This weekend (Sat., Oct. 24, 2020), Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim 155-pound kingpin Justin Gaethje will unify the belts in their main event fight at UFC 254. That’s not the only war set to go down, though. Five other bouts will be featured on UFC 254’s pay-per-view (PPV) and in preparation for the big event I’ll be breaking down the main card and giving you my analysis and predictions for the night’s fisticuffs.
Let’s get started with the headlining fight everyone’s talking about ...
155 lbs.: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje
Khabib is a fighter that needs no introduction, but let’s do it anyway. At 28-0, there are few fighters who can match the consistent dominance he’s delivered in the cage over his 12-year fight career. That’s set a high expectation ... the betting lines (see them here) on this fight sit at -310 for Nurmagomedov to Gaethje’s +255, which is pretty insane when you think about how good Gaethje looked against Tony Ferguson at UFC 249. Gaethje was a +200 dog in that fight, too, so bettors who enjoy living on the edge could justify some money on “The Highlight” due to what I see as a value line for him.
Since suffering a two-fight skid with losses to Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez in 2017/2018, Gaethje has reinvented himself from a bonus-seeking brawler to violent tactician. He’s still the same Gaethje, but refined and sharper and less willing to play punching bag to get a few of his own shots in. Khabib is definitely his toughest opponent since this transformation, but the Ferguson win showed he truly deserves to be considered an elite of the sport.
There are two wildcards in this fight: Gaethje’s wrestling, which up until now has rarely been seen in his UFC bouts. And Khabib’s mindset coming into the first fight since his father Abdulmanap passed from COVID-19-related complications in July of this year.
Gaethje has been wrestling since he was four years old and competed throughout his youth up until his entry into mixed martial arts (MMA), so he brings an NCAA Division I Wrestling pedigree with him into the cage. That makes him the most experienced wrestler Khabib has ever faced inside the Octagon, and there are legitimate questions as to whether the Dagestani wrestling champion will be able to take down Gaethje and keep him down like past opponents. On the feet there’s no question: Gaethje revels in firefights, and can deal damage and take damage happily. If Khabib can’t get this to his favorite position on the canvas against the cage, he’ll be in trouble.
Khabib also has the disadvantage of having lost his father, who trained him since childhood to become the champion he is today. It’s not just the raw emotional toll that is a concern here. Khabib’s coach has referenced Abdulmanap as a calming influence on his son who kept him in check gameplan-wise, encouraging him to stick to his strengths on the mat rather than try to prove something on the feet. Straying from this strategy even briefly could cost Nurmagomedov greatly. And given Khabib’s decision to jump the fence and attack Conor McGregor’s corner after his UFC 229 win, it’s worth considering his judgement when emotions run high.
But even given all this, I have to pick Khabib for this fight. As they say, I chose what I know over what I know I don’t know. Justin Gaethje’s wrestling could nullify Khabib’s, but that’s such an enormous ‘if’ that it sits in the realm of pure speculation. We simply haven’t seen enough of Justin’s wrestling in an MMA setting to say with any certainty.
Prediction: Khabib Nurmagomedov via fourth round technical knockout
185 lbs.: Robert Whittaker vs. Jared Cannonier
This is one of those changing of the guard fights that feels a bit premature to me. Many people are dismissing Robert Whittaker as being shot after the champ took two razor sharp decisions against Yoel Romero and then lost his belt to Israel Adesanya. A listless performance against Darren Till that could have gone either way didn’t help that perception. And while Jared Cannonier has looked great in his last three fights against Jack Hermansson, Anderson Silva and David Branch (scoring TKO finishes in each), it’s hard not to notice his losses coming against the true top names he’s faced: Dominick Reyes, Jan Blachowicz and Glover Teixeira.
Whittaker is an experienced veteran who knows how to handle dangerous strikers. I expect him to turn his fight with Cannonier into a range bout and punish him every time he enters striking distance. Does Cannonier have the striking level to break Whittaker out of this gameplan and impose his will? I have my doubts, but it’s worth noting the bookies are hotter on Cannonier than me. Oddsmakers have this bout an even match with both fighters getting -110 odds.
This really comes down to how you feel about Whittaker these days. I think he’s still hot enough to put back Cannonier, who will come out guns blazing against an opponent very comfortable with making this a three round technical contest. It’s just not the kind of fight I see Cannonier winning.
Prediction: Robert Whittaker via unanimous decision
265 lbs.: Alexander Volkov vs. Walt Harris
The odds are pretty on point for this fight with Volkov a -170 favorite to Harris’ +160 dog. Harris is a power puncher who almost (almost!) took out Alistair Overeem in their last fight. He has a talent for raw violence and any exchange could certainly end with him catching Volkov and putting him down.
Volkov, on the other hand, is undoubtedly going to fight the way he fights: safe, with a decision in mind, but always willing to pounce should he hurt Harris along the way. Harris still feels too inexperienced in too many areas, and while his killer instinct is keyed in he hasn’t shown that he can effectively put his wounded prey down. That gives Volkov too much leeway to take this one.
Prediction: Alexander Volkov via unanimous decision
185 lbs.: Jacob Malkoun vs. Phil Hawes
This is a showcase of top prospects: Hawes has been touted as having champion potential, while Malkoun is coming in from Robert Whittaker’s team as another potential Great Aussie Hope. But, between the two, Hawes has more seasoning and a complete MMA skillset, while Malkoun is more of an unknown in terms of how his abilities will hold up against UFC opposition.
After a disappointing loss on Dana White’s “Contender Series,” Hawes took two years off from the cage, but has since come back on a tear, winning in his second DWCS attempt. Having his first fight on the main card of a PPV tells you what the UFC thinks of his potential. Bookies also seem to agree this is something of a showcase fight for Hawes, who is a -240 favorite to Malkoun’s +200. I’m picking Hawes.
Prediction: Phil Hawes via second round knockout
115 lbs.: Lauren Murphy vs. Liliya Shakirova
Lauren Murphy has been around the UFC women’s divisions for a while and is a solid if unspectacular fighter who is going to test the fundamentals of every fighter she faces. Her last win over Roxanne Modafferi saw her looking as strong as an oak as she easily fended off takedowns and used her fight IQ to point fight her way to a unanimous decision.
It’s hard to know what to make of Liliya Shakirova, who comes in as a late replacement for Cynthia Calvillo. Is she an unsung hot prospect about to be released on an unsuspecting public, or just someone who could fill the spot? A win over top ONE Championship Atomweight Meng Bo implies she’s the real deal, and her confidence coming into UFC 254 are giving me slight Khamzat vibes.
Oddsmakers have Murphy the -195 favorite over +180 dog Shakirova. I think we’re going to be surprised at what we see from Shakirova, but if Murphy starts losing control expect her to clamp down, slow things to a crawl, and eke out a decision win.
Prediction: Lauren Murphy via split decision
205 lbs.: Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba
This is a rematch of a fight from the start of 2020 that saw Ankalaev piece up Cutelaba on the feet so badly the ref didn’t wait for Ion to go down before waving off the fight. Sure, there’s a chance Cutelaba was playing up his wobbly leg game, and he certainly wasn’t fully out on his feet. But, at no point did he graduate from threatening Ankalaev to actually hurting him. Magomed was maybe another 10 seconds away from a brutal highlight finish, and the ref should have let it happen. I expect the same thing to go down at UFC 254.
Prediction: Magomed Ankalaev via first round knockout
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.