A champion vs champion battle? Not sure any fan fully believes it, but the official UFC Lightweight belt is on the line on Saturday.

UFC 254: Khabib vs Gaethje Predictions & Results

Fighting once a year now, any Khabib fight is deemed highly precious as the Dagestani smesh machine enters his career twilight. The Lightweight division is full of fun fights for Khabib, but you would be hard stretched to deem them highly competitive. Still to this day, there has not been a fighter who has exposed the supposedly ‘leaky striking defence’. A McGregor rematch would sell, but the Irishman has not had a competitive fight since his showdown with Khabib back in October 2018. Obviously, Tony Ferguson remains a fantastic bout, but Ferguson requires one big win to bounce back after his beatdown from Gaethje. Poirier was wiped aside as his overall quality falls just short of the elite levels. Fresh opponent’s who don’t deserve a title shot, nor would you fancy their chances, fill the rest of the top-10 (Felder, Ferreira, Iaquinta, Lee). The one exception? Charles Oliveira. If the UFC fast-tracked the submission guru turned striking machine into a title shot, he could spring a surprise out of the blue. Of course, this could just be clutching at straws.

As a pay-per-view, UFC 254 is a strange one. The main and co-main are insanely attractive fights. The rest of the main card would not look amiss on the undercard of a fight night. That is with one exception. Ankalaev-Cutelaba’s rematch has been stewing for what seems to be a decade and we can finally lay to rest their beef. The prelims holds a few hidden gems and a keen eye should be honed in on Casey Kenney-Nathaniel Wood. Two established young fighters who like to strike on the front-foot and scramble intensely, it is a fight which justifies the overall PPV prices. The return of Stefan Struve and Tai Tuivasa is a meme fight at Heavyweight should also be laughably sloppy.

UFC 243 Preview And Picks: Can Tai Tuivasa Avoid The Torture Of Another  Loss In Australia?
Tai Tuivasa extends a jab, a rarely seen weapon of his offensive arsenal. UFC 238, 9 June 2019.

Main Event

Lightweight (155)

UFC Lightweight Championship

Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0) vs Justin Gaethje (22-2)

Everybody in the entire MMA world now knows what Khabib aims to do every time he steps into the octagon. Khabib’s plan is simple, pressure you towards the cage and then take your back by any means necessary. Khabib can execute takedowns in the middle of the octagon, but he is far more successful when he has the opposing force of the cage to suffocate his opponent and manoeuvre himself into more advantageous positions. Possessing crippling strength, once Khabib has latched onto one of his opponent’s wrists, the entire round can pretty much be written off. Rewriting what was understood to be the best top game, many fighters have since attempted to mimic the masterful top game fashioned by his father and coach, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov. Gruesome ground and pound is more often than not just a means to break open an opportunity for a submission. Superlatives run thin when talking about Khabib’s grappling and submission game. Offensively dominant, Khabib has never really been forced onto his back, and has shown expert submission defence when threatened (e.g. Poirier’s guillotine attempt).

Justin Gaethje used to be a barroom brawler, and that is implied with no disrespect. The walking Highlight Reel himself, Gaethje defines what is pay-per-view. An unbreakable will and a near unbreakable chin, Gaethje refuses to take a step backwards even when it would be advisable. At one point, Gaethje looked to have been ‘exposed’ following brutal back-to-back losses to top-lightweights Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez. Since then, Gaethje has rebounded with a four-fight knockout streak which has included three first-round knockouts. A lightning-fast leg kick which withstood the test against perhaps the best kicker of any division, Edson Barboza, Gaethje aims to cut off his opponent’s mobility. After locking his prey into place, Gaethje can then thrive within his style of fight – inside fighting based on taking one to give one. Surprisingly, Gaethje showed a maturity to his striking against Tony Ferguson that had previously been unseen. Following the orders of his coach, Trevor Wittman, Gaethje’s fundamentals cracked the Ferguson puzzle. A ramrod jab employed across the first couple of rounds prevented the wild swings of Ferguson connecting, whilst the trademark power shots eventually stopped Ferguson in the fifth. IMPORTANTLY, Ferguson had cut weight twice before this showdown (due to fight cancellations) and this no doubt had a severe impact on the fight. This unfortunately does take some of the shine from Gaethje’s win.

