The UFC’s light-weight title will probably be unified on Oct. 24, Dana White introduced on Tuesday, and compelling storylines surrounding Khabib Nurmagomedov defending his belt towards interim champ Justin Gaethje function a backdrop for what’s prone to be one of many greatest fights in UFC historical past.

Probably the most poignant query mark surrounds Nurmagomedov, who misplaced his father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, on July three to problems introduced on by the coronavirus after he underwent coronary heart surgical procedure. Their relationship was extraordinarily shut, and Abdulmanap was additionally Khabib’s coach.

Nurmagomedov hasn’t fought since beating Dustin Poirier in Abu Dhabi on Sept. 7, 2019. How will the layoff have an effect on one of many biggest fighters in MMA historical past? There’s discuss he may need to struggle simply twice extra, and White mentioned he is open to the potential of Nurmagomedov ending off his profession vs. Georges St-Pierre.

Gaethje (22-2, 5-2 UFC) was a Division I All-American wrestler who’s additionally one of the vital dynamic strikers in MMA. Will this be the proper mixture handy Nurmagomedov (28-0, 12-Zero UFC) his first loss? Gaethje battered Tony Ferguson on Could 9 to win the interim belt and may have a ton of momentum.

And naturally, there’s all the time the specter of Conor McGregor hanging over this struggle. He says he is retired, however doubters stay. After the Oct. 24 date was introduced Tuesday, McGregor tweeted that he is auctioning off gadgets from his Jan. 18 win over Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, insisting they have been from the final time he’ll set foot within the Octagon. Consider him? Nurmagomedov has been constant that he will not give McGregor a rematch after dealing with him on Oct. 6, 2018, however Gaethje has been extra open to the potential payday.

ESPN’s panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim weigh in on the standing of maybe the UFC’s most unstable weight class.

It will likely be over a yr between Khabib’s fights, how do you count on the layoff to have an effect on him?

Helwani: I do not. He was off for 11 months earlier than he fought Poirier and seemed simply nearly as good as ever. It is not like he is been injured; he is wholesome and coaching. In fact, the large X issue is how he’ll react to the passing of his father, Abdulmanap. I would reasonably not speculate on that, but it surely’s vital to keep in mind that Abdulmanap wasn’t simply Khabib’s father, he was his coach, mentor and greatest pal, too. It will likely be fascinating to see how he feels mentally going into this one contemplating the traumatic previous few months for the Nurmagomedov household.

Okamoto: By no means. Zero. The one factor you hear again and again about Nurmagomedov — from actually everybody who is aware of him effectively — is that he takes no day without work. It is a part of what makes him particular. The cash, fame, success — none of it has modified his work ethic. His complete life has mainly been spent in his fitness center. Even over the past a number of months of his father’s life, there was proof and secondhand accounts of Nurmagomedov doing a little sort of coaching. He is had lengthy layoffs earlier than, and clearly they have not been a detriment, judging by his good report.

Raimondi: It will not. Nurmagomedov has taken prolonged layoffs earlier than. When he beat Dustin Poirier, he had not fought in 11 months. When he beat Edson Barboza, Nurmagomedov had been out for 13 months. Justin Gaethje is a superb fighter, and he’s an absolute handful. If Gaethje have been to get the higher of Nurmagomedov, it’s going to be as a result of he presents a tough type matchup. It is unlikely that the layoff will play any issue.

Wagenheim: It is not simply the yr off that can have an effect on Nurmagomedov however particularly the household tragedy that occurred earlier this month. To achieve some semblance of understanding of what Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov meant to his son, go discover one of many on-line movies through which Khabib is requested about his dad. The sometimes stoic fighter completely lights up with the deepest childlike admiration. Khabib’s dad was a coach, a mentor, an inspiration. That’s irreplaceable.

In what areas do you see Gaethje having the benefit?

Helwani: Gaethje is a greater striker and hits more durable than Nurmagomedov. If he can hold this struggle standing, I feel he has nearly as good of an opportunity as anybody at 155 kilos to be the primary particular person to beat the champ. Folks usually neglect Gaethje has a stable wrestling background. His takedown protection is nice. If he is ready to stuff a number of takedowns and switch the struggle right into a kickboxing match, look out.

