FIGHT ISLAND — Justin Gaethje could use Conor McGregor's performance as a blueprint for how to beat Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Though McGregor tapped to a Nurmagomedov neck crank in the fourth round of a wild fight in 2018, the Russian's coach Javier Mendez and the UFC analyst Dan Hardy have both this week lauded the abilities the Irishman showed in that bout.
As the interim lightweight title holder, Gaethje challenges for Nurmagomedov's UFC lightweight championship on Saturday at UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi.
Gaethje, like McGregor, is a striker and so stylistically the main event pits a stand-up athlete against a wrestler.
There are technical differences between Gaethje and McGregor's striking, but the way McGregor was able to use defensive wrestling to his advantage in the first round, together with his successes in the third round, provides clues as to how Nurmagomedov's relentless pursuit of takedowns combined with ground-and-pound could be avoided.
Insider spoke to Hardy about Gaethje's chances of success, and whether any parts of the McGregor fight could provide learnings for the American ahead of the Nurmagomedov showdown.
"A lot of people discredit McGregor's takedown defense in that fight," Hardy told us. "That first takedown was a 45-second scramble which is better than most people do against Khabib in the first round.
"The third round, I think he defended three takedowns and I know there was a lot of people saying it's because Khabib wanted to stand with him, but I disagree.
"I think if Khabib could have taken it down in the third round he would have done. And the same with [Al] Iaquinta.
"Iaquinta took the fight on six days' notice and was able to stuff takedowns toward the end of the fight.
"The difference was he didn't have the conditioning or the punching power that Gaethje's got."
Nurmagomedov's head trainer Mendez, who founded the world-renowned American Kickboxing Academy, would perhaps agree with Hardy that McGregor's successes in defeat two years ago have been underrated.
Mendez admires McGregor so much that he still regards the former two-weight UFC champion as the No.1 threat to his fighter, with Gaethje as the No.2 threat.
"Who has won a round against Khabib? Conor," Mendez said at a Fight Island media day Thursday.
"And who has given Khabib a tough time in the first round? He took Conor down, but how much damage did Khabib give him?"
Gaethje is 'the biggest challenge' for Nurmagomedov, according to Hardy
Regardless, where Gaethje could succeed this weekend is by using his footwork and clubbing knockout power.
Hardy told Insider that he's long considered Gaethje as the biggest threat to Nurmagomedov's crown in the 155-pound weight class, even when the fighter left the World Series of Fighting organization four years ago to join the UFC.
"Ever since Justin Gaethje joined the UFC, I've been saying he's the most difficult stylistic match-up for Khabib given the fact his [wrestling] record coming out of high school was something like 191-9.
"He had 200 wrestling matches in high school before he even crossed over into collegiate wrestling," Hardy said.
When Gaethje's head trainer Trevor Wittman addressed the press this week, he too said his fighter has a secret weapon he's not even had to use yet, and he was talking about Gaethje's wrestling base.
The reason Gaethje has not had to use it yet is because he likes to beat opponents up with his fists.
"He forces people to stand with him," Hardy said.
It is to Wittman's credit that Gaethje has evolved so much in the past few years.
Since suffering back-to-back losses in his second and third UFC fights, to Eddie Alvarez in 2017 and Dustin Poirier the following year, Gaethje has since tallied a four-fight winning streak. The most impressive fight of that run was a remarkable fifth round stoppage win over Tony Ferguson in May.
"He picked up two losses and fundamentally changed everything about his style," Hardy said. "He's still trying to achieve the same thing, but now he's not there to be hit.
"The knockouts over [Edson] Barboza and [James] Vick were impressive, but the knockout over Cowboy [Donald Cerrone] was more impressive because that was Justin Gaethje moving backwards punching, which is not something we've seen before.
"The question really is, can he defend the takedown," Hardy said. "If he can force Khabib to stand for half a round at any point, that's when he gets very, very dangerous.
"And as good as Khabib's wrestling is, his takedown success rate is 47%. It's the persistence of the takedowns that get him the fights won.
"When he gets to the third round, we've seen him get takedowns stuffed by Conor McGregor, Al Iaquinta. And I feel someone who is confident to move forward and put him down with good footwork with knockout power, could be the Kryptonite.
"I definitely think this is the biggest challenge for Khabib but those two first rounds are going to be hellish."