When the two meet, it is expected that Gaethje will outstrike Khabib but he will not be allowed to do so. That would be to ignore Khabib’s simple but slick striking. Far more powerful than he has any right to be, fear of Khabib’s grappling means he has ample opportunities to fake a level change and hit opponents flush. In terms of defence, Khabib has a solid high guard but can be found lacking on the back-foot when swarmed (Gaethje’s premium). Moreover, Khabib’s grappling is on another planet when considering his counterparts but Gaethje is no slouch. We have never seen the wrestling aptitude of Gaethje at the elite level. Whether this is due to fitness concerns, game-planning or showmanship we still do not know. An NCAA Division I All-American, Gaethje is also physically strong enough to potentially stuff the takedowns of Khabib during the early rounds. This is the optimal time for Gaethje to hurt his opponent if he wants to win.

Predicted Result: Khabib Submission Round 5

The loss of Khabib’s father and coach will no doubt have weighed heavy on his mind during the build-up to this fight, but Khabib is elite. An underrated striking game and the strongest grappling in the division, Khabib has cleaned out the division. Gaethje still has an unknown wrestling game which could throw this fight into disarray, but it surely would have appeared in the Alvarez/Poirier fights to turn the tables if it was of note. If able to stuff takedowns in the early proceedings, Gaethje needs to pour the pressure on hard or he will be overwhelmed on the mat eventually.

The Eagle Owns the Desert - The Grueling Truth
Khabib damn near pops the eyes out of Poirier’s sockets with a rear naked choke, UFC 242, 7 September 2019.

Result: Khabib def. Gaethje // Submission (triangle choke) Round 2 1:34

Winner ✔️ // Method ✔️ // Round ❌

Co-Main Event

Middleweight (185)

Robert Whittaker (21-5) vs Jared Cannonier (13-4)

Whittaker is the biggest boi. Despite the demoralising stoppage loss to Israel Adesanya, Whittaker has ruled dominant over the Middleweight division. Back-to-back victories over the once feared boogeyman, Yoel Romero, and knockout wins over Jacare Souza and Derek Brunson, Whittaker effectively cleaned out Middleweight. A close rebound victory over elite striker, Darren Till, recovered optimism for an Adesanya rematch. Whittaker proved his iron chin, exceptional recovery, and crafty boxing combinations has returned when he out-hustled Till. Moreover, Whittaker employed his chipping oblique kick which utterly devastate the knee of opponents. A win against Cannonier would certainly set Whittaker up a shot at reclaiming his Middleweight belt.

Cannonier has had a zero to hero career. Unable to truly establish himself in one weight class, Cannonier was on a two-fight slide to Jan Blachowicz and Dominick Reyes (itself, a first-round finish). Cannonier rolled the dice one last time by moving down to Middleweight to face David Branch. The rest, as they say, is history. Cannonier’s power surged at the lower weight class, and has needed only five rounds total to finish David Branch, Anderson Silva and Jack Hermansson. The Hermansson win was especially damning, as Cannonier established his power early and refused to let the Swede off the hook. Whittaker’s chin can be cracked, as recently as Till dropping Whittaker from a jump-in elbow, but his recovery is God-Tier. Cannonier is a killer finisher and may be able to prevent Whittaker the time to recover.

Predicted Result: Whittaker TKO Round 3

A decision could be very likely as both men hold power and more importantly, respect each other’s power. Cannonier is no spring chicken at thirty-six years old, however, and the top-level experience Whittaker possess points towards the Kiwi out-striking the limited power punching of Cannonier.

Page 2 - The best and worst from UFC on ESPN: Whittaker vs. Till
Bobby Knuckles shows a clean set of knuckles to Scouser, Darren Till, UFN 174, 26 July 2020.