Okamoto: Knockout energy. And if we’re evaluating him to earlier Nurmagomedov opponents, cardio. Nurmagomedov drowns his opponents. They’re a lesser model of themselves because the struggle drags on resulting from sheer exhaustion. However Gaethje is a cardio machine. So is Tony Ferguson, which was a part of the attraction of that struggle, earlier than the pandemic canceled it. Gaethje, for my cash, has a greater likelihood of stuffing a takedown than Ferguson, although, and equal endurance. If Gaethje rocks Nurmagomedov — which, remember, Nurmagomedov has been hit — he has a greater likelihood of stuffing a takedown than most, and his killer intuition is thru the roof in his latest fights.

Raimondi: On the toes is the place Gaethje excels. He has to have the ability to hold the struggle there so long as doable with the intention to have the perfect likelihood to win. Gaethje mentioned on Joe Rogan’s present lately that he’ll must kick Nurmagomedov eight instances within the calf and Nurmagomedov will probably be compromised. It looks as if his technique will probably be to break the legs of Nurmagomedov sufficient in order that Nurmagomedov’s wrestling will not be at its greatest. That is not a recreation plan others have had — or at the very least have executed — towards undefeated Nurmagomedov. Gaethje does have the ability set greatest fitted to it, although.

Wagenheim: If I have been cornering Gaethje, the final phrase I’d say to him as he went out for Spherical 1 can be “calves.” He’s vicious together with his low kicks, and he has to make use of them. Once more and time and again. Certain, the No. 1 key for the challenger will probably be staying away from the cage, the place Khabib does his greatest work with takedowns. However Gaethje can’t strategy this struggle with a defensive mindset. He should put Khabib on the defensive. Gaethje is by far the higher striker. He has the punches and kicks to harm the champ. Use them.

The place do you give the sting to Khabib?

Helwani: Fairly apparent one: wrestling. I contemplate Nurmagomedov to be essentially the most dominant fighter in MMA historical past due to his wrestling, but it surely’s extra than simply that. It is his energy, his relentless assault, his confidence … the entire bundle is simply spectacular. He does not simply maul his foes, he suffocates them. Can he do the identical to a recreation Justin Gaethje? I’m excited to seek out out.

Okamoto: Clearly grappling. And actually, that is it. Gaethje is a greater striker. Extra energy. He has the same stage of expertise to Nurmagomedov. They’re each completely keen and cozy to go 5 rounds. They’re each clever. They’re each well-coached. The one space I see Nurmagomedov considerably higher in is grappling, however he is normally simply so a lot better in that space, that is all it takes.

Raimondi: Wrestling, actually. Grappling as effectively. That is the important thing to the entire struggle. Can Gaethje reach holding Nurmagomedov off him? Nobody has been in a position to try this but, and it has been the principle ingredient as to why Nurmagomedov has been dominant. If Nurmagomedov takes Gaethje down, will Gaethje be capable to get again up and in place to strike? And the way a lot does Nurmagomedov’s wrestling have an effect on Gaethje’s putting? Will Gaethje be preoccupied with worrying about stopping takedowns? These are the sorts of issues Nurmagomedov does to an opponent. He is the perfect MMA wrestler presently within the UFC. Everybody is aware of it is coming, however nobody has been capable of do something about it.

Wagenheim: I see eight benefits for Khabib: the partitions of the Octagon. The champ has proven, time after time, that if he will get an opponent towards the cage, he’ll get a takedown. And as soon as he has the struggle on the canvas, he’s unequalled at holding it there. He is truly gotten higher at that. Early in his UFC run, in 2013, Khabib had 21 takedowns towards Abel Trujillo. However that meant Trujillo managed to get again to his toes 18 instances within the three-round bout. Current opponents haven’t been as profitable at getting out from beneath the Dagestani lead blanket. As we have seen in his previous two fights specifically, Nurmagomedov makes use of his takedowns and smothering high place to put on down an opponent and soften him for the end.

Will Gaethje be Khabib’s most harmful opponent?

Helwani: I consider so. Due to his wrestling background and the way in which he strikes. I feel Conor McGregor might have given Nurmagomedov points, however we later discovered he did not prepare for that struggle correctly. In order that’s why I feel this will probably be Nurmagomedov’s hardest struggle up to now. If the Gaethje who beat Tony Ferguson in Could exhibits up towards Nurmagomedov in October, I feel he has an excellent likelihood to beat the champ. If he fights good and does not get reckless, which he hasn’t for some time now, I like his possibilities lots. Bear in mind, formally, Nurmagomedov has misplaced just one spherical in his 12 UFC fights, and that was Spherical three vs. McGregor two years in the past.

