There's a strong argument to be made entering Saturday's lightweight title unification bout at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi that Justin Gaethje represents the toughest and most dangerous challenge of Khabib Nurmagomedov's incredible unbeaten streak.
Admittedly, it's a moniker that used to be reserved by most experts for Tony Ferguson until "El Cucuy" was soundly beaten in a fifth-round TKO by Gaethje in May. It also doesn't hurt that Gaethje brings an accomplished amateur wrestling background and combines it with one-punch knockout power and a level of physicality inside the cage that knows no peer.
Yet regardless of whether or not the above statement is true regarding the chances Gaethje (22-2) has in handing Nurmagomedov (28-0) the first loss of his career when they meet inside the Flash Forum on Yas Island, "The Highlight" remains certain of one thing.
"[Nurmagomedov's] plan is that he wants to make me quit. But I don't quit," Gaethje told CBS Sports' "Morning Kombat" last week. "I promise you guys, I ain't going out like no bitch."
To paraphrase the name of rapper 50 Cent's 2003 debut album, the 31-year-old Gaethje's working motto entering the biggest fight of his career might as well be "win the UFC championship or die tryin'." For as crude as the latter half of that equation might sound, Gaethje doesn't shy away from how much his lack of disregard for his own future fuels his ability to be at his best come fight night.
"I don't approach this to make sure that I am still able to function later, which is stupid because that would suck," Gaethje said. "But my mindset is not that. I can die any day, anytime, right now. Who knows? That's how I approach everyday."
Gaethje arrived in UFC as a 17-fight pro veteran in 2017, fresh off five successful defenses of his World Series of Fighting lightweight title. But he brought with him a reputation for both action and an almost unnatural willingness to welcome danger.
One year later, Gaethje had almost instantly established himself as the UFC's most violent and exciting competitor. But being MMA's answer to Arturo Gatti as a veritable bonus machine took its toll as Gaethje compiled two knockout defeats in three UFC fights and accrued a scary amount of damage in getting there.
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What took place over the next two years under the watchful eye of head coach and master strategist Trevor Wittman was an evolution no one saw coming. By refining his craft just enough without sacrificing the level of danger his striking had on opponents, Gaethje authored four consecutive knockout wins over James Vick, Edson Barboza, Donald Cerrone and Ferguson without taking much punishment in return.
Almost overnight, Gaethje was reborn. Initially thought of as more "TV friendly fighter" than legitimate UFC title contender, he now found himself ranked among the pound-for-pound best fighters in the world.
But was it really that simple as just waking up and deciding that his quest to become champion was now more important than his former one to make memorable fights? Could it really be that easy?
"It actually was as simple as that. It was a choice," Gaethje said. "I chose to fight like that in the beginning and then I chose to change things and be more methodical. You can make it as complicated as you possibly want but at the end of the day it was, 'Let's not get hit.' If they don't hit you hard enough, you don't go to sleep. If you don't go to sleep, you can cause damage and I'm the best at that. It was really just a choice."
Although Gaethje hasn't used his wrestling much at all as a professional from an offensive standpoint, he believes the fact that he has it there from a foundational standpoint will ultimately be the difference as to why he can defeat Nurmagomedov despite the fact that fellow elites Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier -- the latter of whom stopped Gaethje in 2018 -- proved unable to.
"I think [Nurmagomedov] is great at fighting and great at what he does, but I think he has not had the opposition that most have had coming up," Gaethje said. "He won his belt from Al Iaquinta who is so far from world class, in my eyes, as a fighter. His win against Dustin Poirier was impressive [but] Dustin Poirier did not grow up wrestling his whole life. He is a boxer and has a good guillotine but outside of that, he's not an explosive fighter. The Conor McGregor fight was impressive but, again, not a guy who grew up wrestling his whole life.
"As much as I have worked at stopping takedowns and taking someone down, I have worked on staying off the cage, getting up off the bottom and not letting someone hold me down."
Although Gaethje's style is as calculated as it is crude, he believes there's a method to his madness that centers around damage. And it's that same damage over the course of a 25-minute fight that Gaethje believes Nurmagomedov will have trouble enduring mostly because his wrestling style is designed upon avoiding that level of hand-to-hand combat.
"I will create damage, one way or another. The thing about Tony [Ferguson] is, he loves that. One thing about Khabib is he does not love that," Gaethje said. "His main priority is to not take damage so he can live a quality of life. That's admirable but when I hit you, where does your mind go whenever you first thought is to not get hurt? I don't know. I'm excited to see his reaction to that.
"He has been clipped in fights but he has never taken damage. I'm talking damage and nerves, and bone to bone. When one person's bones touches another person's bones, something has to give there. It's physics. It's as true as true can be -- when bones touch, one shall give. I don't think he has taken sustained damage."
Gaethje's willingness to regularly enter such a dark place that most fighters purposely try to avoid might be the thing that truly separates him from typical Nurmagomedov opponents. The cat nip in this case that keeps Gaethje so addictively coming back is the elevated level of adrenaline that pumps through his veins when a fight's danger has been so dramatically escalated.
"When your life is on the line, your body dumps different chemicals into your body that you do not get dumped into your body unless you are in a life or death situation," Gaethje said. "That feeling is special. To be comfortable there, I can't tell you how to do it but I have found comfortability there and I love being in that place. There is no other feeling on earth that can match it, I believe."
Uber machismo and a willingness to go further in the face of danger inside the fighting cage surely sounds good in print. But preventing such a dominantly one-dimensional champion as Nurmagomedov from having his way with you on the ground while preventing you from even attempting to execute whatever intelligent game plan you brought in is another story completely.
Twenty-eight have tried against Nurmagomedov and 28 have failed. And even Gaethje, in a moment of truth and humility, admits that even he isn't sure he can be the one to finally solve the living legend for the first time inside the cage.
The difference between him and everyone else who has failed in their attempt to expose or destroy Nurmagomedov, however, is that Gaethje doesn't see himself slowing down or stopping his pursuit regardless of fatigue, pain, dismemberment or even the threat of compromising the rest of his life.
From that perspective, yes, Gaethje is different and that may be enough to make him more dangerous than anyone else Nurmagomedov has faced. Time will tell whether it makes him anymore successful.
"Will I be able to? Who knows," Gaethje said. "But I'll tell you one thing, I'm going to try and I sure as hell ain't going out like no bitch when I get in there."