UFC 254: Khabib Nurmagomedov plans on 'finishing' Justin Gaethje in third round, awaits 'something special'
Unbeaten Khabib Nurmagomedov puts his lightweight title on the line against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 to be held at Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.
Khabib Nurmagomedov, the UFC lightweight champion, returns to the octagon at Yas Island in Abu Dhabi two and a half months since his father passed away due to COVID-19. The emotions, understandably, are still raw for the 'The Eagle.' When asked if it is a challenge to come into the fight against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 on 24 October, he snapped. “Of course this is difficult, I don’t understand why you guys keep asking me this. This is very difficult,” he said on virtual media day. He went on to ask the reporter about his father before adding, "I'm human too and this is a very difficult time for me."
The match-up between two champions, one reigning and the other an interim, is arguably the biggest of the lightweight title fights in recent years. It most definitely is the biggest fight of the year. In one corner is an unbeaten Nurmagomedov (28-0 MMA, 12-0 UFC) and the other is Gaethje who earned the right to vie for the title with his win over Tony Ferguson at UFC 249.
Gaethje (22-2 MMA, 5-2 UFC) is the underdog coming into it and he acknowledges the importance of the fight for him. “It’s the biggest fight of my life – absolutely. There’s no doubt about it,” Gaethje said in the conference call with media members.
“I’m not going to let outside influences influence the way I need to think or act or prepare. It’s really just staying true to my belief, which is, 'be better than yesterday, (and) make better choices than yesterday.' I’ve been doing that for eight weeks, and I’ve got three and a half more. I’ll be ready as I possibly can be.”
Gaethje, whose 20 wins out of 22 in MMA have been knockouts, needs a strategy if he is to become the undisputed champion by beating someone who has only ever lost one round. "My confidence is probably my biggest factor right now, paired with the power that I possess, paired with the coach that I have. That’s a dangerous combination,” Gaethje said. “I don’t care if I win or lose, at the end of the day, as long as I make my family happy, as long as I’m proud of my performance, then it doesn’t matter. That’s what makes me most dangerous. I don’t know if he’s ever fought someone like that – he probably has."
“And another factor is a lot of hard work, a lot of skill and a little bit of luck in this game. Anybody can go to sleep. He’s a fool if he doesn’t think he can go to sleep.”
Nurmagomedov has faced 28 men in the octagon, most recently Dustin Poirier in September 2019, and Gaethje, a former NCAA Division I All-American wrestler, is next. “I’m going to try wrestling with him. If he’s going to defend my takedown one time, I’m going to try second, third, going to try 100 times and of course, I’m going to box with him, gonna kick with him, you know,” said the Dagestani champion on his strategy.
He's confident of finishing the contest in the third round, fourth at most. “It’s going to be kickboxing and wrestling like mix. My goal is to make him tired. I’m going to make him tired, this is my goal. Maybe round number three, round number four the plan is to finish him.”
Despite giving Gaethje due credit for motivating him to train harder for the next fight and being lethal against Ferguson, Nurmagomedov is looking ahead to the next bout already. "I don’t know. You know, for example, I’m going to finish Justin Gaethje inside the cage but what else? This is a very good question. We’ll see. You know, I love the competition. I love competing with the best fighters in the world. That’s why I’m here. I’m not in the UFC to make money. I have a lot of business projects outside the UFC. I can make money. It’s a good question – very good question.”
Khabib has already disclosed that UFC President Dana White has something "special" lined up for him next. "Dana told me, after this fight, he has something special for me. I told him, ‘Please keep this (to yourself). After the fight, we’re going to talk.’ They said, ‘We have very big things after this fight for you.’ We’ll see."
And it may well not be Conor McGregor or Poirier. "I really become excited when I think about Georges St-Pierre," Nurmagomedov said on ESPN's First Take. "I don't know if he wants to fight with me or not, can he make weight - 155 (pounds) or not - but this fight makes me excited, honestly."
"And I think me versus Georges is going to be a very, very big fight. Like a big fight for fans, big fight for pay-per-view, big fight for analytics, for everybody. This is the only fight in UFC, after Gaethje, that makes me very excited." The speculation has been rife that Khabib's next opponent would be the winner of McGregor and Poirier (scheduled for 23 January).
"If I think about both, Dustin and Conor, they don't give me good energy, they don't give me motivation. Fight for what? For my legacy? I already put these guys on my list. I already beat them. Everything is finished with these guys."
St-Pierre, who held a 26-2-0 record and is considered one of the greatest fighters in MMA history, has contemplated coming out of retirement, but only to face Nurmagomedov.
"If I come back, it would be for one fight," St-Pierre told ESPN. "And I need to take, for me, the biggest fish. And the one -- for me, I believe -- the top guy right now, the name is Khabib.
"As a fighter, the most exciting thing is to take the guy who seems invincible, unbeatable. He has the aura of invincibility. But it's also the scariest thing to do."
For Gaethje, there is already luck involved in getting here. Initially, Khabib was slated to face Ferguson at UFC 249 but the coronavirus pandemic forced a change of plans and brought Justin into the picture. He beat Ferguson and is within touching distance of holding the title belt.
"Justin's a warrior but my fighting IQ is greater than his. He has a coach (Trevor Wittman) who gives him good advice, and that was evident during his fight against Tony," Khabib said.
With game plans out in the open by both and bold lookahead from Khabib, it will be interesting to see if Gaethje can finally end the streak.
Watch UFC 254 featuring a Lightweight Title Bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje, LIVE and Exclusive on SONY TEN 2 and SONY TEN 3 (Hindi) channels on 24 October, from 11.30 pm (IST)
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