Justin Gaethje has been talked up as the man who could finally hand Khabib Nurmagmoedov his first defeat ever since he dispatched Tony Ferguson.
The bookmakers still have the Russian as a strong 3/10 favourite for Saturday night’s UFC 254 main event but the prevailing wisdom among fans is that this will be a huge test for the champion.
In the world of MMA it can be misleading to look for the answers in stats. One punch can end a fight at any time and a tiny mistake can be a fighter’s undoing.
Justin Gaethje is a stylistic nightmare for Khabib Nurmagomedov with his defensive wrestling
Khabib’s aggressive wrestling has been too much for many of his opponents to deal with
But there is evidence to suggest Gaethje will indeed have strengths in all the right areas to stifle Khabib’s predictable but incredibly effective approach.
Mike Tyson’s famous quote: ‘Everybody has a game plan until they get hit in the mouth’, very much applies here.
Granted, usually with Khabib it isn’t a punch, but his takedown onslaughts have proved almost impossible for most fighters to stop, whatever their strategy is.
But Gaethje has some serious pedigree as a wrestler. He was an All-American in college, meaning he was in the top eight of a national championship competition in his weight class.
And the ‘Highlight’ was given his nickname not for incredible knockouts, but the way he threw opponents around the cage when he first started MMA.
Gaethje even separated an opponent from consciousness by slamming him into the mat.
Fights – 28
Wins – 28
Losses – 0
Wins by KO – 8
Wins by submission – 10
Wins by decision – 10
JUSTIN GAETHJE RECORD:
Fights – 24
Wins – 22
Losses – 2
Wins by KO – 19
Wins by submission – 1
Wins by decision – 2
The Russian’s top game is punishing and Dustin Poirier was on the receiving end last year
Gaethje is adept at staying on his feet and has only been taken down twice in the UFC
But it is his defensive wrestling skills that give him a foundation to do what he loves, brutalise his opponents with a ferocious pace and multiple leg kicks.
Where most fighters have to worry about the takedown attempt in judging distance, Gaethje has such comfort in his defensive grappling that it frees him up to strike as he pleases.
Since his UFC debut in 2017, seven fights ago, the American has spent only 17 seconds on his back, according to Bloodyelbow, who complied a number of analytics for Saturday’s main event.
In 10 takedown attempts, only two were successful and it took him almost no time at all to pop back to his feet again but Khabib hits one of every two takedown attempts.
Eddie Alvarez successfully brought Gaethje down from the clinch position and this is Khabib’s strength.
Gaethje possesses brutal leg kicks and can destabilise opponents from the base
On average he goes for this kind of takedown 165 per cent more than other lightweights and his success rate is up at 60 per cent (specifically in clinch), 16 per cent higher than average.
So what happens when Khabib drags opponents into his world on the mat, forcing them to fight off their back?
Khabib’s top game is his real strength, remaining in control 99 per cent of the time and averaging two minutes 19 seconds of each round in this position, an exhausting prospect for any opponent trying to fend him off.
The Russian will try to soften his opponent up with punishing ground and pound.
There is a huge difference between the number of power strikes Khabib can land from on top compared to the average fighter in his division.
He finds a home for his heavy strikes 25.8 times every five minutes compared to 14.2 on average.
The Dagestani could struggle if Gaethje manages to prevent him taking him down
You may think that Khabib would be significantly better than other lightweights at keeping his opponents down but in fact he is only 13 per cent more successful.
This means that if Gaethje manages to pop up to his feet with relative ease or regularity, the tide may well turn in his favour. The stats back this up too.
The American lands power shots at a 60 per cent success rate compared to Khabib’s 36 per cent. For every 10 leg kicks he throws, 8.5 of them land. This can be completely debilitating for opponents and may make Khabib’s takedown offence less effective.
In contrast, Khabib barely kicks at all, attempting them just 4 per cent of the time.
It is not often we’ve seen Khabib stand and trade but there will be chances for him to connect with Gaethje, who absorbs 3.3 punches to the head for every 10 attempted.
We saw in the McGregor fight that Khabib has the capacity to knock down an elite striker so could have the chance to showcase his stand-up skills on Saturday night.
Gaethje is a dangerous man to stand and trade with so the gameplan is simple for Khabib
Khabib’s head coach Javier Mendez insists that his striking is far better than people give him credit for and it is an aspect of his game he works hard on at American Kickboxing Acadmey.
But the champion will surely be keen to get the fight to ground as frequently as possible and as soon as he can.
If he takes too much punishment to the legs, the task will become hugely difficult to take down one of the division’s best defensive wrestlers.
Dana White revealed earlier this week that the card is trending to become the biggest pay-per-view event of all time for the UFC.
Given the hype and fascinating technical match-up between both champion and challenger, that is no surprise.