It’s possibly the most anticipated matchup in the UFC this year. Lightweight king and heir to the pound for pound throne Khabib Nurmagomedov is getting ready for what many in the MMA world consider to be the toughest test of his career so far. Justin Gaethje stylistically could hold the key to finally conquering “The Eagle”. Obviously on paper we have analysed many fighters who have came before Gaethje. They all have tried and ultimately spectacularly failed to take Khabib’s 0. Even beyond that, fighters have struggled to take a round off the man from Dagestan (Arguably Conor McGregor did but he didn’t get much else).
So how will “The Human Highlight Reel” fare? Well we can all rejoice, as for the first time in many years, this fight card will be kicking off at 7pm our time! No bleary eyed alarm wake ups at 3am, then losing the battle to stay awake before the co-main has even kicked off. To get you prepped, we’ll breakdown each fight on the main card and for what it’s worth, I’ll give you my pick of who’s taking home the W.
If you saw the first bout between these two, you’ll know things turned crazy incredibly quickly. They both traded heavy shots early on and all of sudden Cuțelaba was on jelly legs. Or was he? The ref stepped as soon as Cuțelaba’s legs started to wobble but he immediately protested the call. He professed that he was simply lulling his opponent into a false sense of security by exaggerating how hurt he was, which seems plausible but some may still be sceptical. Regardless we’re running this one back and although I expect this one to run longer than the previous fight, I think we’ll still get an Ankalaev finish, he is the slightly more polished fighter and he has more poise than the recklessness that has plagued Ion in his losses.
Magomed Ankalaev via 2nd Round TKO
This bout was originally scheduled to be Lauren Murphy vs Cynthia Calvillo, unfortunately we lost that fight due to Calvillo testing positive for COVID-19. So promotional newcomer Shakirova takes her spot and not too much is known about the Uzbekistani fighter. In situations like this it’s possible to analyse the ins and outs of a fight, so I’ll always lean towards the octagon experience, so I’ll ride with Lauren Murphy on this one.
Lauren Murphy via Unanimous Decision
Next up we have Sandford MMA’s Phil Hawes taking on Robert Whittaker’s training partner Jacob Malkoun. We know that both these guys are rolling with some high level competitors in training which should stand them in good stead for this fight. Much more is known about Phil Hawes due to his appearance on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series and although he hasn’t fought top level competition yet, his experience massively outweighs the pretty unknown record of Malkoun. Much like Murphy in the previous fight, I think those experiences under the bright lights will give Hawes the edge this Saturday and with his explosiveness, it will most likely be a finish.
Phil Hawes via 1st Round TKO
This one of those classic fights where there’s a way it definitely should go, Alexander Volkov is undoubtedly the more skilled fighter and with his superior striking and fight IQ he should be able to outpoint Harris and take a comfortable decision. However, there is an alternative route that could definitely come into play. Walt Harris possesses serious knockout power and we have clear evidence that if a big hitter catches Volkov flush, he’s going down (See his fight versus Derrick Lewis). However for me, relying on the slightly less skilled fighter to land a knockout blow feels like I’m taking an unnecessary risk, so I’m picking Volkov to pick off Harris at range after weathering an early storm.
Alexander Volkov via Unanimous Decision
Much like the last fight, in my opinion Robert Whittaker has the superior skillset in this matchup, he’s as elite a striker as you’re likely to come across and operates at a ferocious pace that many of the UFC top middleweights have been unable to match. Cannonier on the other hand has developed a reputation as a bit of a knockout artist, all 3 of his fights in the middleweight division have ended in a finish for “The Killa Gorilla”. As a former Heavyweight and Light Heavyweight his power has stayed with him as he has fallen down the weight classes and this spell trouble for Whittaker. Despite an impressive performance in his last fight versus Darren Till, “The Reaper” still dropped a couple of rounds and was on the end of a decent amount of significant strikes. Against somebody like Darren Till, you can get away with that as Till is not exactly known for highlight reel knockouts. You receive a clean shot from Jared Cannonier, it won’t be long before the ref is stepping in. That’s why I’m taking Cannonier for the upset victory and which will put himself in line for the next title shot against Israel Adesanya.
Jared Cannonier via 3rd Round TKO
It’s the big one. Can Justin Gaethje be the first man to solve the puzzle that is Khabib Nurmagomdeov. On paper, Gaethje poses the greatest threat to Khabib’s undefeated record that he has faced thus far in his career. Stylistically, Gaethje ticks all the boxes. World class striking with vicious knockout power, which will no doubt be the facet of this fight Khabib will do everything to avoid. The most interesting skill which Justin has in his locker is his College D1 Wrestling. Not in an offensive sense but from a defensive perspective. Khabib’s game centres around dragging his opponent to the ground, getting them pinned against the cage, unleashing hellish ground and pound and then taking their back. As someone with stellar takedown defence, Gaethje should be able to stifle Khabib’s takedowns more so than any other fighter who has come before him. As Khabib has pointed out though, Dagestan wrestling is not like American wrestling. Khabib has routinely proved that his skillset is higher level than any fighter the UFC has ever thrown at him, despite many staking their claim that they will dethrone the lightweight king.
Gaethje’s new found maturity under the tutelage of Trevor Wittman was on display during his dominant win over Tony Ferguson. That win may hold the key to Gaethje’s chances in this fight. It will have given him unwavering confidence that he will be leaving Fight Island as the new Lightweight Champion of the World.
Unfortunately, If I’m picking the winner, I can’t possibly go against Khabib. Many times before I’ve considered how Khabib can lose his upcoming fight. I play the fight out in my head, consider all the possibilities and it always ends the same way. Khabib eventually takes his opponent down and his unrelenting pressure always ends with him getting his hand raised. So at the end of UFC 254, expect to see 29-0 and potentially a set up for a super-fight against Georges St-Pierre.
Khabib Nurmagomedov via 4th Round Submission