Unprompted, and set against the picturesque background of Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island, Justin Gaethje clued the mixed martial arts world into how he plans to approach fighting a man no one in the world has beaten yet.
"I will not allow him to put me on the fence. And if I do, then I’m screwed," Gaethje said of UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. "So my gameplan is if he wants to grapple, let’s grapple in the middle. I’ve said it a thousand times. I cause damage. I have dense bones. I’m going to kick his legs. That’s where it’s going to start and then we’re going to move on from there."
Nurmagomedov, undefeated through his first 28 fights, pulled no punches either.
"I know he knows how to wrestle, but what about wrestling 25 minutes?" said Nurmagomedov, who is competing for the first time since the death of his father and coach, Abdulmanap, 57, from the coronavirus. "If I’m going to try to take him down once and his defense is good, I’m going to try again. I’m going to go all night."
Such are the strategies for the main-event fighters at UFC 254 on Saturday in "Fight Island," the UFC’s bubble in the United Arab Emirates for the past five weeks. These strategies will surprise no one who follows the sport. Sure, Nurmagomedov’s striking has improved over the years, his jab in particular, but the Dagestan native will attempt to wrestle until the final bell. He’ll look to get Gaethje to the ground, pin his opponent’s legs together using his own and maul away until told otherwise. And yes, Gaethje has fought smarter recently, but he’s been known to engage in non-stop, intense striking for as long as the other guy can take it.
"They all are good when they stand up, but when I grab them, it changes a little bit," said Nurmagomedov, 32, who is making his third title defense. "I think more than Dustin [Poirier] and Conor [McGregor] and other guys, he knows how to wrestle. It’s going to be a little bit hard. But I prepared myself to try to take him down 100 times."
What Wednesday’s news conference to promote the pay-per-view event (2 p.m. Eastern start time) delivered in scenic delight, it delivered more in decorum. No trash talk, no raised voices, no acts of aggression on the stage. Just two fighters, comfortable with who they are and what they do, answering questions.
"What makes this fight so big is that people believe this kid has the style to beat him," UFC president Dana White said. "So you have all the ingredients for a massive fight. You have a big superstar. And you have a kid who’s coming off an incredible win over a highly respected fighter, and many people believe he has the style to do it."
Gaethje (22-2) rose to prominence with his exciting style of both delivering and receiving heavy shots at an alarming rate. The former World Series of Fighting champion continued that in the UFC. He has gone the distance twice in 24 career fights. The Arizon-raised Gaethje has won his last four fights, most recently dominating Tony Ferguson for the fifth-round TKO last May to claim the interim lightweight title. Before that, he stopped Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone, Edson Barboza and James Vick, all via first-round knockout or TKO.
"I’m not even supposed to be here. This is supposed to be Tony Ferguson," Gaethje, 31, said. "Thank God I got that opportunity and I took it from him. I took his soul. Again, I perform. When I’m under those lights, it’s just what I do. It’s ingrained in both of us. We will both go out there and we will fight for our lives. It’s who we are."
UFC 254 main card, 2 p.m. Eastern on ESPN+
Lightweight title: Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje
Robert Whittaker vs. Jared Cannonier
Alexander Volkov vs. Walt Harris
Lauren Murphy vs. Liliya Shakirova
Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba
Jacob Malkoun vs. Phil Hawes
UFC 254 prelims, Noon on ESPN2 and ESPN+
Stefan Struve vs. Tai Tuivasa
Alex Oliveira vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov
Nathaniel Wood vs. Casey Kenney
Da-un Jung vs. Sam Alvey
UFC 254 early prelims, 11 a.m. on UFC Fight Pass
Liana Jojua vs. Miranda Maverick
Joel Alvarez vs. Alexander Yakovlev