So the date is set. On October 24, the lightweight division will be unified when champion Khabib Nurmagomedov takes on interim title holder Justin Gaethje at UFC 254.
‘It’s going to happen, tell you right here right now. That fight is going to happen,’ UFC president Dana White told CNN on Tuesday.
It will be the first time the undefeated Russian has competed since September 2019, when he dominated Dustin Poirier, a former interim champion, to retain his title in Abu Dhabi.
More poignantly, it will be the first time Khabib has fought since the passing of his father and lifelong mentor, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov. The legendary coach died on July 3 following complications brought on by coronavirus.
There are plenty of questions that fans hope will be answered come October 24, as the greatest lightweight of all time looks to improve his unblemished record to 29 wins, zero defeats against a fighter who many feel is his most dangerous opponent to date.
But first, a word on how we got here in the first place. Khabib and Gaethje may well have crossed paths at some stage, but the Dagestani-born fighter was due to settle a score with an old nemesis first.
The Eagle and long-time rival Tony Ferguson have been at the summit of the 155lbs division for some time, and having seen four bouts scheduled and fall through, it was hoped that it would be a matter of fifth time lucky when White booked the fight again for UFC 249 at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, for April 18.
However, coronavirus decimated the dreams of MMA fans the globe over as the pandemic swept the world. Brooklyn was an area very badly hit and the venue pulled out of hosting commitments. While White was searching for a new venue, Khabib returned to Dagestan and was unable to gain entry back into the United States.
So, with one half of the main event missing, Justin Gaethje stepped up to save the show, albeit pushed back three weeks later and held in Jacksonville, Florida, fighting Ferguson for the interim lightweight title.
And he didn’t just save the show, he stole it too. The Highlight put on a clinic to make the previously formidable Ferguson look a step behind over the course of five rounds, before the referee called an end to the contest moments before the final bell. His performance sent a clear message to the division, as well as the champion.
‘He is 28-0 and there is no other challenge I want right now, I want to fight him,’ Gaethje said after the contest. ‘I’ve been working since I was four years old for challenges like this and I am happy to represent the United States of America against Dagestan or Russia’s best.’
With the pair sharing the same manager, Ali Abdelaziz of Dominance MMA, there was little chance of negotiations falling through for the unification bout, and it seemed as though this would be an easy fight to make.
But a deeply personal tragedy left many questioning whether Khabib would set foot in the octagon again. The death of his father earlier this month sent shockwaves through the MMA community, with Abdulmanap the single most influential figure in the 31-year-old’s life.
There is no man that Khabib wanted to earn the respect of more than his father. That admiration bordered on fear when he admitted that his father was going to ‘kill him’ after he jumped the fence to attack Conor McGregor’s team following UFC 229.
‘It’s been very rough on him,’ White told CNN. ‘His father was a hero to him, he loved his father, they had a very close relationship and it was very hard on him.’
Many wouldn’t have blamed the lightweight champion had he decided to call it a day on his outstanding career. After all, a record of 28-0 and comprehensively leaving no doubt that he is the best 155lbs fighter to grace the division is a pretty remarkable legacy.
Yet Khabib is aware he has unfinished business in the UFC. And overcoming a challenge like Gaethje will go a long way in sealing his father’s dream fight in seeing his son fight Georges St-Pierre, arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all time. A win over the Canadian would leave few denying that Khabib is the GOAT.
‘When I talk with my father he told me his dream fight was me against Georges St-Pierre,’ Khabib said in 2018. ‘When I grew up I watched all his fights with my father and he is the greatest athlete to ever compete in the UFC.’
‘Sure, [I would be open to St-Pierre] if it’s his last fight,’ White told ESPN earlier this week. ‘This guy’s been great to the company, great to the sport. I like Khabib a lot. I would do anything Khabib wanted to do.’
For that dream match up to happen, Khabib has to overcome the interim champion first, and make no mistake, this won’t necessarily be the walk in the park that we’ve been so accustomed to seeing from the undefeated star.
Gaethje, 31, has just two losses to date, in back to back defeats to Poirier and Eddie Alvarez, but since then The Highlight has looked a fighter reborn. And instead of being the ferocious – and reckless – knockout specialist, Gaethje is far more measured, but equally destructive.
Of his 22 professional wins, 19 have come via knock-out or TKO, while he has one submission to his name and two decision wins.
We’ve seen Khabib face terrifying strikers in the past, such as Edson Barboza, Conor McGregor and Poirier, and he has handled them with aplomb, using his superior grappling and wrestling to beat his rivals to a pulp.
But Gaethje may present a tougher prospect to take to the ground. The 31-year-old was a Division I All-American wrestler and has sublime takedown defence, which is at an impressive 80 per cent. That combination of imperious striking and intelligent wrestling may be the right mix to unlock the puzzle that is Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Having said that, Gaethje may take a different approach altogether. Back in May, he outlined his blueprint to have success over Khabib.
‘I’ll work to be my best self. I’m so athletic. The first thing to go when you get tired is your legs, so my legs, from now until then, I’m gonna be running a lot, jump rope a lot, a lot of step ups, squats,’ he told ESPN.
‘If my legs are in shape I don’t get tired. If I don’t get tired I can get back up. If I can get back up, I can hit him like a truck.
‘I only gotta kick him eight times in the calves before he’s compromised. There’s lot of factors. I’m gonna work on being me, stay in shape. It’s all cardio.’
And what impact will not having his father around have on Khabib? Abdulmanap was in Khabib’s corner for his most recent UFC bout against Poirier, and the lightweight champion gushed at the strength he felt having his father in his corner.
‘When I go to the cage with my father, I feel like I go to a cage with a lion [supporting me],’ he said following his win in Abu Dhabi.
Javier Mendez, Khabib’s coach at AKA in San Jose, has been labelled a ‘Mexican lion’ by his athlete and will keep him on the right track and ensure that the focus remains on dominating and solidifying his legacy. With the prospect of facing GSP to fulfil his father’s dream on the table, there’ll be no shortage of motivation for Khabib.
There is also the matter of ring rust. When Khabib steps in the octagon to fight Gaethje at UFC 254, it will be 13 months since he last competed. He’s used to having long stints out on the sidelines, having had to comeback from a number of serious injuries earlier on in his career. Khabib is also known to train all year round, even during Ramadan, so he certainly won’t be out of shape.
However, those comeback fights were against opponents who, respectfully, were not at the level of Gaethje, and it’s certainly a risk to come back and take on such a dangerous opponent after such a long spell out.
There is still the small matter of venue to be decided – given that ‘Fight Island’ was such a big success for the UFC, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them return there for UFC 254. And despite the long lay off and personal tragedy, Khabib Nurmagomedov will certainly be the favourite to remain lightweight champion come October 24.