While Michael Chandler rates Justin Gaethje’s skills highly, he doesn’t think he’ll be the one to dethrone Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Gaethje (28-0 MMA, 12-0 UFC) challenges lightweight champion Nurmagomedov (28-0 MMA, 12-0 UFC) in the UFC 254 main event Oct. 24 in a fight that the newly signed Chandler will serve as a backup for.
If Chandler (21-5 MMA, 0-0 UFC) doesn’t get to fill in for either fighter, he will most certainly have his eyes on the matchup. It’s not guaranteed he’ll get an immediate title shot in his UFC debut, but the former three-time Bellator lightweight champion is confident he eventually will cross paths with the winner, who in his eyes, will be Nurmagomedov.
On paper, many are confident that with Gaethje’s wrestling background and knockout power, he will be Nurmagomedov’s toughest test to date. Chandler agrees, but thinks it’s hard to pick against the undefeated champion.
“I think Justin Gaethje looked like the best lightweight in the world in May when he fought Tony Ferguson,” Chandler told ESPN. “That version of Justin Gaethje, who stepped into that cage calm and composed and confident, smart and sharp, fighting with the tenacity that he normally brings to the cage, but not the overzealous, overanxious Justin Gaethje ‘I wanna rip your head off’ fighter that we’re used to seeing – that was the best version of Justin Gaethje that we’ve ever seen.
“Now, you take into consideration that Justin Gaethje was a Division-I wrestler, you take into consideration that we haven’t seen his wrestling, but know he’s got great athleticism, great hips, great instincts inside the cage – I think he poses the best threat that we’ve seen thus far against a guy like Khabib. But I still think you’re crazy if you do bet against Khabib.”
After a rocky start to his UFC career, Gaethje has recently tamed his style, which has led to four straight finishes. He found success in being the aggressor against Tony Ferguson, but Chandler thinks Nurmagomedov won’t let him dictate the pace.
“You’re crazy if you bet against him not being able to take Justin down,” Chandler said. “You’re crazy if you think Justin is going to be able to go in there and land combinations at will like he was Tony Ferguson. The reason I like the Tony Ferguson fight is, he’s a standing target. He’s a stationary target. He takes punches in order to give punches later on down the line.
“Khabib’s not that guy. Khabib is going to be in Justin’s face. We haven’t seen Justin back up a lot. I think Justin is going to be fighting on his heels a lot, which is never something we’ve seen him able to do. His leg kicks won’t be as effective on his heels. His power punches, his hooks, aren’t going to be as effective on his heels. And I think we’re still going to see, I won’t say dominant victory by Khabib, but I think we’re going to see a lot of the same Khabib-esque type of fight, just in a less dominant fashion.”