Result: Whittaker def. Cannonier // Decision (unanimous – 29-28, 29-28, 29-28)

Winner ✔️ // Method ❌ // Round ❌

Main Card

Heavyweight (265)

Alexander Volkov (31-8) vs Walt Harris (13-8)

It is hard to be a Volkov fan sometimes. Exceptional in the clinch, Volkov punishes opponents by leaning on them with his large frame before chopping them down with knees and elbows. Moreover, Volkov has a kicking game which stings. Even in the Blaydes fight where Volkov was manhandled for three straight rounds, Volkov was able to hurt Blaydes in the fourth/fifth with body kicks. Despite this, Volkov has never utilised his weapons to his advantage. Despite Mr Tickle level reach, Volkov is inconsistent with his jab and refuses to snipe opponents from the outside. Moreover, on the mat, Volkov is lost. Difficult to hit cleanly and submit, sure, but Volkov resembles Bambi on ice when he finds himself on his back. With a solid gas tank and a volume punching style, Volkov will remain amongst the Heavyweight top-ten for the foreseeable future.

Walt Harris is a limited fighter. Okay, there is no denying the man has fearsome power. Alexey Oleinik and Sergey Spivak were both cleaned out in the first minute. But the freaky fast knockouts at Heavyweight are often a curse rather than a blessing. With little experience amongst top competitors and fast-tracked into tougher and tougher match-ups, you will eventually be found out (except Francis N’Gannou lol). Almost knocking out Alistair Overeem in the first round of their fight, Harris spent all his energy and knackered himself out by the second round when he failed to put away the veteran.

Predicted Result: Volkov Decision

Yes, there are levels, even in the dismal division that is Heavyweight. Harris is a one-note power punches with little in the way of grappling or wrestling credentials. Volkov is a chipping volume puncher who can survive a tough first round to punish his opponent later on.

Result: Volkov def. Harris // TKO (body kick and punches) Round 2 1:15

Winner ✔️ // Method ❌ // Round ❌

Middleweight (185)

Phil Hawes (8-2) vs Jacob Malkoun (4-0)

Hawes has that prime Tyron Woodley feel to his striking, especially his overhand right. Waiting, waiting, waiting and then BAM, Hawes has swung his right arm from behind his back to eventually connect. Gangly and sloppy, when the punch lands it still does its intended job. Hawes has also shown a decent top game and takedown selection. Once Hawes is firmly on top, the barrel-like build is difficult for opponent’s to shrug off. Hawes has had a stop and start career, and at thirty-one, he will surely be viewing this as his final realistic push into the UFC rankings.

Malkoun is a 4-0 debutant appearing on one of the most hotly awaited UFC PPV’s of the year? Wut? Never really having fought anyone of note while fighting on the Australian regional scene this fight represents a ginormous ask for the Aussie. Average takedowns, incoherent striking combinations and a lack of experience all question why he has been gifted such an opportunity. Upon reviewing the tape, Malkoun consistently shows three lovely things which offer hope:
1. A frequent jab which LO AND BEHOLD is used for more than just tapping the head. Jabbing the body, tripling up on the head, and left hooking off of his jab, Malkoun is Whittaker-esque.
2. Low calf kicks used to punish opponents when they linger in the pocket.
3. After rooting his opponents, Malkoun uses his footwork and hand speed to launch extended combinations.

Predicted Result: Hawes Decision

The more I watched of Malkoun, the more I really liked. An exciting stand-up which can really develop, I hope Malkoun is given more time in the organisation. As of now, Hawes has far more experience and a proven wrestling/top game which should dominate the bout.

Result: Hawes def. Malkoun // KO (punches) Round 1 0:18

Winner ✔️ // Method ❌ // Round ❌

Women’s Flyweight (125)

Lauren Murphy (13-4) vs Lilya Shakirova (8-1)

Lauren Murphy epitomises the ‘eh’ factor of Women’s Flyweight. Failing to make a mark at Bantamweight, Murphy moved down to Flyweight where she has somewhat re-established herself. Despite a blip against the ‘meh’ Sijara Eubanks, Murphy has been on a three-fight run where she has knocked over modest opposition (Roxanne Modafferi, Andrea Lee and Mara Borella). Somehow ranked fifth, Murphy is only a couple of fights away from realistically challenging for Valentina’s belt. Whoopee. Murphy is a well-rounded fighter who is simply average. If an opponent is lacking in a certain department, then Murphy will capitalise solely in that area.

