By Nick Stavas and William Burke
The UFC is in its final days in Abu Dhabi as it prepares for the epic finale from Fight Island. UFC 254 will be the capstone for a historic string of events on Yas Island, and while it isn’t confirmed whether the promotion will be returning to the site, this will be the final event for the immediate future. The headliner features a monumental clash for the unified lightweight title between an undisputed legend and a violent phenom seeking his first taste of true UFC gold. We previewed that fight and more, offering up our favorite bets on the UFC 254 card as we get you ready for Saturday.
Important note: UFC 254 will have a special start time due to massive international interest. Prelims will begin at 11 A.M. ET with the PPV kicking off at 2 P.M. ET.
Main Card (2 P.M. ET on ESPN+ PPV)
– (C) Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. (IC) Justin Gaethje – UFC Lightweight Championship
– #1 Robert Whittaker vs. #3 Jared Cannonier – Middleweight Bout
– #6 Alexander Volkov vs. #8 Walt Harris – Heavyweight Bout
– Phil Hawes vs. Jacob Malkoun – Middleweight Bout
– #7 Lauren Murphy vs. Liliya Shakirova – Women’s Flyweight Bout
– #11 Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba – Middleweight Bout
Prelims (11 A.M. ET on ESPN 2)
– Stefan Struve vs. Tai Tuivasa – Heavyweight Bout
– Alex Oliveira vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov – Welterweight Bout
– Da Un Jung vs. Sam Alvey – Light Heavyweight Bout
– Liana Jojua vs. Miranda Maverick – Women’s Flyweight Bout
– Casey Kenney vs. Nathaniel Wood – Bantamweight Bout
– Joel Alvarez vs. Alexander Yakovlev – Lightweight Bout
Khabib Nurmagomedov (-330) vs. Justin Gaethje (+260)
Any title fight is exciting. Any title fight with an undefeated champion is exhilarating. What about a fight that pits the best grappler ever against one of the most violent knockout artists the sport has ever seen? Now that, that’s a fight I want to see, and it’s only days away.
Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0) is arguably the greatest fighter to ever step inside the UFC Octagon. He is a suffocating grappler who gains top control with lightning fast takedowns and then never gives it up. In both of his title defenses against Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier, Khabib was relentless with his clinch work and ground strikes from all guards. He finished both opponents with a rear naked choke, barely breaking a sweat. While he isn’t necessarily a world class striker, Khabib has just enough prowess on his feet to keep his opponents guessing, allowing him to change levels and land takedowns with ease. Once he’s on top, his opponents just simply can’t escape. A combination of leg ties, weight distribution, wrist control and flawless head position allows for Khabib to reign down devastating punches and elbows before seeking a submission.
With dominating victories over a murderer’s row of opponents and a win streak the likes of which we may never see again, Khabib has a chance on Saturday to officially cement his legacy as the best mixed martial artist of his generation. It won’t be as easy as some might think, though.
When Justin Gaethje (22-2) arrived at the UFC in 2017, he was seen as a raw, powerful striker who loved to knock people out but lacked the skill set to contend for a title. That was 100% true during his first few years with the promotion, until he suffered two straight losses to Poirier and Eddie Alvarez.
The former World Series of Fighting Lightweight Champion went back to the drawing board with legendary coach Trevor Wittman and reinvented himself. He morphed from a phone booth brawler to a calculated and educated boxer without sacrificing any of his power. Now, he’s on a four-fight win streak and has become one of the hottest fighters on the planet. The way Gaethje picked apart Tony Ferguson in the interim lightweight championship at UFC 249 was something nobody on Earth could have predicted. Gaethje used fantastic striking technique, picking his spots carefully and inflicting so much punishment that the fight was eventually stopped while Ferguson was still standing in the fifth round. Despite his masterclass boxing exhibition, Gaethje’s fists aren’t his only weapons. His leg kicks are nasty and his clinch skills are criminally underrated.
There is no doubt Justin Gaethje is a championship-caliber fighter, but there’s a difference between being a championship-caliber fighter and being able to beat Khabib Nurmagomedov.
There are two all-too-obvious ways the public sees this fight playing out. The most likely outcome is that Khabib does the same thing to Gaethje that he did to McGregor and Poirier: take him down, suffocate him and eventually submit him. The other plausible result is that Gaethje trained his wrestling and takedown defense enough to keep himself on his feet and he ends up clipping Khabib with a big left hook, turning his lights out en route to a massive upset. Gaethje is a former Division I All-American wrestler, but he’s never once attempted a takedown in the UFC. He might still be really good, we just don’t know.
With all that said, this is a betting website, and any sports bettor knows that going with the obvious outcomes is almost never worth it. Per usual, Vegas has this fight down to a T. Khabib on the moneyline is way too juicy and Gaethje on the moneyline is tempting but incredibly risky. In times like these, we turn toward the round total. The current Over/Under is set at 4.5 rounds, with the under sitting around -180 and the over coming back at +150. I can see this fight playing out very similar to Khabib’s first title shot against Al Iaquinta. Khabib was well aware of Iaquinta’s knockout power, tried boxing with him for a little while, but eventually just took him down and held him on the canvas, leading to a unanimous decision victory. On the flip side, I think Wittman will have Gaethje well trained to keep himself out of any sort of submission trouble Khabib poses. Contrary to popular belief, I expect this to be a slow, grueling 25-minute war with Khabib likely coming out on top.
