Justin Gaethje knows the challenge that’s in front of him, but believes he can be the one in 28-1 against Khabib Nurmagomedov this weekend.
The highly anticipated battle for the undisputed lightweight title takes place in the main event of Saturday’s UFC 254 event on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi. Nurmagomedov has defeated every opponent that has stood in front of him—mostly with relative ease due to his heralded wrestling and grappling pedigree.
“The Highlight” knows that could be a possibility in the octagon on Saturday night. In some ways, he’s prepared for that result.
“I expect him to believe that’s going to happen,” Gaethje told reporters at Wednesday’s UFC 254 press conference. “I’ve been telling myself that’s going to happen and it drives me every single day. I’m a performer. I always show up under the lights and I’ve been doing this as long as he has. This is ingrained in us. On Saturday night I will leave everything, give everything and be proud of my performance.”
Gaethje became the interim lightweight champion with an outstanding performance against Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 in May, capping it off with a fifth-round stoppage via TKO. After dropping back-to-back fights to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, the 31-year-old has finished his last four fights en route to this opportunity to do what no man has done before.
Nurmagomedov became champion with a decision win over Al Iaquinta at UFC 223. “The Eagle” has gone on to successfully defend the title with consecutive submission wins over Poirier and Conor McGregor.
Admittedly, Gaethje is a fan of Nurmagomedov’s work, which is why he didn’t have to sit down and study a lot of footage on the champion. He’s well aware that he needs to keep things at a distance to be successful.
“I didn’t watch any tape on Khabib,” Gaethje stated. “I’ve watched his fights throughout his career because I’m a huge fan of everything. I’ve always focused on being my best self. He hasn’t fought someone that’s grappled as long as he has, I have. Everyone says they’re ready and I will not allow him to put me on the fence. If I do, then I’m screwed.
“My plan is if we’re gonna grapple, let’s grapple in the middle at all times. I’ve said it 1,000 times; I cause damage. I have dense bones and I’m gonna kick his legs. That’s where we’re gonna start and we’ll go from there.”
With a more meticulous approach to his in-octagon chaos, Gaethje is ready to shock the world and trade his interim belt for the undisputed crown. The one thing he wish would be different is that the fight would happen in Nurmagomedov’s home country in front of the Russian fans.
“If you go back a couple of years ago, I think I said I wanted to go to Brazil and fight their best, Ireland and fight their best, and I wanted to come to Russia and fight Khabib,” Gaethje explained. “That’s the chaos. They wish ill on you—they don’t necessarily want you to die or anything—but that hostility, I thrive in.
“I can’t wait for there to be people back up. If there was 100,000 people wanting me to die it would be fantastic. It would be such a great feeling.”