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ABU DHABI – “I hit him with 3 or 4 good solid body shots. Ali pulled me into a clinch and asked, “Is that all you got George?” That was about all I had.”- George Foreman. That same question that broke a brooding monster in the rumble in the jungle 50 years ago resurfaced again in the fight game. UFC light champ Khabib Nurmagomedov, 32, most famous for his overwhelming wrestling game and vicious ground and pound used that same cruel question to break another brave opponent.
That opponent, Justin Gaethje, 31 on fight-night, was born in to a mining family in Arizona. He was every bit as tough as the rock he realized he’d spend all his life drilling into if he didn’t make a change. A wrestling scholarship put him through college and across the mat with some of the best wrestlers in MMA before he knew what those letters meant.
Justin excelled in his new profession. He was crude as the copper his family dug when he began. He gained a cult following through smaller organizations. He did it the hard way. Mostly by punting his opponents lead leg into the front row. His game revolved around pressure which predictably ended up in a bit of the old ultraviolence. He fought like Dee Dee Ramone should have lead him with a “1234” rather than a bell. The more technical took advantage until Justin grew more technical himself.
Justin came up big in some of the finest performances in the quiet rooms of the covid era. His masterpiece came against Tony Ferguson, a borderline feral human being who turned his last four years worth of opponents into bloody messes. Justin was the underdog but technically took apart the long time number one contender. Showing new patience and seasoning as a well rounded striker.
When Justin and Khabib met it was in an empty arena on Fight Island, the UFC’s covid bubble in Abu Dhabi. They flew in together. Khabib got the sense Justin wasn’t acclimating well. Built a game plan of putting pressure on all night and to keep applying it. As the fight began Justin’s heavy hands didn’t desert him. His leg kicks echoed in the empty arena and threw the champion off balance. As the first round comes to it’s last minute, Justin lands a combination that makes you cringe out of sympathy.
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Khabib asks the question. “Is that all you got?” They both knew, in that moment. Justin had to admit the same thing George Foreman had to admit to himself all those years ago in Zaire. The fight game is one of mutually assured destruction. You are only as viable as your ability to damage or at least control an opponent. Justin could damage Khabib, but not discourage him.
The round ends with Khabib attempting an arm bar while hammer fisting a Gaethje plainly saved by the bell. Justin fought for his life, like a drowning man. Smart money was on the tide. A triangle choke left Justin lifeless by the middle of second. Khabib cries for the loss of his father and retires undefeated at 29-0.
It was about all they all had.