UFC Fight Island in Abu Dhabi plays host to the biggest fight of the year this weekend where the Lightweight strap is on the line as the 28-0 Khabib Nurmagomedov faces his toughest test to date against the dangerous Justin Gaethje. In the co-main Robert Whittaker and Jared Cannonier face off in what is a title eliminator bout. There is plenty of other quality fights but really the focal point is the main event. Below I dive deep into the Lightweight title bout and throw in a couple of other selections for something to follow before the main event.
The fight we have all waited for is here and it is sure to be a fantastic fight regardless of the outcome. Khabib Nurmagomedov has amassed an insane 28-0 record and is regarded as one of the greatest to walk in the Octagon. His opponent, Gaethje has come into his own over the past two years and his performance against Ferguson was the best performance of his career and one that should worry Khabib. There really isn’t too much to say about Khabib that hasn’t already been said. Khabib’s strategy is simple. He drives his opponents up against the cage and puts all of his weight on them before transitioning from body locks to single and double legs until he ultimately drags them down and gains control of their wrists. From here with all his weight on his opponent they struggle to get themselves free of his grasp and eat shot after shot while doing so. From here he either punds them into the canvas or works to secure a choke. This is usually accompanied by his brutal neck cranks, which while not a choke would cause most people to tap due to the pain.
Justin Gaethje does undoubtedly have the best takedown defense of any opponent Khabib has fought in the UFC and naturally stands with his hands low to strike which is a huge plus in being able to stop the takedown. However, I do think Khabib will take Gaethje down at some point but whether he can flatten him out or not is the question. It is hard to pick Khabib to lose when he has never lost and has won all but one round in his career. He has been rocked arguably twice in the UFC and he has never looked in real danger at any point in his UFC career.
Realistically Khabib may only need one takedown a round to win this fight as his top control is as good as I have ever seen and Gathje could be lost if he finds himself fighting off his back. Wrestlers do not often find themselves fighting off their back and therefore if Khabib can get Gaethje down and control him he can dominate this fight from there, but that is a big if.
Although Gaethje’s wrestling days are in the past, when he first burst onto the MMA scene he was solely a wrestler with next to no striking. He would close distance as fast as possible and pick up and throw his opponents to the ground. Since then he has joined Trevor Wittman who has done wonders for his career and has moulded Gaethje to a point where his striking is so polished it begs the question of who can beat him on the feet. The strides he has made over his UFC tenure are some of the greatest I have witnessed as he has turned from a brawler to one of the best technical strikers in the UFC. That is before we even look at his greatest asset and the X Factor of this fight which are his leg kicks.
He has mentioned on many podcasts and interviews that it will only take a few of his leg kicks to land to change this fight. Gaethje throws his leg kicks in an unorthodox fashion which makes them hard to check and react to. He also can throw them from weird angles and even in the clinch. While in theory the thought that five leg kicks could render Khabib’s takedowns mute is optimistic, until you have been on the receiving end of a low leg kick you cannot grasp the magnitude of the strike. Not only does it damage your movement laterally it also will affect your takedown drive. While I still believe Khabib is such a high quality wrestler that even with damaged legs he can take Gaethje down, I do agree that a leg kick attack is beneficial for the American and will allow him to better defend Khabib’s takedown drives.
So can Justin Gaethje keep this standing? While I do think Khabib’s striking has improved it almost gets over exaggerated. His striking is often on tiring, desperate opponents with their hands low in preparation of another takedown attempt. Every time Gaethje has been taken down he has exploded up to his feet almost instantaneously. He has spent an insanely low 17 seconds in bottom position across his UFC career.
Gaethje will need to keep his back off the fence, employ a leg kick heavy game and manage distance. If he can successfully do all three, he wins. When Justin Gaethje bounced back from defeats to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier by knocking out James Vick, I said to all that would listen this is the only man that can beat Khabib at Lightweight. I then talked myself out of picking Justin Gaethje against Tony Ferguson because it was hard to see Ferguson losing a fight and I was unsure if he would be able to go a hard five rounds. After seeing how that fight played out, I have to back Gaethje to get it done. Gaethje to get the win and stop Khabib in round 2 or 3. What a fight this will be.
Tuivasa has been incredibly disappointing of late, losing his last three fights. However, Struve has always been hittable and that still remains the case. Tai would have taken some improvement from his losses but realistically if he gets taken down, he will likely be finished then and there. I am banking on him landing a big shot on Struve’s chin before that can happen and put him to sleep.
Alvarez lost a wide decision in his UFC debut to Damir Ismagulov but since that loss has stopped both Danilo Belluardo and Joe Duffy inside two rounds. He has finished all 17 of his wins, 15 of which have come by submission. His opponent Yakolev is durable and a quality wrestler but he lands less than two significant strikes per minute and has poor submission defense and for someone who often chooses to take it to the ground that is a recipe for disaster. Therefore, it is perfectly set up for Alvarez to wrap up his neck and get another submission win.
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