It's hard to imagine a better version of Justin Gaethje than the one who handed out a one-sided beating of Tony Ferguson to capture the interim lightweight championship at UFC 249. That victory seemed to be the final stage in the evolution of Gaethje from wrestler to one-shot knockout artist to total package. On Saturday, Gaethje will look to show the extent of his growth when he challenges lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in the main event of.
According to head coach Trevor Wittman, the vast in-cage improvement was driven by a shift in Gaethje's purpose as a fighter.
"It is all about purpose for the athletes -- what they want to be -- and I work around that," Wittman said during a May appearance alongside Gaethje on the "Joe Rogan Experience" podcast. "Justin changed four fights ago when he said he wants to be a world champion. Before that, he wanted to be the most exciting fighter in the world."
Wittman is considered one of the most brilliant minds in MMA, and someone who can not only bring out the best in the fighters he trains but also lay out a game plan to accentuate his fighters' strengths and attack the vulnerabilities of the opposition. But executing complex plans against the highest-level opponents in the world requires a complete and total buy-in from a fighter.
Wittman has significantly pared down how many fighters he trains, focusing on other business interests and only working with those with whom he has a close, personal connection.
"The whole thing is, I'm there to assist," Wittman told Rogan. "I'm the co-pilot, there to draw the map and you've got to trust me around these corners. To be able to be coachable, if not, I'm just a waterboy. That's why I only coach a few now, and we have to be in it together."
In Nurmagomedov, Wittman will be trying to draw a map to uncharted territory. "The Eagle" is undefeated in 28 career fights and is building on a resume as arguably the most dominant champion in UFC history. No one has been able to stop Nurmagomedov's wrestling game, and that has nullified every fighter who comes in with a plan to try to strike with the champ.
Gaethje has a legitimate wrestling background, having earned All-American honors during his wrestling career at the University of Northern Colorado. He has not utilized that wrestling much since his striking game developed into one of the most dangerous in the 155-pound division. Gaethje has claimed that he doesn't engage in grappling unless forced because it's such a drain on his energy in a fight.
But Wittman, meanwhile, sees that grappling experience as a key weapon for their game plan against Nurmagomedov.
"No one's got to see his wrestling," Wittman told Rogan. "I met this guy watching him wrestle, and what he does is so unique. It's a total different style of wrestling that's hard to train for and it's kind of like a hidden weapon. I kind of feel like we're bringing something unique into this."
Wittman knows his fighters and realizing that they have a "hidden weapon" in their back pocket is key to the plan being laid out by the coach. And it has been clear both in how Gaethje has entered fights and how coach and fighter work together between rounds to make adjustments, Gaethje has developed into something of a perfect student for Wittman.
Even Nurmagomedov appears aware of how central Wittman is to Gaethje's potential success in their clash on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi.
"I think Justin, he has a very good coach -- just my opinion," Nurmagomedov said during a virtual press conference ahead of the event. "He has a great coach. If you can watch his last fight with Tony Ferguson, having cornered him, [Wittman] gave him very good advice. I think he has a very good and very great coach. Of course, Justin can fight. He can go deep. He has heart. But if you're talking about fighting IQ, I think I have much better than him."
The common line of thinking has long been that you need a perfectly-designed fighter executing the perfect plan to overcome Nurmagomedov. Were you to build that fighter, it would be someone who looks an awful lot like Gaethje, possessing massive power in his punches and kicks, and with legitimate high-end defensive wrestling abilities.
And you'd put a man like Wittman in that fighter's corner -- someone who is driven by a combination of personal connection to his fighters and the ability to draw the map that best suits what those fighters do well.
Saturday night in Abu Dhabi, Wittman and Gaethje will see if the map leads to gold.