Justin Gaethje let his intentions be known after his masterpiece at UFC Philadelphia: He believes he is the toughest matchup at 155 pounds for Khabib Nurmagomedov, and he plans to do whatever it takes to reach the undefeated UFC lightweight champion.
Gaethje has now scored back-to-back first-round knockouts over top contenders following his spectacular showing against Edson Barboza on Saturday. Similar to his previous win over James Vick, rather than revert to his old brawling ways, Gaethje showcased a more patient and disciplined striking style against Barboza, which led to the destructive finish.
With his mix of suffocating forward pressure and a seemingly evolved standup game, Gaethje now appears to be a potential problem for anyone in the UFC’s lightweight division.
So how much of a threat can Gaethje present to a champion who has yet to be truly tested?
“Not much,” Nurmagomedov’s coach, Javier Mendez, said bluntly on Monday’s episode of The MMA Hour. “Not much, because he ain’t going to be able to stop the takedown. None of those guys can. [Nurmagomedov will] take them all down, and if they don’t have much of a ground game, they’re done.
“The only way it becomes interesting is if Khabib decides to do things. Look back on all his fights, it’s only when he decides to stand with people that it becomes a little bit trickier. I mean, he stood with Conor (McGregor) so he gave Conor a chance, and I’m begging for him, ‘Go back to father’s plan. Go back to father’s plan.’ He screws with me all the time. He did the same with Michael Johnson. I’m telling him, ‘What are you doing? Go back to father’s plan.’ Father’s plan, that’s what I call ‘just wrestle the guy, take him down and wrestle him.’ And he does that all the damn time.”
Gaethje’s underrated wrestling acumen would be one of the biggest intrigues in a potential matchup against Nurmagomedov. Although he rarely shows it inside the cage, Gaethje was a two-time Arizona state champion wrestler in his high school days and a Division I All-American at the University of Northern Colorado. His wrestling credentials are extensive and ever-present, even if he prefers to stand-and-bang once fight night rolls around.
But in Mendez’s eyes, Gaethje’s wrestling experience doesn’t really matter a whole ton. Nurmagomedov is such a fearsome grappler, Mendez says, that the outcome of any potential fight will still hinge on whether “The Eagle” has his mind set on taking an opponent down. If he does, according to the AKA coach, it’s game over. It’s only when Nurmagomedov decides to play around on his feet a bit that things can get interesting.
“He did that to Al Iaquinta, same damn thing,” Mendez said. “I’m begging him, I told him, ‘Look, Al’s gonna bait you, he’s going to allow you to hit him, and you’re going to be able to hit this guy. Don’t get too comfortable hitting him, because he’s going to lure you in, then all of a sudden, the guy hits really hard — I don’t want you getting caught.’
“[Khabib says,] ‘Sure, sure, okay coach.’ What does he do? Starts banging with Al and then he’s outpointing him, just like I said. Next thing you know, he’s doing it and doing it and doing it more, and I’m just telling him, ‘Can you please go back to father’s plan?’ [He says,] ’No.’ Then all of a sudden I said, ‘Okay, since you’re not going to go to father’s plan, why don’t you do 50 percent of what you want and 50 percent of what we want?’ So he goes, ‘okay, coach,’ then he goes out and does that. And it’s only because of what he wants.
“If he wants to take somebody down, he’ll take him down. I don’t care who it is. In his weight division, he’ll take them all down. And guess what? If they get back up, he’ll take them back down again. I’ve seen it too many times. I’ve never seen anybody like him and we’ll probably never see anybody like him again.”
Mendez also noted that Nurmagomedov’s toughness, which would be needed against a pressure-monger like Gaethje, has played a major factor into his undefeated run as king of the UFC’s shark tank of a lightweight division.
“The guy can take a shot, he doesn’t even get fazed,” Mendez said. “I mean, look, Barboza kicks him in the head, it didn’t even look like, what, nothing. And then Michael Johnson taps him right on the head and I’m like, ‘Dude, he hit you.’ And he goes, ‘No, he didn’t.’ And I go, ‘Yes, he did. He hit you with a decent shot. I mean, you didn’t show it very much, but you can’t get caught like that too much.’ But it’s up to Khabib. Khabib is the reason why these fights are more standup than they need to be. My choice is always, just take them and smash them. And he could do that to every one of these guys.”