Shakirova is a UFC debutant entering after a successful spell in the Eastern European ranks. Shakirova is a patient striker, if a little wooden in the body movement/footwork department. Shakirova doesn’t throw much regularly outside of a jab and a tame leg kick. Her controlling top game is where her meat and potatoes is. Unfortunately, Shakirova doesn’t shoot often for the takedown, but when she does they are solid.

Predicted Result: Murphy Decision

Murphy will beat Shakirova on the feet with ease, and her TDD is strong enough to keep the fight stood up.

Result: Murphy def. Shakirova // Submission (rear-naked choke) Round 2 3:31

Winner ✔️ // Method ❌ // Round ❌

Light Heavyweight (205)

Magomed Ankalaev (13-1) vs Ion Cutelaba (15-5)

Technique versus full blooded first round aggression. During their fateful first match-up, Ankalaev had won the exchanges but there was very little to truly go off of except the head kick that landed. Ankalaev is a far more technical striker with a massive gas tank, and if he is able to withstand the first-round onslaught, Ankalaev will be a certain favourite to win in round two or three.

Cutelaba brings aggression, volume and power, looking to switch off an opponent’s lights as early as possible. Preferring swang n banging hooks, you would be forgiven for forgetting Cutelaba also holds a dominating top game which helps the Moldovan close out fights. The major factor in the fight will be Ankalaev’s chin and wrestling. Ankalaev will be tagged during this affair, no doubt. Yet can Ankalaev time a takedown to avoid the firepower and take out the steam from Cutelaba? Off of his back, Cutelaba is not skilled enough to break the domination of Ankalaev’s top game – save for a Paul Craig-esque last-minute traingle choke.

Predicted Result: Ankalaev TKO Round 3

Ankalaev is a punishing wrestler who should be able to withstand the storm to reap his profits in the second and third round.

Result: Ankalaev def. Cutelaba // KO (punches) Round 1 4:19

Winner ✔️ // Method ❌ // Round ❌

Preliminary Card

Heavyweight (265)

Stefan Struve (29-12) vs Tai Tuivasa (10-3)

Steffy Struve returns from retirement after less than a year. Shock. The Skyscraper has had a bit of a sad past few years, going 1-4 and looking a shadow of his former self. Despite being seven foot tall, Struve has always refused to throw a jab or use his reach to chip away at opponents. A submission specialist, Struve does excel on the mat, it is just a shame then that he only ends up on the ground as a result of being knocked down. With a chin that has wore away over time, Struve is easy pickings for any half-decent striker.

Cut from the company for what? Two months? Tuivasa returns to the UFC after they realise that 265-ers are a pretty rare commodity. It is sad that Tuivasa was once seen as the golden prospect at Heavyweight after two first-round stoppages to start his UFC career. Marketed as a ‘Mark Hunt’ power puncher, Tuivasa instead proved himself to be a volume puncher. Against the cage. Tuivasa throws HARD knees and elbows, while also stepping back at times to create distance for lengthy hook combinations. It is nice to see the big lad back, and hopefully they build him back into the rankings, rather than throwing him in with live veterans like JDS.

Predicted Result: Tuivasa TKO Round 3

Struve used to be a decent fighter but his chin has worn away while his striking defence has seen zero improvement. Against the cage, Tuivasa can apply sweltering pressure and power shots which will eventually break through.

