto unseen level of what is often referred to as 'Fight IQ'.
It wasn't the wild, hell-for-leather approach we've become accustomed to from Gaethje; instead, he picked his shots and picked apart Ferguson methodically. Barring a knockdown at the end of the second round, it was complete dominance.
But it wasn't meant to be like that. While circumstances dicated that the Gaethje fight became a necessity, the overriding feeling was still that Ferguson would beat him and move on to finally face Khabib.
Gaethje wrecked that narrative, likely putting to bed the possibility of The Eagle and El Cucuy ever meeting in the octagon.
With Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier now eyeing an octagon date in January (at a weight yet to be determined), Ferguson suddenly seems a long way from the 155lbs title frame. Khabib himself has essentially said he thinks his long-touted rival is finished.
Gaethje's performance, of course, earned him a shot at Khabib in Abu Dhabi this weekend, and it's a match-up no less intriguing than a Khabib-Ferguson fight.
Gaethje is a concussive puncher but with a stellar college wrestling background which he has seemed almost reluctant to utilize in the cage. Indeed, of Gaethje's 22 professional MMA victories, just one has come by submission.
An incredible stat doing the rounds during fight week is that Gaethje has spent just 17 seconds in bottom position across all his seven contests in the UFC. Saying he likes to keep the fight on the feet is an understatement.
Contrast that with Khabib, whose ground domination is the stuff of legend. It's a fascinating fight and Gaethje has – with strong justification – been labelled Khabib's "most dangerous" opponent to date.
The added factor of the tragic passing of Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov also makes this a step into the unknown for Khabib, who himself has said "we'll see how it affects my performance."
Yet despite all of this – the clear and present danger from Gaethje, the clash of styles, the loss of someone so close to Khabib – it seems that as much talk as anything else during the build-up to UFC 254 has been about what happens next for Khabib, and what he does beyond Gaethje.
Is it a rematch with his Irish nemesis, should he beat Poirier at 155lbs, or is it a 'legacy' fight with Georges St-Pierre?
Khabib has been asked countless times about both, sometimes giving copy-paste answers with good grace, but sometimes – as ESPN's Stephen A. Smith found out when he asked about McGregor this week – simply refusing "to talk about this sh*t."
It's perhaps understandable that there is so much attention on 'the fight that comes after the fight' – after all, beat Gaethje and Khabib is one step closer to the fabled 30-0 mark of which his father often spoke. It also makes a GSP showdown – another dream of his father – even more of a tantalizing prospect. As for Conor McGregor, love him or hate him, he remains among the biggest draws in the combat sports world.
But the peril here is that people are getting ahead of themselves far too readily. There is a massive 'if' in the equation in the form of Justin Gaethje, a man who has already consigned a Khabib-Ferguson fight to the ash heap of MMA history.
Gaethje is capable of pulling off an even bigger shock by beating Khabib this weekend in Abu Dhabi. If he does so, we will again be asking 'what next for Khabib?' – but in a radically different sense.
By Liam Tyler