Justin Gaethje: ‘Puzzle’ of Khabib Nurmagomedov already written, Tony Ferguson harder to solve

Justin Gaethje: ‘Puzzle’ of Khabib Nurmagomedov already written, Tony Ferguson harder to solve

There are two things Justin Gaethje expects he’ll need when he face Tony Ferguson on Saturday: pain tolerance and patience.

With so many unknowns inherent to Ferguson’s style, Gaethje figures he’ll need a lot of the latter to find an answer to the different weapons employed by the one-time interim champ, who aims to clear one last hurdle before he meets champ Khabib Nurmagomedov.

“I’m going to get elbowed,” Gaethje told MMA Fighting from Jacksonville, Fla., where he’s two days away from a pay-per-view headliner opposite Ferguson at UFC 249. “I’d be a fool to go in there and think I’m going to get out of there unscathed. Nine of 10 times, that’s not going to happen.

“We have seen him get hit, we’ve never seen him get finished. No one ever put Edson to sleep like he did it. I know how hard it’s going to be to find the shot, but it only takes one, and I possess the skills and the power to land it. Tony is a very unique fighter, and it’s going to take time and patience to figure out how to be successful.”

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It’s that blunt pragmatism that makes Gaethje a unique challenger for Ferguson, who’s promised to damage his shorter-notice opponent as much as possible when they meet for a potential five rounds at the VyStar Veteran’s Memorial Arena.

Ferguson has won his past 12 fights with a mixture of grit, unpredictability and technical expertise. And Gaethje, per usual, is willing to suffer a little extra in order to clear his final hurdle to a UFC title shot, which could be there sooner than he expected. Nurmagomedov recently amended his potential timeline for a return, opening the door to a July title unifier at the conclusion of the Ramadan holiday.

In light of UFC 249’s postponement, Gaethje has had more time to prepare for the uncertainty ahead, and he’s used every bit.

“I think the puzzle is going to be harder,” he said of Ferguson. “There’s so many unknows with Tony. You know what Khabib is going to do, and that’s going to be take you down, try to push you against the fence. And if not, he’s going to try and take shots from the space in the middle of the octagon.

“I believe that he can’t take me down in the middle of the octagon, and I can stay off the fence. So that puzzle is written. How do you beat Tony? I don’t know. I’m going to find out.”

The undefeated Nurmagomedov isn’t smooth sailing for any opponent, as his unbeaten resume proves. Many of the Russian’s victims said beforehand that the champ’s wrestling won’t defeat them, only to be sucked into the kind of fight where they’re unable to stop it.

Gaethje might or might not be the guy to take out the UFC’s two best lightweights. Right now, he’s in between them as the potential spoiler to an oft-canceled fight. Either he’ll completely rewrite the narrative of Nurmagomedov and Ferguson, or he’ll learn his limitations.

But it’s nothing short of a mission for “The Highlight,” and one with national implications in this hunkered-down world.

“That’s all I dream about is the opportunity to prove I’m the best,” Gaethje said. “But yeah, they’ve got some very personal issues. I’ve got nothing to do with that. But we’re fighting for the right to represent the United States of America against Russia’s best. I believe it’s hard for the United States to get behind one fighter, because we’re such a melting pot and we’re from so many places. But I believe that I can possibly bring us together and go to war with the United States behind me, and that’s huge.”

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