UFC 254 is set to take place this Saturday, Oct. 24, from “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, and the card stands out for two distinct reasons.
There is a must-see fight in the lightweight championship unification bout, as Khabib Nurmagomedov seeks to extend his undefeated streak with a successful title defense against interim champ Justin Gaethje. Nurmagomedov has yet to taste defeat in his 28 professional fights, and the meeting with Gaethje has even more meaning since it is the first fight since the passing of Nurmagomedov’s father and coach, the legendary Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov.
In addition to an intriguing middleweight matchup pitting Robert Whittaker against Jared Cannonier, the UFC 254 card is a prime example of the evolving UFC business model during the pandemic. With no travel packages or VIP seating, the UFC has stretched out their cards in the empty arena era of MMA. This means fans can see a different slate of fighters, with one big draw on every card. There are not a number of consequential fights on this card beyond the top two, but with Nurmagomedov on the bill, 254 should be an overwhelming success for the promotion.
Here are the pressing questions surrounding UFC 254, which kicks off on Saturday, Oct. 24 at 11 a.m. ET on ESPN2 (prelims) and ESPN+ PPV (main card) from Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.
Can Gaethje do the unthinkable and defeat Nurmagomedov?
Justin Gaethje is coming off a dominant performance this past May against Tony Ferguson, which was the victory that secured him a date with destiny in Abu Dhabi. Gaethje (22-2) is the underdog in this matchup, and it is highly unlikely that he will be the one to put a blemish on Nurmagomedov’s pristine fighting record.
At this juncture, betting against Nurmagomedov (28-0) is simply foolish. There have been less than a handful of rounds in his entire professional career where he looked vulnerable, with a fight from May 2013 against Abel Trujillo representing the closest sign of trouble before he put on a chain wrestling clinic. Nurmagomedov was still victorious by unanimous decision, and Gaethje is an entirely different fighter from Trujillo.
Gaethje is the type of fighter that will eat one in order to give two shots back, which makes him especially dangerous. And he has fought top-caliber opponents and proven he is iron-jawed, so he should be able to withstand Nurmagomedov‘s shots. The game changer takes place after Nurmagomedov lays in a couple shots, when Gaethje inevitably tires and then we see the wrestling. Nurmagomedov has said that he does not need to wrestle Gaethje to win, which may be true, but it is the key separating factor between these two fighters. The later rounds that will determine this fight will be wrestling-oriented and based around ground-and-pound, and neither of those favor Gaethje.
Gaethje needs to keep this fight standing, and relentlessly pursue a shot that will put his opponent down. Nurmagomedov’s striking has significantly improved over the years, and that played an integral part in his win against Conor McGregor in 2018, but he has never been a standup striker. His career has been built on takedowns and his vicious brand of ground-and-pound.
Expect Nurmagomedov to honor his father and put on a great show in victory.
What happens if Nurmagomedov wins? What happens if Gaethje pulls off the upset?
If Gaethje wins the main event fight, then there are no questions over the future of the UFC lightweight championship. Nurmagomedov has been dominant for such a prolonged stretch and means so much to the sport. Unless he were to retire, he would receive an automatic rematch and there would be no circumstance where anyone jumped in front of him.
More likely, Nurmagomedov wins this fight. Tony Ferguson will not be the front runner for a shot, and the next title fight will likely be against the winner of the Dustin Poirier–McGregor bout. Complicating this is Nurmagomedov already stating that he has no interest in fighting either, as he has already defeated both. He also has an intense dislike for McGregor, but that would be a money fight and a magnificent way to end his career at 30-0, as he has long stated that is when he will retire.
The most compelling option is for Nurmagomedov to seek his thirtieth win in a dream fight against Georges St-Pierre, which becomes more likely if both fighters are stepping away following the bout. That is the fight that Nurmagomedov seeks, and a win against St-Pierre would cement his legacy as the greatest of all-time.
If Gaethje somehow wins this fight, is there an over-under on Conor McGregor tweets mocking Khabib?
If Nurmagomedov loses, expect a full-fledged, wild tweetstorm on McGregor’s feed. McGregor did issue a classy tribute for Nurmagomedov’s father following his passing, but otherwise has taken every opportunity to insult Nurmagomedov.
And McGregor has a lot to gain from a Nurmagomedov loss. McGregor matches up extremely well against Gaethje, which is not the case in a bout against Nurmagomedov.
Is Jared Cannonier the real deal?
If Jared Cannonier defeats Robert Whittaker in the co-main event, then yes, he is the real deal. But I simply do not see that happening.
Whittaker (21-5) is still among the elite of the middleweight division, though his status is still hurting from the lopsided defeat against Israel Adesanya last October. Right now, however, there is no middleweight in the world that matches up favorably against Adesanya, but Whittaker will offer him a tougher challenge in their rematch than Cannonier (13-4) would if they were to meet.
The biggest issue for Whittaker entering this fight is perception following that dismantling by Adesanya. He already returned to defeat Darren Till, and this fight should be the chance to show he is still elite next to anyone in the division not named Adesanya.
Whittaker offers that Frankie Edgar style, bringing solid wrestling and quick hands. And while Cannonier has defeated some big names in the division and he is an immensely talented fighter, Whittaker is the more well-rounded fighter. I am happy to eat my words if I am wrong, but I just cannot see this fight playing out any other way than with a Whittaker victory.
What else does the 254 card offer?
This card is built around its last two matches, but there are a few other areas that also resonate.
The heavyweight bout pits Alexander Volkov (31-8) against Walt Harris (13-8, 1 NC). Both men are heavy strikers, which should lead to a quick but exciting fight. Harris is a better wrestler but this is far more likely to be a standup fight. It was once assumed that Volkov would always be in the title picture, but that changed two years ago after his loss to Derrick Lewis. There are no heavy implications at play for these heavyweights, but this should be a fun fight.
There is a second middleweight fight on the main card, as Jacob Malkoun (4-0) meets Phil Hawes (8-2). This is a potential showcase for Hawes, but the matchup that offers the most to gain is the women’s flyweight bout. Liliya Shakirova (8-1) stands to significantly elevate her standing if she can defeat Lauren Murphy (13-4).
There is also a light heavyweight bout on the card, with Magomed Ankalaev (14-1) and Ion Cuțelaba (15-5, 1 NC) meeting in a rematch from February. This should do its job as an exciting fight to open the card, and another reason to watch takes place on the last fight of the prelims when Stefan Struve (29-12) meets Tai Tuivasa (9-3).
The 7-foot Struve is always a sight to watch fight, though his height always seems to work against him. Tuivasa has dropped his past three fights after an electric start, but he is the type of fighter that either knocks out an opponent or gets knocked out, a style that plays extremely well to viewers. He has a similar fight style to Mark Hunt, and his future instantly becomes brighter with a knockout win to close out the prelims before the show moves onto the main card, where all eyes will be on Nurmagomedov.