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UFC 254: Nurmagomedov has different opponent, same goal

Khabib Nurmagomedov looks to remain undefeated as he defends his title against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi.

(Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

By: Jack Wannan

Back in March, one of the first things the UFC lost was their prized Khabib Nurmagomedov fight. After the quickly intensified worldwide spread of COVID-19 cancelled events and left the Russian fighter stuck within his country, his high level lightweight title fight against Tony Ferguson was taken out of the equation.

That wasn’t the first time that prizefight was cancelled, it was actually the fourth. The fight became something so synonymous with never happening that it almost made sense that it didn’t happen. So it didn’t. And it won’t.

The ecosystem of the lightweight division had to move on, and in that process found the next challenger for the title in Justin Gaethje. After an intense fire-fight in May at the rebooked UFC 249 pay-per-view, Gaethje defeated Ferguson, making himself an interim champion.

While an interim belt is nothing short of an accomplishment, it’s not the real deal. Gaethje will look to finally reach the top of the lightweight division on Saturday when he challenges Nurmagomedov at UFC 254.

The challenge for Gaethje is one that, really, sounds nearly impossible. Defeating and undefeated fighter so deep into their career, something which is quite the rarity in the sport of MMA, would be a big feat for “The Highlight Reel.”

It would be bold to assume either fighter has a trick up their sleeve heading into the fight. Both of their styles are known. Nurmagomedov’s plan is one that has been proven to be perfect: a pressure-heavy wrestling showcase where he wears opponents down with striking and submission attempts. Gaethje is the classic “take one to give one” fighter who uses his toughness and constant pressure to break his opponent.

When Gaethje’s “game plan” said “stay in the center [of the cage]” during a recent UFC “Embedded” web-series episode, nobody blinked an eye. We know what both fighters plan to do. That’s not a detriment to either because their plans work.

The return for Nurmagomedov, like almost all fighter’s first bouts in 2020, is an odd one. He will be main eventing a card from “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and there will be no live crowd.

The setting provides a forum where sport turns theatre, and the product of the event is not subjected to the live approval or disapproval of a crowd. This change in the past month has provided an opportunity to accentuate the glory and undoubtedly the heartbreak of prizefighting.

Luckily, numerous previous title fights within “bubble” scenarios have proven that a crowd-less occasion does not take away from the importance of a fight. Sure it strips some of the pageantry and spectacles of it, but in the end we live in a world where we take what we can, as months ago we lived in a world where Nurmagomedov couldn’t even compete.

A change unusual to the event is its scheduling. While European fans are given a favourable start time for the show, something they have frequently been neglected for PPV events, western fans will have afternoon sports.

For both fighters, it is new scenery. It is a new opponent. However, the goal and the game plan will remain the same.


Jack Wannan is a MMA contributor. He runs a MMA news website called


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