Can Safford’s Gaethje 2.0 upset undefeated Nurmagomedov at UFC’s Fight Island?

Justin Gaethje (left), here fighting Tony Ferguson, will have a hard puzzle to solve Saturday night when he takes on Khabib Nurmagomedov is an MMA battle. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

Justin Gaethje will have to change his profession to “combat enigmatologist” Saturday night on Fight Island when he faces Khabib Nurmagomedov — MMA’s hardest puzzle to solve.

The saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Well, Gaethje broke two times in a row; first at the hands of Eddie Alvarez in December 2017 (KO loss) and then five months later against Dustin Poirier (TKO loss). Those losses convinced Gaethje and coach Trevor Wittman to fix the broken pieces.

The result? An evolution. Justin Gaethje 2.0.

Gaethje (22-2) was born in Safford, a community of about 10,000 in southeastern Arizona. He wrestled well enough through his adolescence to attend the University of Northern Colorado and earn Division I All-America honors. He began his MMA career during his college summers with no experience in other forms of combat.

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Gaethje climbed the professional ranks by discarding his innate wrestling credentials, and acquired punches and leg kicks that turned his fights into spectacles of chaotic violence.

“Justin changed four fights ago when he said he wants to be a world champion,” Wittman said on the Joe Rogan podcast. “Before that, he wanted to be the most exciting fighter in the world.”

Gaethje transformed from blood-thirsty brawler, willing to take two just to give one, to a calculated knockout artist — artist being the key word. The 31-year-old paints with more than just the primary colors on his palette. His recently acquired secondary colors include patience, nuance defense, and timing.

An exquisite example of Gaethje’s refined skill set was on display five months ago against Tony Ferguson, one of the most-avoided fighters in all of MMA.

Ferguson earned his reputation by fighting like a zombie in a horror movie, taking whatever punishment was thrown at him, unfazed, walking forward, bloody, and eventually finishing his opponent because it was just too much pressure.

Fight analysts forecasted the Gaethje-Ferguson encounter would resemble two violent hurricanes heading straight for one another, creating a “fujiwhara effect.”

“Either I’m going to sleep or they’re going to sleep,” Gaethje said before the fight.

What was displayed, however, were adjectives that are generally not considered in the realm of a Gaethje fight — cool, calm and collected. He displayed intuitive counterpunching, effective aggression, and great patience, eventually earning a fifth round TKO over one of the sport’s most durable fighters.

“It was a choice. I chose to be more methodical,” said Gaethje, when he was asked about his new fighting style on the Morning Kombat podcast. “At the end of the day, let’s not get hit. If you don’t get hit you’re not asleep and if you’re not asleep you can create damage, and I’m the best at that.”

The victory garnered Gaethje the interim lightweight strap, a No. 1 contender spot, and Saturday’s showdown with the undefeated lightweight champion.

Nurmagomedov (28-0) was born in Soviet Russia in a village called Kirovaul in the Republic of Dagestan. He started to accumulate weapons in his combat arsenal at an early age, training in freestyle wrestling (age 11) , judo (age 15), combat sambo (age 17), and then graduating to MMA with a resume of combat experiences.

The 32-year-old utilizes the weaponry he stockpiled growing up to elicit a force that acts as a pressure cooker.

Gaethje and Nurmagomedov are nearly identical on paper — similar age, height, weight, reach and record, and both started their MMA careers one month apart, 12 years ago.

The tale of the tape may read the same but these two fighters’ philosophies on effective violence are quite different.

The combat algorithm that Nurmagomedov presents to his opponents is as mystifying as it is difficult to solve. His opponents know exactly what he’s going to do, yet can’t stop it.

Nurmagomedov’s style forces his opponents to go into a defensive mindset. He initiates wrestling exchanges so the opponent has to constantly defend against the takedown. He pressures his opponents back to the cage and then uses the fence as an ally. When he finally secures the takedown he grapevines his opponent’s legs, utilizes outstanding wrist control — “the Dagestani handcuff” — and begins to hammer away with punches.

“They are all good when we stand up, but when I grab them it changes,” Nurmagomedov said in a pre-fight presser.

Gaethje’s hands act as heavy clubs. When they make contact with the opponent it scrambles their senses like eggs on a frying pan only to have their chin served up as the main dish.

Gaethje’s style simply creates a tsunami of strikes in an attempt to drown his opponent. He delivers blistering right hands and left hooks, staunch leg kicks, never taking more than one step back, and if he gets countered he shells up and fires back immediately.

“I cause damage. I have dense bones and I’m going to kick his legs and that’s where it’s going to start,” Gaethje said in the pre-fight presser.

This fight will boil down to two distinct questions.

Can Gaethje treat the fence like lava and stay away?

Can Nurmagomedov handle Gaethje’s power?

Depending on the answers to those two questions, either Gaethje will take his seat on the throne as the new lightweight king or Nurmagomedov will continue to wear the crown as MMA’s most unstoppable force of all-time.

UFC 254 will showcase more Arizona talent on the card, all of which are coming out of the Phoenix gym, The MMA Lab. One of the fights has middleweight title implications for the winner — Jared Cannonier (13-4) versus Australia’s Robert Whittaker (21-5).

The winner of that bout should be next in line to face the dynamo middleweight champion Israel Adesanya (20-0) in 2021.

Womens fifth-ranked flyweight knockout specialist Lauren Murphy (13-4) is looking to add to her three-fight win streak against unranked Liliya Shakirova (8-1) of Uzbekistan. If Murphy wins she probably won’t see movement in the rankings because of the enormous mismatch.

Also, rising bantamweight prospect Casey Kenney (15-2-1) is on quick return to Fight Island against Nathaniel Wood (17-4), hoping to earn his second win in just three weeks. With a win, Kenney should see a number next to his name.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Christopher Lopez is an Arizona native who expects to graduate in December 2020 with a master’s degree in sports journalism.