Okamoto: Sure. It is so cliché to say that, but it surely’s the reality. It could have been Tony Ferguson had that struggle truly occurred [before pandemic-related travel restrictions canceled it], and Gaethje is coming off a dominant efficiency towards Ferguson. Gaethje will not need to give up a takedown, in fact, however he will not reside in concern of 1. His scrambling capacity is large, and he is sturdy within the clinch. He is not a headhunter; he’ll throw successfully to the physique. And he backs his opponents up. We have by no means actually seen Nurmagomedov should take a step again. He is unorthodox, faster than he most likely will get credit score for, and as soon as he even touches your hips, you are in a nasty spot. Make no mistake, Gaethje continues to be an underdog right here. However sure, that is Nurmagomedov’s hardest struggle up to now.

Raimondi: Nurmagomedov has fought a number of elite fighters within the light-weight division, but it surely does seem to be Gaethje has the attributes wanted to beat somebody like Nurmagomedov. Whether or not that really occurs may be very a lot up within the air. Nurmagomedov is really one of many biggest fighters of all time. And few, if any, have actually come near beating him. Gaethje, I’d say, in his present, extra affected person iteration has nearly as good of an opportunity as anybody to finish Nurmagomedov’s undefeated streak. That does not imply he’ll do it, however Gaethje is a legit menace.

Wagenheim: Gaethje has the instruments to make this Nurmagomedov’s hardest problem. However so did Dustin Poirier. And so did Conor McGregor. They each acquired smashed. I suppose one might say Gaethje encompasses the perfect of Poirier (slick grappling) and the perfect of McGregor (energy putting), so he is a extra multifaceted downside to unravel. However the reality is, we can’t know the reply to this query till Nurmagomedov has Gaethje clinched towards the cage … as he’ll, in some unspecified time in the future early within the struggle. If the fighters go to the canvas with the champ on high, and the struggle stays there, Gaethje will find yourself similar to all who got here earlier than. But when Gaethje can get off the cage and separate, take the struggle to the middle of the Octagon, Khabib might have issues.

Do you count on the winner to face Conor McGregor?

Helwani: Onerous to say proper now. McGregor desires to struggle, however they simply aren’t eager on getting him a struggle as a result of they cannot earn money off the gate proper now. It is an actual disgrace that we’ve got a wholesome, centered McGregor, who was useless set on combating 3 times in 2020, and now right here we’re speaking about foremost occasions in October and he has fought solely as soon as. So, I would not be shocked in the event that they hold him on the sideline, however I additionally would not be shocked in the event that they get him a struggle earlier than the winner is able to return. I feel they need to do the latter. Preserve him energetic. Give the individuals what they need.

Okamoto: If Gaethje wins, sure. You’d clearly have to contemplate the potential of a right away rematch as effectively, but when I have been to guess, Gaethje would struggle McGregor. If Nurmagomedov wins, not as a lot of a house run. In any respect. I undoubtedly nonetheless assume it is a chance, as a result of the UFC desires it and would throw some huge cash round to try to make it occur. But when Nurmagomedov actually desires to stroll away after two extra fights — and he is already overwhelmed McGregor decisively as soon as — I feel we would see him vacate the title, let McGregor struggle whomever for it (Gaethje, Dustin Poirier), and Nurmagomedov would struggle Georges St-Pierre. If St-Pierre is keen to return out of retirement, in fact, which I consider he can be.

Raimondi: I do. That appears to be the most definitely state of affairs. However it is also geared on when the winner would be capable to flip round and struggle once more. McGregor needed to remain energetic in 2020, and if he fights the winner of this bout, then he most likely may have fought simply as soon as this yr, again in January. McGregor introduced his retirement, sad with what the UFC was providing him with regard to fights. We’ll see whether or not watching this one piques his curiosity in returning towards the winner.

Wagenheim: If Nurmagomedov will get his hand raised, I do not see McGregor in his speedy future. Khabib has mentioned he would not give Conor a rematch till he has earned it, and January’s win over a pale Donald Cerrone — the Irishman’s solely victory since 2016 — was not sufficient to advantage a title shot. In fact, McGregor is the game’s greatest money cow, and the UFC certainly would like to put him on its greatest stage. So if Gaethje wins, he might find yourself defending towards McGregor. However that will be a disgrace, as there are extra deserving challengers.