Not very many people gave Justin Gaethje a chance when he took on Tony Ferguson at UFC 249, but the unfancied fighter put Ferguson to the sword to earn a knockout victory, and end his opponent’s 12-game unbeaten streak. The result was even more remarkable when you consider that Gaethje had been a late replacement for Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was forced to withdraw due to coronavirus restrictions in his home country Russia.
But Gaethje showed no sign of being overawed by the occasion, and was quick to make clear that he felt Khabib was his next worthy opponent. “Khabib is the best in the world,” Gaethje said. “I’ve been working since I was four for challenges like this, and I’m happy to represent the United States of America against Dagestan [Khabib’s home region], or Russia’s best. He’s 28-0, and there’s no other challenge I want right now. I want to fight him.”
Gaethje has got his wish, with the pair set to lock horns at UFC 254 on October 24th. The Russian is undefeated in 28 professional fights and is the most feared heavyweight fighter in the game. Before the Ferguson fight, no-one would have given Gaethje a prayer against such a formidable opponent, and he’ll be the clear underdog in the Khabib vs Gaethje odds, but the American has proven that he has what it takes to produce big performances when it matters most.
Indeed, the confidence gained from defeating Ferguson despite limited preparation time, both physically and mentally, will be a huge asset for Gaethje as he gears up for the Khabib fight. Few things breed confidence like winning, and Gaethje produced a masterclass to defeat Ferguson back in May, and will be hoping that he can use that momentum to produce another shock.
Then again, he is facing the most formidable fighter in the UFC. Khabib is unparalleled in his power and speed, and has proven he is the cream of the crop as far as the lightweight division is concerned. The Russian will be expecting another comfortable win when he comes up against Gaethje, and the key for him will be to avoid complacency against an opponent who proved how dangerous he can be against Ferguson.
Perhaps one source of hope for Gaethje is the fact that it’s been over a year since Khabib fought competitively. With all that’s gone on in the world, it would be no surprise if the Russian was suffering from a little ring rust when he returns to action. From Gaethje’s point of view, it’ll be vital to take advantage of any signs of weakness Khabib shows, because you can bet that rustiness won’t last long.
For Gaethje’s supporters, the best sign is the fighter’s confidence and willingness to fight Khabib after the monumental achievement of beating Ferguson. It would’ve been easy for him to simply bask in the glory of that unexpected triumph, but instead, you can tell that he is raring to go for this next challenge. It’ll be a tough ask for him to repeat the trick against a fighter as unrelenting as Khabib, but his fine performance to finish Ferguson will have given the Russian plenty to think about.
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