UFC 254 takes place tomorrow on Fight Island and we’ve got our picks for all the fights below.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje
Dominant lightweight champion looks to be facing one of his toughest tests yet when he goes up against interim titleholder Gaethje on Saturday night.
It’s well established that Gaethje is one of the scariest fighters on the roster on the feet as he is an elite level technical brawler who serves up an incredibly aggressive, yet still accurate offensive onslaught that doesn’t let up, while also possessing finishing power and a granite chin.
At first glance this is nothing new – after all Khabib has already dealt with fearsome strikers before like Conor McGregor and Edson Barboza for instance, but what Gaethje also has that those fighters didn’t is a strong wrestling foundation.
It’s not something we get to see too often and there’s no real suggestion that he’s better than Khabib in this regard, but it’s certainly an intriguing wrinkle to his game that could give him a chance of keeping this fight upright.
If so, that’s a real problem for Khabib, who to his credit has improved his own striking over the years to a very competent level, but would face a very real possibility of being outgunned if much of this fight takes place on the feet.
With all that being said though, we already know that Gaethje is not immune to being taken down and that’ll be more likely to manifest than ever against Khabib’s tireless chain-wrestling, though he has shown a good knack of getting back to his feet. Whether he can do that against someone of Nurmagomedov’s caliber remains to be seen though as ‘The Eagle’ is an expert at applying stifling top pressure, tying up his opponents legs and crushing them into the cage where there’s very little room for them to find space to execute escapes.
If nothing else Gaethje will have to work hard to stop Nurmagomedov’s wrestling and try to initiate get-ups, and as good as his cardio tends to be in purely striking match-ups, the grueling kind of grappling that the champion engages in has an uncanny knack of draining opponent’s energy reserves, while not appearing to have an effect on himself.
Still, it’s certainly a dangerous fight for Khabib and if Gaethje can unleash a barrage of blows on him early while keeping his takedown defense on point then it’ll make for a very intriguing fight.
However, that need to establish himself early may well count against him as Khabib will find openings to exploit for takedown opportunities as Gaethje attacks. Those opportunities will only open up more the longer the fight goes and so I do still favor the champ’s dominant wrestling to win out here, with a late submission being a possibility, though due to Gaethje’s never-say-die attitude and toughness I’ll say he makes it to the final bell.
Pick: Khabib Nurmagomedov to win by decision.
Robert Whittaker vs. Jared Cannonier
This should be a fun striking battle as former champion Whittaker and the in-form Cannonier attempt to make a statement and put themselves in line for a title shot.
Of the two Whittaker is generally the more technical striker, while also having the speed and movement advantage, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have weaknesses as he tends to get a big wild and over-commit to strikes at times, while he’s also been dropped several times in recent outings.
To be fair, Whittaker has generally shown good powers of recovery, but the wars the injury-prone fighter has been in can take there toll and it is a cause for concern, particularly against a hard punching boxer like Cannonier, who has fought as high as heavyweight in the past, but is a physical specimen at 185lbs.
Nevertheless, I do feel Whittaker’s workrate and overall striking ability should enable him to outland Cannonier here and battle his way to a decision win.
Pick: Robert Whittaker wins by decision.
Alexander Volkov vs. Walt Harris
Volkov and Harris are both coming off a loss, with Harris’ being the tougher of the two after being TKO’d by Alistair Overeem, while Volkov simply found himself being outwrestled by Curtis Blaydes.
Harris is unlikely to trouble Volkov on the mat here though and will be more focused on his heavy-handed boxing.
However, to do so he’ll have to contend with Volkov’s excellent use of range, whose long, straight punches and kicks will make full use of his 2″ height and 3″ reach advantage.
Volkov also has crisp technique and fights at a more consistently high tempo than his opponent here, and though he doesn’t have the same kind of finishing power, he can wear down opponents with the volume and accuracy of his output.
As such I think Harris will struggle to find a home for his punches here and Volkov will pick him apart from a safe distance to secure a decision victory.
Pick: Alexander Volkov wins by decision.
Phil Hawes vs. Jacob Malkoun
Two newcomers to the UFC somehow manage to sneak onto the pay-per-view card here, with Hawes being the more known commidity of the two as he’s featured on the Contender Series on two occasions – losing his first opportunity via head kick, but then rebounding with a TKO victory recently after a few more wins on the regional circuit.
On the other hand Malkoun is still very green as he’s just four fights into his career, with his main claim to fame being the fact that he’s a training partner for co-main event star Robert Whittaker down under in Australia.
Still, Malkoun appears to have a fairly solid base in both boxing and jiu-jitsu, but it’s a bit early to tell how far that’s going to get him in the UFC.
Hawes muscular physique isn’t just for show as he is a strong fighter with good wrestling and his overall skill-set has developed on the regional circuit, so together with his experience advantage I think that ‘Megatron’ should be able to get his first official win under his belt here by way of a TKO stoppage due to ground and pound in the second round.
Pick: Phil Hawes wins by TKO in Rd2.
Lilliya Shakirova vs. Lauren Murphy
Shakirova gets propelled into a challenging fight for her UFC debut, coming in as a late replacement for Cynthia Calvillo to fight Murphy.
Murphy is currently riding a wave of momentum courtesy of a trio of wins against Maro Romero Borella, Andrea Lee and Roxanne Modafferi, but to be fair Shakirova has a solid 8-1 record on the regional scene. Nevertheless, this is a big step up for her.
Hailing from Uzbekestan, Shakirova is predomenantly a wrestler, but I think Murphy is well-rounded enough to cope with that and punish her rather rudimentary striking ability on her way to a decision victory.
Pick: Lauren Murphy wins by decision.
Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba
After their first fight ended in controversy the UFC has spent most of this year trying to put on the rematch, but it’s continually fallen through due to Covid complications of one kind or another.
The fact that Cutelaba was swiftly finished by TKO in their last outing was a little surprising given that it’s generally Cutelaba who is known for his fast and aggressive pace in the opening round, with the drawback being that if he couldn’t put his opponent away early then he’d often run out of steam and end up losing.
Ankalaev met him halfway though and showed of his assured striking, and given that he is better at conserving his energy and is also better on the mat I feel like he’s well equipped to emerge with a second victory here, though it might take a little longer to get the stoppage this time around.
Pick: Magomed Ankalaev wins by TKO in Rd2.
Prelims (Predicted winners in bold)
Stefan Struve vs. Tai Tuivasa
Alex Oliveira vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov
Da Un Jung vs. Sam Alvey
Nathaniel Wood vs. Casey Kenney
Umar Nurmagomedov vs. Sergey Morozov
Liana Jojua vs. Miranda Maverick
Joel Alvarez vs. Alexander Yakovlev