Breaking Down Nurmagomedov vs Gaethje at UFC 254

Nurmagomedov vs Gaethje
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - SEPTEMBER 07: Khabib Nurmagomedov of Russia walks to the Octagon prior to his lightweight championship bout against Dustin Poirier during UFC 242 at The Arena on September 7, 2019 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Here we’ll break down Nurmagomedov vs. Gaethje at UFC 254. Saturday night, Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0) is set to defend his Lightweight Championship against Interim Champion Justin Gaethje (22-2). Nurmagomedov has not seen the inside of a cage since 2019 after beating then Interim Champion Dustin Poirier (26-6). Gaethje is riding a wave of momentum after a 5th round TKO of perennial contender Tony Ferguson (25-4). At UFC 254 on Fight Island, we will see Nurmagomedov vs Gaethje and learn the importance of footwork.

Nurmagomedov vs Gaethje at Fight Island.

Footwork is the way a fighter uses their legs to move around the Octagon. It can also refer to their ability to manage distance, find new angles of attack or retreat, and control their position in the cage. 

Most MMA footwork is linear, which means fighters move forwards or backward. This is largely because the size of the cage gives more allowances for retreating backward. The cage also has less severe angles when compared to a boxing ring. The space and shape of the octagon make offensive cage cutting more difficult. 

Another reason is that defense in MMA is lacking, making it less valuable to cut off angles of attack. It’s easy to criticize fighters for not using space well, but many MMA fighters have great footwork. Max Holloway (21-6) is a monster at cutting the cage and creating new angles of attack. Israel Adesanya (20-0) put on a defensive footwork masterclass that made the dangerous Paulo Costa (13-1) look amateur. 

Move Your Feet or Lose Your Streak.

Justin Gaethje has always had good offensive footwork. While many try and attribute Gaethje’s former style to a brawler, he was closer to being a hyper-pressure fighter, and while he was wild, Gaethje made good use of principals within combat sports.

Gaethje has shown he has solid defensive footwork in his wins against Donald Cerrone (36-15-1) and Ferguson.

The L step is the main focus of Gaethje’s footwork. The L step is a boxing term that refers to moving back towards the rear hand side. So someone who is a southpaw would move back and then to the left while an orthodox fighter would move back and to the right, forming an uppercase L with their feet. You can make offensive angles, cut the distance an opponent is traveling, and evade linear attacks using the L step.

The reason why footwork is such an important factor in regards to how Nurmagomedov vs Gaethje plays out is because of cage positioning.

A Meta Defining Fight

Nurmagomedov has a game designed around the current meta of MMA. The MMA meta revolves around using the cage as a way to get up from takedowns. Nurmagomedov will use body locks, trips, and single legs to punish any successful stand-up attempts. Nurmagomedov will make you carry his weight, using wrist rides to fold any attempts at posting and getting to your feet.

The cage is a key part of Nurmagomedov’s game. While he can land takedowns out in the open, the rest of his game’s cohesion relies on him using the cage. This is where Gaethje’s footwork comes in. Gaethje will be the first opponent of Nurmagomedov that is aware of the importance of cage position and has the fundamentals to pull it off. Poirier’s corner had called on him to use his footwork to stay away from the cage, but “The Diamond” was unable to keep Nurmagomedov off him.

Poirier tried to use the L step in his fight with Nurmagomedov in the beginning but had to plant himself to avoid punches coming in from The Dagestani.

This brings us to the danger of “The Eagle” and why Nurmogomedov vs. Gaethje is a compelling match up. Nurmagomedov does not have elegant attacking footwork. He is, however, good at getting his opponents to the cage. Nurmagomedov likes using herding strikes, which is another effective form of cage cutting.

Footwork Isn’t Everything.

The Eagle uses wild attacks like flying knees and wild uppercuts to get his opponent to retreat. He can afford to be this reckless since he’s not concerned with his opponent trying to take him down. Nurmagomedov uses his strength advantage to drive opponents to the cage. Like any great mixed martial artist, Nurmagomedov mixes his striking and wrestling to throw his opponents off.

The weapon of choice for Nurmagomedov is the overhand right. Wrestlers favor the overhand right because it is disguisable as a shot for a takedown. This means that the other fighter has to worry about a strike or a takedown whenever you move your right side and forces their attention one way or the other. Nurmagomedov’s famous dropping of Conor McGregor (22-4) in round two of their fight is because of those techniques’ similarities. Nurmagomedov makes opponents wonder if they will get hit or taken down; this helps him force them back.

If it Hits the Mat, the Fight is Over.

One thing I have paid little attention to is how the wrestling may play out. The reason for this is, I don’t think the wrestling will be that competitive. While Gaethje has an outstanding pedigree and is a world-class wrestler, his style is not suited for MMA. 

If you land a takedown on Gaethje, his usual response is to get up regardless of cost. And the cost is the big thing here. If Gaethje is taken down, he will explode with all his energy to get back up. In the quick rounds of a wrestling tournament, it makes sense to push yourself at every moment. You’re just going to get exhausted if you engage in extended wrestling exchanges in MMA. MMA has longer rounds compared to wrestling. Plus, Nurmagomedov is trying to get you tired. It plays into his game

The two men to beat Gaethje, Eddie Alvarez (30-7), and Dustin Poirier, had amazing success mixing takedowns to tire Gaethje out. 

Where Gaethje might have some success is creating separations off takedowns in open space and delivering punishment. There is a real chance if Nurmagomedov is not careful, Gaethje could hit him hard off a sprawl and make him think twice about shooting in the future. Gaethje having to wrestle at any point is cause for concern.

So the primary question is, can Gaethje keep Nurmagomedov off of him? Gaethje’s interviews and discussions around tactics seem promising, but it’s easier said than done. Nurmagomedov has the speed and athletic advantage, although I think Gaethje is stronger. 

Nurmagomedov vs Gaethje: There Will Be Violence

This seems like a fight in which a lot could happen, and both guys bring major threats to their opponent. A fight is compelling if you can see ways in which both fighters could win. It just seems like Nurmagomedov vs. Gaethje could go many ways. Gaethje could manage distance and punish Nurmagomedove each time he enters. The Dagestani could do what he always does and smash Gaethje until his will crumbles. Gaethje could catch Nurmagomedov cold, or The Eagle could crack the American with a jumping lead uppercut.

In terms of predictions, I would favor Nurmagomedov. The Eagle needs one extended wrestling exchange to make the fight his. Gaethje will have to be perfect until the end of the fight. And while I think it’s possible he could do it, Gaethje is a wild man, a real fighter, but it also means he’s prone to losing discipline. Ferguson punished him for throwing a wild uppercut in their fight.

However, I think Gaethje is a legitimate threat and could give Nurmagomedov his first professional MMA loss. An impressive performance could see either man come out as an all-time great in mixed martial arts. Nurmagomedov vs Gaethje could be one of the most important fights in UFC history.

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