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UFC 254 Main Event: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje Preview, Odds, and Prediction

We can expect a war on Saturday. The lightweight title is on the line as Khabib Nurmagomedov is set to defend his belt against Justin Gaethje. Let's see how they match up...

Main Event

Lightweight Championship (155): Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0-0) vs Justin Gaethje (22-2-0)

The 'Eagle' is back. The undefeated Russian, Khabib, hasn't fought since September 2019 when he beat Dustin Poirier in the 3rd round with a rear-naked choke. That was Khabib's 3rd straight title fight victory as he had previous wins over Conor McGregor and Al Iaquinta. Khabib was set to face Tony Ferguson earlier this year, but the flight got canceled due to COVID and this fight still remains the most cursed fight in UFC history. However, in the midst of a pandemic and waiting for another opponent, his father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, passed away in July 2020 after being placed in a medically-induced coma after getting COVID following heart surgery. Now, we're left with a question, how will Khabib fare without his father by his side and in his training camp? Unfortunately for Gaethje, I think we're going to see the most motivated Khabib ever as he claims he will take Gaethje to the 'deepest part of the ocean and drown him.' All of Khabib's opponents know what he wants to do in the fight, but they can never stop it. He's an 'International Master of Sport,' which is the highest level of athletics in Russia in the art of Judo and Sambo. According to the UFC stats, Khabib is averaging an extremely high rate of 5.09 takedowns per 15 minutes. His chain wrestling ability is unmatched with constant pressure while incorporating judo trips and throws to get his opponents to the ground. But, he isn't a 'lay and prays' fighter because he always goes for the finish with either submissions or ground and pound (vid below). Khabib's game plan for this fight is to make Gaethje tired and choke him out, but this will be his hardest test to date.

On the other side of the octagon, we have Gaethje. Unlike Khabib's previous opponents, Gaethje competed at the University of Northern Colorado as an All-American NCAA Division 1 wrestler. Many people believe Gaethje's wrestling background and skillset is the complete package to beat Khabib. However, despite his outstanding wrestling credentials, Gaethje has made a name for himself in MMA as a devastating KO artist. He is riding a 4 fight winning streak that has all ended in KO/TKO wins. His last fight was in May 2020 where he defeated Tony Ferguson for the interim UFC Lightweight Championship and solidified his shot at the 'real' title. Before that, Gaethje scored convincing KO/TKO wins over Donald Cerrone, Edson Barboza, and James Vick. According to the UFC stats, Gaethje has an astonishing KO/TKO rate of 86% in the victories for his career (you can see some of his finishes in the vid below). In recent fights, he's made major changes to his fighting style to an approach that is much more methodical with his striking. Gaethje possesses scary KO power in his hands and has nasty leg kicks that are effective in slowing his opponents down over the course of the fight. But, he has to be cautious with leg kicks in this fight because Khabib will be able to time them and score takedowns much easier. To win against Khabib, Gaethje will need to keep this fight in the center of the octagon and try to defeat him with strikes and an eventual KO blow.

The true winner in this fight will be the fans. Both Khabib and Gaethje are warriors in the octagon and seem to be unbreakable when faced with adversity. However, we need to pick a winner, and it's nearly impossible to bet against Khabib as he has proven time and time again that he's the most dominant fighter in the UFC. Gaethje's wrestling background is predominantly freestyle wrestling, which is not as effective in MMA as Khabib's Sambo and Judo background. Simply put, If Gaethje can't keep this fight off the fence, he has no shot of winning. Unless Gaethje can catch him early with a KO blow, I believe Khabib will eventually tire Gaethje out with his chain wrestling and submit him in the championship rounds. Let's go with Khabib to finish this fight by submission and move to 29-0 in his career.

Prediction: Nurmagomedov (-325)

Bulldogs Risky Pick: Nurmagomedov by Submission (+150)


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