MMA legend turned commentator Bas Rutten believes Justin Gaethje has a real shot at dethroning UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Gaethje, the UFC’s interim lightweight champion, will challenge the undefeated Nurmagomedov in the main event of UFC 254 on October 24. He’ll enter the fight as an underdog, but he’ll also do so with the confidence of Rutten.
Rutten broke down this matchup on the latest episode of Submission Radio, emphasizing the way Gaethje, the former World Series of Fighting lightweight champ, has matured as a fighter—particularly in his interim title-winning defeat of Tony Ferguson.
“I think [Gaethje] could be the guy who beats [Khabib],” Rutten said (h/t MMA Fighting). “I truly believe so, because he’s a great wrestler – he might stop the takedowns. Listen, the best thing that ever happened to Gaethje was getting knocked out, because I had been telling him at the World Series of Fighting and PFL so many times, ‘Why do you fight like this?’ [He said], ‘Because it’s exciting and I want to be here for the fans.’ And I said, ‘Dude, eventually it’s going to hurt you. You want to be able to speak to your kids when you’re going to have kids, right?’
“When he got knocked out, now, suddenly, he starts fighting like his coach Trevor Wittman really wants. The way he was with [Tony] Ferguson, that was scary. I was afraid for Ferguson. He started shaking his head, I thought, oh, he’s got brain damage. He got hit so hard, and nobody’s been able to stop him. I know Gaethje is in Denver and he’s got the mile-high [environment], and they’ve got great stamina. I thought Ferguson could keep on pushing, but [Gaethje] had no problem.
“So now, Khabib is going to face someone with endless stamina, a freakin’ heart as big as a lion. Even if he’s tired, he will do the craziest things. He’s got great low kicks, he’s got great takedown defense, and who knows, man? He’s really started thinking later in his career, and that’s why you see him shine now. Maybe he’s going to shoot for a takedown. You don’t know what he’s going to do, because he’s never done it before.”
In terms of what Justin Gaethje actually needs to do to defeat Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 254, Rutten points to a gameplan based on cardio, kicks, pressure and takedown defense.
“I think that if Gaethje can do that as well with his low kicks; I wouldn’t do that in the beginning especially, because that might set him up to be taken down,” he said. “But now we’re going to find out if we can stop the takedowns from Khabib, and if he can Khabib is in trouble.
“He know’s he’s got the endless stamina. So he’s going to push this fight. Khabib’s probably the guy who works everybody in the gym, so he needs to find ways to get him really tired, because otherwise, he’s playing his game and is still in his zone.
“I think if Gathje is pushing, pushing, pushing, and once [Khabib] gets tired, and that’s the moment you want to start implementing the low kicks. Like in rounds three or four, once they start getting tired, because Khabib – I think nobody has ever fought a guy like Gaethje. This guy just comes forward the whole time and everything is power, and he’s got endless stamina. He’s a very hard guy to fight.”