The UFC's lightweight title will be unified on Oct. 24, Dana White announced on Tuesday, and compelling storylines surrounding Khabib Nurmagomedov defending his belt against interim champ Justin Gaethje serve as a backdrop for what is likely to be one of the biggest fights in UFC history.
The most poignant question mark surrounds Nurmagomedov, who lost his father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, on July 3 to complications brought on by the coronavirus after he underwent heart surgery. Their relationship was extremely close, and Abdulmanap was also Khabib's coach.
Nurmagomedov hasn't fought since beating Dustin Poirier in Abu Dhabi on Sept. 7, 2019. How will the layoff affect one of the greatest fighters in MMA history? There's talk he might want to fight just twice more, and White said he's open to the possibility of Nurmagomedov finishing off his career vs. Georges St-Pierre.
Gaethje (22-2, 5-2 UFC) was a Division I All-American wrestler who's also one of the most dynamic strikers in MMA. Will this be the right combination to hand Nurmagomedov (28-0, 12-0 UFC) his first loss? Gaethje battered Tony Ferguson on May 9 to win the interim belt and will have a ton of momentum.
And of course, there's always the specter of Conor McGregor hanging over this fight. He says he's retired, but doubters remain. After the Oct. 24 date was announced Tuesday, McGregor tweeted that he's auctioning off items from his Jan. 18 win over Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone, insisting they were from the last time he'll set foot in the Octagon. Believe him? Nurmagomedov has been consistent that he won't give McGregor a rematch after handling him on Oct. 6, 2018, but Gaethje has been more open to the potential payday.
ESPN's panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim weigh in on the status of perhaps the UFC's most volatile weight class.
It will be over a year between Khabib's fights, how do you expect the layoff to affect him?
Helwani: I don't. He was off for 11 months before he fought Poirier and looked just as good as ever. It's not like he's been injured; he's healthy and training. Of course, the big X factor is how he'll react to the passing of his father, Abdulmanap. I'd rather not speculate on that, but it's important to remember that Abdulmanap wasn't just Khabib's father, he was his coach, mentor and best friend, too. It will be interesting to see how he feels mentally going into this one considering the traumatic past few months for the Nurmagomedov family.
Okamoto: Not at all. Zero. The one thing you hear time and again about Nurmagomedov -- from literally everyone who knows him well -- is that he takes no time off. It's part of what makes him special. The money, fame, success -- none of it has changed his work ethic. His entire life has basically been spent in his gym. Even over the last several months of his father's life, there was evidence and secondhand accounts of Nurmagomedov doing some type of training. He's had long layoffs before, and obviously they haven't been a detriment, judging by his perfect record.
Raimondi: It won't. Nurmagomedov has taken lengthy layoffs before. When he beat Dustin Poirier, he had not fought in 11 months. When he beat Edson Barboza, Nurmagomedov had been out for 13 months. Justin Gaethje is a great fighter, and he is an absolute handful. If Gaethje were to get the better of Nurmagomedov, it'll be because he presents a difficult style matchup. It's unlikely that the layoff will play any factor.
Wagenheim: It's not just the year off that will affect Nurmagomedov but specifically the family tragedy that occurred earlier this month. To gain some semblance of understanding of what Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov meant to his son, go find one of the online videos in which Khabib is asked about his dad. The typically stoic fighter absolutely lights up with the deepest childlike admiration. Khabib's dad was a coach, a mentor, an inspiration. That is irreplaceable.
In what areas do you see Gaethje having the advantage?
Helwani: Gaethje is a better striker and hits harder than Nurmagomedov. If he can keep this fight standing, I think he has as good of a chance as anyone at 155 pounds to be the first person to beat the champ. People often forget Gaethje has a solid wrestling background. His takedown defense is great. If he is able to stuff a few takedowns and turn the fight into a kickboxing match, look out.