Best Bet: Over 4.5 rounds (+150)
Value Bet: Khabib by decision (+265)
– Nick Stavas (@nickstavas)
Robert Whittaker (-105) vs. Jared Cannonier (-125)
Just last month, Israel Adesanya easily dispatched second-ranked contender Paulo Costa to retain his middleweight belt and protect his undefeated record. In Saturday’s co-main event, the two men who were on the outside looking in during that fight will face off in what many believe to be a title eliminator.
Top-ranked contender and former champion Robert Whittaker (22-5) is well on his way back to another title shot and a rematch with Adesanya, but he needs a win Saturday to stay on track. After losing his gold to Adesanya a year ago, Whittaker made his much-anticipated return to the Octagon in July. He delivered a beautiful performance en route to a unanimous decision victory over Darren Till. The fight could have been considered boring to the untrained eye, but ultimately it was a chess match between two extremely technical strikers. Whittaker is a jack of all trades and a true mixed martial artist. He is a careful, calculated striker and Mauy-Thai kickboxer with legitimate knockout power. He has also displayed great takedown defense and jiu-jitsu skills. In terms of well-rounded fighters, Whittaker is about as close as it comes.
Whittaker will need to use all of those skills against the dynamic Jared Cannonier (13-4). Cannonier started his UFC career as a heavyweight and was mediocre. He then made the move to light heavyweight and struggled, losing to both of the two recent title challengers at 205, Jan Blachowicz and Dominick Reyes. Cannonier finally decided to move down to middleweight, and boy was that a great decision. The 36-year-old American is 3-0 since cutting to 185, with wins over David Branch, Anderson Silva and Jack Hermansson. Cannonier has pure dynamite in his hands and leg kicks from hell. He trains at MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona, which many consider to be the birthplace of the calf kick, courtesy of Benson Henderson. Not only is he a ridiculously powerful striker, but Cannonier also possesses great wrestling defense, which was on full display in his win over Hermansson back in September 2019.
The odds for this fight really shocked me. I assumed after Whittaker’s win over Till that people would realize he is still one of the best fighters in the world, but apparently not. I said it for that preview and I’ll say it again, it amazes me how quickly people forgot the elite level at which Whittaker fights just because he lost to Adesanya. But, I digress. Either way, I think Whittaker is the clear and obvious choice here. He is by far the fastest, most athletic and most skilled fighter Cannonier has ever faced in his career. Take Bobby Knuckles in this one.
Best Bet: Whittaker moneyline (-105)
Value Bet: Whittaker by decision (+215)
– Nick Stavas (@nickstavas)
Alexander Volkov (-175) vs Walt Harris (+150)
If you are interested in two big powerful strikers facing down in the center of the Octagon, Walt Harris (13-8) vs. Alexander Volkov (31-8) is the fight for you. These two heavyweights are both coming off losses and trying to get back on the right track.
For Alexander Volkov, his loss came by way of a unanimous decision to top-five contender Curtis Blaydes. Volkov’s takedown defense ultimately couldn’t hold up to the elite wrestling of Blaydes, and he was repeatedly put on his back. When he was able to keep the fight standing however, he more than held his own. Volkov is known as being an elite striker, using his legs to manage distance well. His best UFC win comes over former champion Fabricio Werdum, who he beat via TKO back in 2018
Walt Harris had been on a great run, winning three of his past 4 in decisive fashion and it looked like he was going to make it four out of five against the legend Allistair Overeem. He dropped Overeem in the first round with a huge punch and followed up with some brutal ground and pound. The fight arguably could’ve been stopped, but the referee gave some leeway and Overeem was able to regather his wits. Harris had expended all his energy trying to finish Overeem and he paid the price. Overeem was able to control the fight from there and end it with a TKO win early in the second round.
So where does that leave us for the fight this weekend? I think a huge factor will be Harris’ gas tank. When Volkov fought Derrick Lewis, another top contender with arguably more power than Harris, he was dominating him until Lewis landed a nuclear strike in the third round that shut out Volkov’s lights. I don’t think Harris has the kind of stamina to muster a late fight rally like that. I’m riding Volkov moneyline in this one along with under 2.5 rounds.
Best Bets: Volkov moneyline (-175); Under 2.5 rounds (-130)
-William Burke (@w_burke22)
Alex Oliveira (-125) vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov (+100)
Alex Oliveira (21-8) and Shavkat Rakmonov (12-0) meet this weekend in what has potential to be one of the most exciting fights of the afternoon. This will be the UFC debut for the undefeated and former M-1 welterweight champion Rakhmonov. He is an incredibly well-rounded fighter who has the ability to finish fights standing up or with sneaky submissions on the ground. Oliveira however, is a fighting veteran who will most certainly be a tough out.
Oliveira has had a good 2020 to date, racking up two much-needed wins to snap a previous three-fight losing streak. When it comes to fighting style, Oliveira often finds himself in stand-up fights, but isn’t a novice when it comes to his ground game. What we see from Oliveira is a lot of decisions as of late. He has become a very calculated fighter who tries to minimize risk and doesn’t seem to fear going on volume and taking it to the judges scorecards.
Shavkat Rakmonov brings a lot of unknowns into this fight. It is always a little risky betting on someone who hasn’t yet experienced the skill gap the UFC brings. But what you do see from him on tape is incredible power. I mean, I watched this man jab two perfect liver shots that basically rendered his opponent motionless. He also has a super slick submission game that appears ready for the rigors of the UFC.
Keep in mind Oliveira took this fight October 7th, so we don’t know what kind of shape he is in either. At plus-money, I like Rakhmonov in this fight. Keep an eye on the line as it gets closer to see if you can get better odds.
Best Bet: Rakhmonov moneyline (+100)
-William Burke (@w_burke22)