Heading into his title defense at UFC 254 against Justin Gaethje, lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov seems virtually unbeatable.
With a 28-0 record, two consecutive title defenses, and victories over the likes of Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier and an ongoing list of others, “The Eagle” is well on his way to solidifying himself as one of the greatest fighters the UFC has ever seen.
As a result of all of that success, fans tend to believe it’s all academic when Nurmagomedov steps into the Octagon for any fight. They wrote off Poirier before the two fought in Abu Dhabi in 2019, and some didn’t even give McGregor a chance before the duo’s historic fight in October of 2018.
If it were that simple, however, fighters wouldn’t need to go through the process at all. The UFC wouldn’t need to book any fights, and Saturday nights would frequently feel empty for MMA fans around the world.
All it takes is one night, or even one round, to change the course of two fighters’ careers. In this case, all it takes is a single off-night for Nurmagomedov, or the performance of a lifetime for Gaethje, to change both of their legacies forever.
“The stakes are huge,” Gaethje told TMZ ahead of the fight. “This is life-changing for me. I go out there and get a dub? This is life-changing.”
While a win would bring Gaethje’s record to 23-2, make him an undisputed champion and turn him into a big-money player in the UFC, even fighting in the main event of a pay-per-view card is a large-enough goal for some fighters.
And, when you’re matched up against a champion like Nurmagomedov, it’s easy to get complacent with that spotlight, rather than believing in yourself enough to pull off the upset of the century.
In this case, Gaethje isn’t resting on his laurels, and has one thought in his mind heading into UFC 254: Win.
>>RELATED: Pick-Six: Top UFC cards of all time
“I’m gonna go out there and I’m gonna try and break his face. I promise you,” Gaethje told TMZ.
This isn’t anything new for Nurmagomedov’s recent opponents, with Poirier believing he’d be the one to end the champion’s streak before their fight, and McGregor showcasing his confidence during the war of words before (and after) the fight between the Irishman and the Russian.
But, neither fighter brings the same physicality to the table that Gaethje does, and can’t match the honesty that the current challenger provides, as well.
In that interview with TMZ before the fight, Gaethje admitted that Nurmagomedov is a tough opponent, both physically and mentally.
“Right now, this man is gonna be very hard to beat,” Gaethje told TMZ. “With the passing of his father—for people like us, that is a driving, motivating factor. He’s going to be 100 percent motivated, but I do believe … that I can beat him.”
No one outside of Nurmagomedov truly knows what’s running through his mind after his father’s passing. But, with this fight announced just a few weeks after the death, and the fight itself taking place less than four months after the fact, the mental piece of the equation could prove to be a pivotal part of the puzzle.
Add in the impact that his first pre-fight camp outside of San Jose may have, and it could lead to a different form of Nurmagomedov that fans aren’t quite used to. Either a more motivated champion at the top of his game, or a mentally-drained champion experiencing physical exhaustion from a strenuous camp.
“My training camp began in Dagestan,” Nurmagomedov told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto. “Like six weeks, I train very hard in Dagestan. Then, we move [to Dubai] and we stay here the last, almost 35 days. I feel like the last 80 days, I worked so hard. My training camp is going very good.”
If Gaethje’s comments to TMZ hold true, he’s preparing for the first option, and the best Nurmagomedov that he and UFC fans around the world have ever seen. But, if he’s ready to win against that Nurmagomedov, who knows what will happen if the other version shows up?
While many of the question marks surround Nurmagomedov heading into UFC 254, there are still plenty to ask about Gaethje heading into the biggest fight of his career.
Recklessness has been a common trait throughout many of Gaethje’s 24 fights in his career, with 18 of his last 19 fights ending in knockout. Two of those knockouts (one against Dustin Poirier, Nurmagomedov’s last opponent, and one against Eddie Alvarez) ended up in the loss column, while the multitude of others helped put “The Highlight” on the map in the UFC.
However, if you look at Gaethje’s last fight against Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight title, you wouldn’t look at the Arizona native as a “reckless” fighter. He showcased sharp and supreme striking and killer conditioning throughout the five-round bout, and looked to be at the top of his game in the process.
“I think his coach gave him great plan to beat Tony Ferguson,” Nurmagomedov said of Gaethje’s win during an interview with ESPN. “I think after the second round, his coach told him, ‘Hey, take off from your shot like 10 percent.”
Gaethje earned the interim lightweight title that night, but didn’t want to put on the belt during his post-fight interview. Instead, he remained laser-focused on the task at hand for whenever he was able to fight Nurmagomedov for the undisputed title.
“I respect his mindset because he doesn’t want to be the interim champ,” Nurmagomedov told ESPN. “He wants to be the real champ.”
It’s that intense focus that could turn him into a beast that Nurmagomedov can’t contain when the two step in the Octagon at UFC 254.
“One reason I’m here is because I never look ahead,” Gaethje told Yahoo! Sports ahead of the fight. “I would’ve never dreamed or thought that it would be here, only because I would never allow myself to have that thought. I think that would be detrimental to my game. My game is to be the best today. My life doesn’t exist after October 24 right now.”
The chances may be slim in some fans’ eyes, and even Gaethje is aware of the challenge at hand. But, if he can string together rounds like he did against Ferguson and show off that consistent relentless that he always has, it could be a perfect game plan for success.
Add in the question of whether or not 2020 has had the impact on Nurmagomedov that some expect the year has, and UFC 254 could turn into that “life-changing” night that Gaethje was talking about.
If that all happens, Justin Gaethje could turn into the “1” behind Khabib Nurmagomedov’s potential new record of 28-1.
“Honestly, it wouldn’t matter who I fought after Khabib,” Gaethje said. “This will cement my legacy, and that’s the only thing I’m here for.”