Okamoto: Knockout power. And if we're comparing him to previous Nurmagomedov opponents, cardio. Nurmagomedov drowns his opponents. They are a lesser version of themselves as the fight drags on due to sheer exhaustion. But Gaethje is a cardio machine. So is Tony Ferguson, which was part of the appeal of that fight, before the pandemic canceled it. Gaethje, for my money, has a better chance of stuffing a takedown than Ferguson, though, and equal endurance. If Gaethje rocks Nurmagomedov -- which, don't forget, Nurmagomedov has been hit -- he has a better chance of stuffing a takedown than most, and his killer instinct is through the roof in his recent fights.
Raimondi: On the feet is where Gaethje excels. He has to be able to keep the fight there as long as possible in order to have the best chance to win. Gaethje said on Joe Rogan's show recently that he'll need to kick Nurmagomedov eight times in the calf and Nurmagomedov will be compromised. It seems like his strategy will be to damage the legs of Nurmagomedov enough so that Nurmagomedov's wrestling won't be at its best. That isn't a game plan others have had -- or at least have executed -- against undefeated Nurmagomedov. Gaethje does have the skill set best suited for it, though.
Wagenheim: If I were cornering Gaethje, the last word I would say to him as he went out for Round 1 would be "calves." He is vicious with his low kicks, and he has to use them. Again and again and again. Sure, the No. 1 key for the challenger will be staying away from the cage, where Khabib does his best work with takedowns. But Gaethje cannot approach this fight with a defensive mindset. He must put Khabib on the defensive. Gaethje is by far the better striker. He has the punches and kicks to hurt the champ. Use them.
Where do you give the edge to Khabib?
Helwani: Pretty obvious one: wrestling. I consider Nurmagomedov to be the most dominant fighter in MMA history because of his wrestling, but it's more than just that. It's his strength, his relentless attack, his confidence ... the whole package is just impressive. He doesn't just maul his foes, he suffocates them. Can he do the same to a game Justin Gaethje? I am excited to find out.
Okamoto: Obviously grappling. And honestly, that's it. Gaethje is a better striker. More power. He has a similar level of experience to Nurmagomedov. They're both perfectly willing and comfortable to go five rounds. They're both intelligent. They're both well-coached. The only area I see Nurmagomedov significantly better in is grappling, but he's usually just so much better in that area, that's all it takes.
Raimondi: Wrestling, certainly. Grappling as well. That's the key to the whole fight. Can Gaethje succeed in keeping Nurmagomedov off him? No one has been able to do that yet, and it's been the main ingredient as to why Nurmagomedov has been dominant. If Nurmagomedov takes Gaethje down, will Gaethje be able to get back up and in position to strike? And how much does Nurmagomedov's wrestling affect Gaethje's striking? Will Gaethje be preoccupied with worrying about stopping takedowns? Those are the kinds of things Nurmagomedov does to an opponent. He's the best MMA wrestler currently in the UFC. Everyone knows it's coming, but no one has been able to do anything about it.
Wagenheim: I see eight advantages for Khabib: the walls of the Octagon. The champ has shown, time after time, that if he gets an opponent against the cage, he's going to get a takedown. And once he has the fight on the canvas, he is unrivaled at keeping it there. He's actually gotten better at that. Early in his UFC run, in 2013, Khabib had 21 takedowns against Abel Trujillo. But that meant Trujillo managed to get back to his feet 18 times in the three-round bout. Recent opponents have not been as successful at getting out from underneath the Dagestani lead blanket. As we've seen in his past two fights in particular, Nurmagomedov uses his takedowns and smothering top position to wear down an opponent and soften him for the finish.
Will Gaethje be Khabib's most dangerous opponent?
Helwani: I believe so. Because of his wrestling background and the way he strikes. I think Conor McGregor could have given Nurmagomedov issues, but we later found out he didn't train for that fight properly. So that's why I think this will be Nurmagomedov's toughest fight to date. If the Gaethje who beat Tony Ferguson in May shows up against Nurmagomedov in October, I think he has a great chance to beat the champ. If he fights smart and doesn't get reckless, which he hasn't for a while now, I like his chances a lot. Remember, officially, Nurmagomedov has lost only one round in his 12 UFC fights, and that was Round 3 vs. McGregor two years ago.
