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UFC 254 predictions: ‘Khabib vs Gaethje’ ESPN+ early ‘Prelims’ undercard preview

Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is bringing a bevy of “Prelims” fights to both UFC Fight Pass/ESPN+ and ESPN 2 this weekend (Sat., Oct. 24, 2020) when UFC 254: “Khabib vs. Gaethje” closes down “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi. MMAmania.com’s Patrick Stumberg kicks off the UFC 254 “Prelims” party with the first installment of a two-part undercard preview series below.

UFC Fight Night: Ramos v Murphy Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

“Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, hosts guaranteed Lightweight violence this Saturday (Oct. 24, 2020) when undefeated Lightweight kingpin Khabib Nurmagomedov faces destructive interim champion Justin Gaethje in the pay-per-view (PPV) main event of UFC 254. The early-afternoon PPV will also feature a pivotal Middleweight clash between former champion Robert Whittaker and fast-rising contender Jared Cannonier alongside a Heavyweight tussle pitting Alexander Volkov against Walt Harris.

UFC 254 features six “Prelims” undercard bouts this time around, split evenly between Fight Pass / ESPN+ and ESPN2 / ESPN+. Let’s start with the former ...

140 lbs.: Nathaniel Wood vs. Casey Kenney

Nathaniel Wood (17-4) has thus far lived up to his nickname, “The Prospect,” inside the Octagon, amassing a 4-1 record with three stoppage victories. Though he suffered his first loss since 2016 in a February bout with John Dodson, he got back on track last July with a decision over John Castaneda.

That trip to the judges was his first since 2015 and just his third overall.

Casey Kenney (15-2-1) put a 1-1 “Contender Series” run behind him to win LFA titles at Flyweight and Bantamweight, defeating current standout Brandon Royval in the process. He is likewise 4-1 in UFC and makes a three-week turnaround after dominating Alateng Heili earlier this month.

He’ll enjoy an inch of height and reach on Wood.

This is one of the two best match ups on the undercard, a clash between genuinely elite prospects with interestingly mirrored development. Wood, previously known as a slugger, has leaned heavily on his wrestling to get the job done in the Octagon. Kenney, a judo and wrestling expert, has shown excellent striking in recent efforts.

It’s an excellent coin-flip of a fight.

Wood’s durability issues and increasing reliance on the ground game have me picking Kenney. What advantages Wood hold in the stand up aren’t enough to overcome the fact that Kenney can take a better shot and figures to be the superior wrestler. In the end, Kenney racks up top control and holds his own on the feet to claim an entertaining decision.

Prediction: Kenney via unanimous decision

125 lbs.: Liana Jojua vs. Miranda Maverick

Liana Jojua (8-3) upset Marina Mokhnatkina for the Fight Nights Global Bantamweight belt in 2018, but couldn’t do the same to Sarah Moras in her Octagon debut 18 months later. She returned to action this past July, tapping Diana Belbita via first-round armbar for her sixth win in her last seven fights.

Five of her six professional submission wins have come by armbar.

Undeterred by a 2019 loss to DeAnna Bennett, Miranda Maverick (7-2) got her revenge by tapping the TUF veteran out in the Phoenix Series 2 Finals. Then came former Invicta title challenger Pearl Gonzalez, whom Maverick defeated by decision in February.

Though one inch shorter than Jojua, she’ll have a three-inch reach advantage.

This is not a favorable match up for Jojua, to say the least. Maverick’s the better striker and by far the stronger wrestler, leaving a submission off of her back as “She Wolf’s” only feasible chance at victory. Even if Maverick does oblige her in a ground battle, however, the Octagon newcomer has shown more than enough offensive and defensive submission chops to dominate there as well.

Jojua needs a golden opportunity to fall in her lap if she wants the win, and Maverick —though far from a finished product — isn’t likely to give it to her. In short, Maverick dominates everywhere en route to a late finish.

Prediction: Maverick via third-round submission

155 lbs.: Joel Alvarez vs. Alexander Yakovlev

Joel Alvarez (17-2) — who had won 10 consecutive fights — had the misfortune of facing former M-1 champ Damir Ismagulov in his debut and lost a wide decision. Recent efforts have proven more successful, as “El Fenomeno” pounded out Danilo Belluardo and choked out Joe Duffy in successive efforts.

His 17 professional finishes include 15 by submission.

Alexander Yakovlev (25-10-1) sat out for 2.5 years after losses to Kamaru Usman, then successfully returned in April of last year with a submission finish of Alex da Silva. He then took on Roosevelt Roberts, who defeated him by competitive decision.

“Thunder of the North” is one inch taller than Alvarez, but gives up three inches of reach.

Yakovlev is insanely durable, a decent wrestler, and can strikes some. He shouldn’t be just 3-5 in the Octagon, and if I had faith in his ability to actually produce enough offense, I’d pick him to score the upset; Alvarez’s poor wrestling means his success or failure in the cage often depends on his opponent’s willingness to take him down despite the inherent danger.

Alas, Yakovlev lands less than two significant strikes per minute and showed some cracks in his submission defense against Zak Cummings. He has the skills to sprawl-and-brawl, so a win isn’t out of the question, but he’ll more than likely just self-sabotage his way to another defeat.

Prediction: Alvarez via first-round submission

Three more UFC 254 “Prelims” undercard bouts remain to preview and predict, including an undefeated M-1 champion’s Octagon debut. Same time tomorrow, Maniacs.

Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 254 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN 2/ESPN+ at 12 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 254: “Khabib vs. Gaethje” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.