Former two-division champion Daniel Cormier believes Khabib Nurmagomedov will face his greatest challenge at this month’s UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi, but says the lightweight champion will emerge from his clash with Justin Gaethje – and eventually retire – undefeated.
Nurmagomedov, 28-0, returns to the octagon on October 24 in the headline bout at UFC 254, when he defends his lightweight crown against interim-champion Gaethje.
The encounter marks the conclusion to the five-event "Return to Fight Island", the UFC's second residency in the capital. Gaethje set up the encounter by dominating Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 in May.
Cormier, a close friend and teammate of Nurmagomedov, will be calling the action octagon-side in his commentary role for ESPN. Recently retired, the American spent considerable time alongside Nurmagomedov at American Kickboxing Academy in California from 2012, so he knows the Dagestan native better than most.
In Gaethje (22-2), however, he acknowledges that Nurmagomedov is going up against the most serious threat to his unbeaten record.
“I think it’s the toughest fight in the division,” Cormier said at Tuesday’s media day on Yas Island. “Justin Gaethje is an absolute stud. They call him ‘The Human Highlight,’ the most exciting guy in the game.
"It’s true. Not just the most exciting guy in the game, but all of combat sports. There is no fighter in the world of sports that is more exciting than Justin Gaethje. Boxing, kickboxing, mixed martial arts – you’ll find nobody more exciting and better.
"The Justin Gaethje that fought Tony Ferguson in May is more dangerous to Khabib than anyone he has ever stepped in the octagon with.”
A former NCAA Division 1 wrestler, Gaethje is said to possess the tools to provide real resistance to Nurmagomedov’s stellar ground game, while he is considered one of the most fearsome strikers in mixed martial arts. He is currently ranked the lightweight division's No 1 challenger.
“With everybody, [Khabib] tells you [what he’s going to do],” Cormier said. “But you’ve got to be able to stop it. He’s become so good at what he does that you’ve got to be able to stop it. That’s why Justin’s the most dangerous, because Justin has the skill set to stop it.”
Khabib on 'warrior' Gaethje
That said, Cormier is tipping Nurmagomedov to come out on top, as the champion aims to move one step nearer to that 30-0 mark. There have been suggestions Nurmagomedov will reach that and then retire, with perhaps a "legacy fight" against Georges St-Pierre next April his final bout. Nurmagomedov, though, has said recently that he is not looking past Gaethje.
“I don’t know if anyone is going to beat him,” Cormier said. “I’m confident in believing that Khabib will retire undefeated. Nobody will beat this guy. He is too committed to who he is supposed to be to get beat by anyone.
“No -pounder should feel that strong when he grabs you.”