UFC 254 Main & Co-Main Preview & Predictions
Khabib Nurmagomedov v Justin Gaethje
European fight fans are in for a treat this weekend as the UFC 254 main event kicks off at 7pm GMT.
The card will be headlined by Khabib Nurmagomedov defending his UFC lightweight belt against current interim titleholder, Justin Gaethje.
Nurmagomedov is a generational talent. He is one of the most effective grapplers to ever grace the UFC Octagon. The undefeated fighter pressures his opponent with strikes before shooting for a take down or forcing a clinch.
The former Sambo World Champion constantly applies pressure and edges his opponent towards the cage. Once pressed against the cage, Khabib will work relentlessly to land a trip or catch a leg and work for a takedown.
He generally enjoys a lot of success in this area with the Dagestani native having landed thirty takedowns in his last seven outings.
Once Khabib gets the fight to the mat, he will look to take mount, trap his opponents’ leg and dominate with ground and pound and submission attempts. The pressure he applies is exhausting and slowly breaks his opponent. Even from within his opponent’s guard, he can land devastating strikes as we saw in the second round against Conor McGregor.
His grappling ability is not only his greatest offensive weapon, but arguably his greatest defensive tool. The threat of a takedown is ever present when facing the Eagle. And so, this often forces his opponent to fight conservatively. They may adopt a lower stance to get ready to defend the takedown or hesitate on pulling the trigger on a shot when they usually would.
Despite the above, some questions remain on Khabib’s stand up game. While his striking has certainly improved, there have been some concerns about his ability on the feet. He has left himself exposed at times and can be caught when standing and exchanging.
Michael Johnson arguably had more joy than anyone in their opening round back in 2016, until Khabib took the fight to the canvas and won with ease.
Gaethje will be hoping that he can be have some of the success that Johnson enjoyed while somehow negating the wrestling of his Russian opponent. And he will be confident coming off a career best performance in his defeat of Tony Ferguson back in May.
Gaethje entered the UFC back in 2017 and lost two of his first three fights. While his opening three fights were some of the most exciting bouts in UFC history, his wild striking and lack of any sort of striking defence was not sustainable.
Under the tutelage of Trevor Whitman, Gaethje has evolved massively. He has managed to reign in his wild flurries and strike with more precision and less reckless abandon. He also has some of the most powerful leg kicks in the game.
However, besides Gaethje’s striking, it is the wrestling credentials of the Highlight which could prove to be the difference on Saturday night. Gaethje has NCAA Division 1 wrestling experience from his time in University of Northern Colorado.
It is very difficult to gauge how sharp his grappling actually is, as he rarely looks to utilize it, instead relying on his striking. But this is still a very interesting facet to consider going into Saturday night’s main event and could prove to be the difference.
This is a fight I’ve wanted to see for a number of years now. Whilst similar odds, I had no doubt that Khabib would dominate his previous opponents such as Poirier and McGregor as they had never shown enough grappling expertise to suggest that they could beat a talent like Khabib.
However, if Gaethje can lean on his extensive wrestling experience and manage to avoid some early takedowns, then this could get very interesting. The leg kicks could also help slow down the current champ.
Nurmagomedov holds the longest active undefeated streak in MMA and deserves all the plaudits he receives. He rightfully enters this fight as the favourite. Yet, I am going to take Gaethje to spring a huge surprise and become the undisputed UFC lightweight champion In Abu Dhabi on Saturday night.
Robert Whittaker v Jared Cannonier
There is a lot riding on the co-main event as these two middleweights lock horns. The current champ, Israel Adesanya, has made it clear that he sees Jared Cannonier as his next title defence, if he can come through Saturday unscathed.
Cannonier is a former heavyweight and light-heavyweight fighter but seems to have found his best form at 185 pounds.
In his three appearances in the middleweight division, he has finished all three inside the first two rounds. The Texas native strikes from an orthodox stance. He is powerful and looks to land the straight right hand at any chance he gets. He does not put big combinations together, generally firing off a single shot at a time.
The thirty-six-year-old also looks to work the legs of his opponents and Whittaker will need to look to check or land a counter to prevent this. His leg kicks caused an injury to Anderson Silva and also caused Jack Hermansson some trouble when they met back in September of last year.
While Cannonier hasn’t fought in over a year, confidence will be high in the Whittaker camp as he is coming off a five round decision victory over Darren Till only three months ago. This also gave the former middleweight champion the opportunity to compete in Fight Island and could be a very valuable experience heading into the fight.
Whittaker is light on his feet, throwing lots of feints to maintain the distance before rushing in with a lead jab or a hook. He looks to work off this and follow it up with a combination. The New Zealand born fighter will also mix in some kicks to the legs and body of his opponent.
Whittaker will also have the grappling advantage as he has a strong wrestling pedigree, having competed in Freestyle Wrestling in his native Australia. He even qualified to represent Australia in the 2018 Commonwealth games, only to pull out due to his MMA commitments.
Cannonier has shown some strong grappling defence in his last outing, managing to escape from some uncomfortable positions and get back to his feet. Whittaker also rarely looks to his wrestling, instead preferring to strike. So, the grappling aspect may be non-existent, but it does provide a potential opportunity for Whittaker to try and slow down his opponent.
This will likely play out entirely on the feet which should make for a very entertaining spectacle. I predict that Robert Whittaker will be able to rely on his movement, feints and combinations to outwork and outland his American opposition.
The possibility of a Cannonier stoppage is always going to be a present, due to the sheer force he throws with, but I expect Whittaker to lean on his experience and get the job done.