It couldn’t happen, could it?

Somehow it seems impossible to conceive of a world in which Khabib Nurmagomedov does not rule the lightweight division.

The Dagestani superstar has grappled, battered and strangled his way through more than a decade of competition, mauling 28 men on his way to becoming the UFC’s most dominant champion.

But in Justin Gaethje, Khabib faces his toughest test yet.

Gaethje, the reigning interim lightweight champion, comes into the fight a changed man from the all-action, bloodthirsty upstart that entered the UFC back in July 2017.

A former World Series Of Fighting champion, Gaethje had already amassed a decent cult following before joining the UFC thanks to his particular brand of carnage, blending relentless concussive striking with a total disregard for his own welfare.

Upon joining the UFC, Gaethje picked up where he left, producing a Fight Of The Night barnburner against Michael Johnson in which the 31-year-old American was repeatedly hurt and stung before exacting brutal revenge on an exhausted opponent.

That proved to be the playbook for Gaethje twice more in subsequent wars against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier – only on both occasions, it was the Arizona fighter left face down on the canvas.

Could those defeats be the making of the next lightweight champion? Dan Hardy believes so.

“I just made a choice not to get hit anymore”
- Justin Gaethje

“The reality is that Justin Gaethje, after those two losses, has got a better chance of beating Khabib than he did before,” the fighter-turned-analyst explained recently on his Full Reptile podcast.

“And this is why I’m excited to see fighters take losses because fighters do get better from losses. And for as good as Khabib is at 28-0, he’s never been afforded the opportunity to better himself after a loss.”

Forced to return to the drawing board following that pair of painful losses to Alvarez and Poirier, Gaethje has returned to action a more refined version of his former self.

Under the tutelage of long-time coach Trevor Wittman, ‘The Highlight’ has retained his ability to deliver on his violent intentions but crucially, Gaethje has finally learned the cost of placing himself in harm’s way.

“I just made a choice to not get hit anymore,” he told BT Sport’s Adam Catterall during an exclusive interview on Fight Island this week.

“I never cared [previously] if they hit me because they couldn’t put me to sleep. When you’re in there, you can feel who is hitting harder. Your senses are heightened in that scenario, you can always understand if you need to not get hit.

“Everytime [fighters used to] hit me, I think ‘I don’t feel a thing’ so there was nothing to worry about. Now I’m facing world class opposition and these guys hit harder. They have better timing. They’re just better athletes.”

Despite adopting a more cautious approach on his return to action following the loss to Poirier, Gaethje motored through a trio of show-stopping first-round knockouts, taking the scalps of James Vick, Edson Barboza and then Donald Cerrone in increasingly efficient style.

Performance bonuses in seven UFC appearances

But it was a career best win over Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 that truly announced Gaethje 2.0’s arrival on the lightweight scene as he stylishly picked apart his opponent to hand El Cucuy his first loss in 11 years, securing the interim 155lb belt in the process.

Does Gaethje believe he’s now ready for the ultimate test in Khabib Nurmagomedov?

“I think I’ve been preparing for this my whole life,” he told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto last month.

“I think I’ve felt what he’s going to feel like multiple times. A lot of those times I was not able to come out on top but I didn’t get to punch those people, I didn’t get to knee those people. In wrestling you move forwards and you’re constantly engaging. Now it’s a different game.

“I’m constantly at a distance that you feel you can shoot [a takedown] but right away when you make that commitment you understand that I’m not there. I’m really counting on that.

“If you go back and watch my fights and realise why I was so effective against Donald Cerrone, Edson Barboza, even James Vick and certainly against Tony Ferguson, my ability to control distance with my feet is second to none.

“It’s not even being analysed because it’s not something that is being used as a method, I guess. Trevor has been working with me on how to use my feet to get to a certain distance and stay off the fence. Never going straight backwards, always moving to the side, constantly shifting and changing levels to make them reset so I can move one way or the other. I have to stay off the fence.

“If I’m on the fence then I lost. But I believe he’s going to have a really hard time putting me on the fence and I know I’m going to see his blood. I want him to see his blood and I want to see his reaction.”

Watch UFC 254: Khabib vs Gaethje exclusively live on BT Sport Box Office HD from 7pm on Saturday evening. BT Sport subscribers can watch the UFC 254 prelims from 5pm as part of their current package. Click here for more information on this event.