Thus far in his MMA career, Khabib Nurmagomedov has been a problem without a solution. The Dagestani Sambo champion turned mixed martial artist currently sits at 28-0 heading into his 3rd title defense, this coming October 24th in Abu Dhabi.
The man across the cage from him will be team Elevation’s Justin Gaethje. The former WSOF title holder has had a rougher run of things in the UFC – having dropped back-to-back KO losses to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier – but has righted the ship since then, to the tune of four straight victories—and an interim lightweight title in the process.
While no man has yet bested the ‘Eagle’ inside the cage, some fans and pundits have theorized that Gaethje’s combination of power strikes to all levels, fearless aggression, and collegiate wrestling background could make him Khabib’s biggest stylistic challenge to date. But, if that school of thought has any purchase in MMA’s collective imagination, at least one former lightweight champion doesn’t appear to be buying it.
Eddie Alvarez was one of the two men to knock out Gaethje during his UFC career, picking up the KO with a perfectly placed knee late in the third round of their UFC 218 battle. And as he recently told MMA Junkie Radio, as far as he can see, the ‘Highlight’ just doesn’t have the style to keep Khabib at bay.
“The style matchup I think—whenever I look at a big fight like that, the first thing I ask myself is kind of where I feel like the fight is going to take place,” Alvarez said of Gaethje’s upcoming bout with Nurmagomedov. “The majority of the fight, where is it going to happen? And I just see Khabib taking him down. We’ve got to assume it’s going to be on the ground. And I just don’t feel like Justin has the experience jiu-jitsu-wise to be able to deal with what Khabib is going to be able to bring on the ground.”
“I think it takes some time, like a lot of strategy, to fight a guy like Khabib. And I think Justin’s style is tailor made for Khabib,” Alvarez added. “Justin is a come-forward fighter, and I think against a guy like Khabib, you need to be really lateral. You need to move a lot so he can’t get square and then get his shots in on you and Justin’s kinda there. He’s right in front of you and even his mind coming into the fight when I hear the media, ‘I’ve just got to create a car accident,’ I don’t know if that’s the right mindset against Khabib.”
That ‘car accident’ quote came back in August from a guest appearance by Gaethje on Michael Bisping’s Believe You Me podcast, where Gaethje told the former middleweight champion that there would be a zone in front of him during the fight, “a zone of death.”
“I know he wants to hurt him, and you want to do that,” Alvarez explained. “But it should be more of a ‘tag, you’re it,’ game against Khabib. And making sure you’re keeping lateral, and then ‘tags, you’re it,’ one-twos down the middle, and then move again. And that’s how I would like the first round or two played against a guy like Khabib, in order to stop that takedown and stop that dominant grappling he has.”
Many fighters have tried to keep from standing in front of Nurmagomedov, only to find themselves getting chased further and further toward the cage, and eventually taken down anyway. Will attempting to stand in and meet the champion in open space work better? Or will Gaethje find himself stuck in a pair of Dagestani handcuffs, just like everyone else before him? We’ll find the answer in just a few weeks, in the main event of UFC 254.
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