Okamoto: Yes. It's so cliché to say that, but it's the truth. It would have been Tony Ferguson had that fight actually happened [before pandemic-related travel restrictions canceled it], and Gaethje is coming off a dominant performance against Ferguson. Gaethje won't want to surrender a takedown, of course, but he won't live in fear of one. His scrambling ability is tremendous, and he's strong in the clinch. He's not a headhunter; he'll throw effectively to the body. And he backs his opponents up. We've never really seen Nurmagomedov have to take a step back. He's unorthodox, quicker than he probably gets credit for, and once he even touches your hips, you're in a bad spot. Make no mistake, Gaethje is still an underdog here. But yes, this is Nurmagomedov's toughest fight to date.
Raimondi: Nurmagomedov has fought several elite fighters in the lightweight division, but it does seem like Gaethje has the attributes needed to beat someone like Nurmagomedov. Whether that actually happens is very much up in the air. Nurmagomedov is truly one of the greatest fighters of all time. And few, if any, have truly come close to beating him. Gaethje, I would say, in his current, more patient iteration has as good of a chance as anyone to end Nurmagomedov's undefeated streak. That doesn't mean he'll do it, but Gaethje is a legitimate threat.
Wagenheim: Gaethje has the tools to make this Nurmagomedov's toughest challenge. But so did Dustin Poirier. And so did Conor McGregor. They both got smashed. I suppose one could say Gaethje encompasses the best of Poirier (slick grappling) and the best of McGregor (power striking), so he's a more multifaceted problem to solve. But the truth is, we won't know the answer to this question until Nurmagomedov has Gaethje clinched against the cage ... as he will, at some point early in the fight. If the fighters go to the canvas with the champ on top, and the fight remains there, Gaethje will end up just like all who came before. But if Gaethje can get off the cage and separate, take the fight to the center of the Octagon, Khabib could have problems.
Do you expect the winner to face Conor McGregor?
Helwani: Hard to say right now. McGregor wants to fight, but they just aren't keen on getting him a fight because they can't make money off the gate right now. It's a real shame that we have a healthy, focused McGregor, who was dead set on fighting three times in 2020, and now here we are talking about main events in October and he has fought only once. So, I wouldn't be surprised if they keep him on the sideline, but I also wouldn't be surprised if they get him a fight before the winner is ready to return. I think they should do the latter. Keep him active. Give the people what they want.
Okamoto: If Gaethje wins, yes. You'd obviously have to consider the possibility of an immediate rematch as well, but if I were to guess, Gaethje would fight McGregor. If Nurmagomedov wins, not as much of a home run. At all. I definitely still think it's a possibility, because the UFC wants it and would throw a lot of money around to try and make it happen. But if Nurmagomedov really wants to walk away after two more fights -- and he's already beaten McGregor decisively once -- I think we'd see him vacate the title, let McGregor fight whomever for it (Gaethje, Dustin Poirier), and Nurmagomedov would fight Georges St-Pierre. If St-Pierre is willing to come out of retirement, of course, which I believe he would be.
Raimondi: I do. That seems to be the most likely scenario. But it also is geared on when the winner would be able to turn around and fight again. McGregor wanted to stay active in 2020, and if he fights the winner of this bout, then he probably will have fought just once this year, back in January. McGregor announced his retirement, unhappy with what the UFC was offering him with regard to fights. We'll see whether watching this one piques his interest in returning against the winner.
Wagenheim: If Nurmagomedov gets his hand raised, I don't see McGregor in his immediate future. Khabib has said he wouldn't give Conor a rematch until he has earned it, and January's win over a faded Donald Cerrone -- the Irishman's only victory since 2016 -- was not enough to merit a title shot. Of course, McGregor is the sport's biggest cash cow, and the UFC surely would love to put him on its biggest stage. So if Gaethje wins, he could end up defending against McGregor. But that would be a shame, as there are more deserving challengers.