Result: Tuivasa def. Struve // KO (punches) Round 1 4:59

Winner ✔️ // Method ❌ // Round ❌

Bantamweight (140)

Casey Kenney (15-2-1) vs Nathaniel Wood (17-4)

Casey Kenney is all action. Despite a string of decision wins, Kenney delivers high octane offensive striking which seeks to kill. Heili Alateng showed an inhuman will and chin to survive the sustained three round onslaught from Kenney. Throwing the entire kitchen sink at his opponent, Kenney’s body kicks were of particular note as they snapped to their target at blinding speed. On the mat, Kenney is no slouch, but his defensive scrambling succeeds because of his unorthodox style and sheer athleticism.

Nathaniel Wood is my boi. The Dodson stoppage stung and hampered the career progress of Wood, but he is still on course towards the title at frightening pace. Wood may not posses a takedown game on the level of Merab Dvalishvili, but his presence on the mat is superior. During Kenney’s loss to Dvalishvili, he succumbed to twelve takedowns (12/24) and almost six minutes of control time. Wood is more conservative with the takedowns, but once his opponent is grounded, he can apply significant pressure (e.g. Wood’s domination of Andre Ewell). On the feet, Wood has power and can certainly hold his own against Kenney but his striking is less fluid.

Predicted Result: Wood Decision

Kenney pushes the pace from the get-go and could catch Wood sleeping, but Wood should have the more diverse game to sneak this on the judge’s scorecards. A close fight between two fighters who should go on to bigger and better things regardless of the result.

Result: Kenney def. Wood // Decision (unanimous – 29-28, 29-28, 30-27)

Winner ❌ // Method ✔️ // Round ✔️

Welterweight (170)

Alex Oliveira (22-8-1) vs Shavkat Rakhmonov (12-0)

Short notice and overweight, Oliveira is also one of the dirtiest fighters on the roster. Despite his reputation as the evil cowboy, Oliveira remains an underrated threat in the Welterweight division. Struggling with a questionable gas tank and long periods of inactivity, Oliveira has recently shown a more calculated striking offence which out-classed Peter Sobotta in his last fight. Power in his hands, if Oliveira was to throw more than single shots, he could sleep opponents.

UFC debutant Rakhmonov knows only one way to win – stoppage. His striking is wooden, but it seems to hurt when it lands. Rakhmonov often lunges into a liver shot which again looks to do damage but it is robotic and leaves himself open to a punishing counter right hook. He has shown a decent chin, but his best work comes on the ground. Off of his back, Rakhmonov uses a strong kimura to sweep into a top position where he can search for more effective submissions.

Predicted Result: Oliveira Decision

Unfortunately, I just don’t see the hype for Rakhmonov. He looks far too flat to best Oliveira who will thrive in a slower paced affair. Oliveira is a powerful counter puncher who can punish Rahkmonov when he lunges in.

Result: Rakhmonov def. Oliveira // Submission (guillotine choke) Round 1 4:40

Winner ❌ // Method ❌ // Round ❌

Light Heavyweight (205)

Da Un Jong (13-2) vs Sam Alvey (33-14)

Da Un Jong is a cardio machine that negates defence in favour of volume striking. Sure this plays right into the counter striking game of Sam Alvey, but Jong works well in the clinch against the cage too. Not too powerful a striker, nor the fastest hands, Jong is a front-foot machine who is enjoyable to watch.

Commie Crusher, Smilin Sam Alvey, returns for another pay check despite his four fight losing streak to tame opposition. His best performance for the past two years actually came up in his last fight against Ryan Spann. Stung early by Spann, Alvey recovered and almost finished Spann in the third by throwing his left hand more aggressively. Alvey holds power for sure, but he is very much on the decline.

Predicted Result: Jung TKO Round 2

Alvey used to be durable, and he showed signs of recovery during the Spann fight, but Jong is not the type of fighter to patiently wait for a finish.

Result: Split Draw // (28-28, 28-29, 29-28)

Winner ❌ // Method ❌ // Round ❌

Women’s Flyweight (125)

Liana Jojua (8-3) vs Miranda Maverick (7-2)

Liana Jojua’s only gameplan is to take the fight to the mat and submit an opponent. Being beaten on the feet handily by Diana Belbiţă in her last fight, Belbiţă screwed the pooch when she entered Jojua’s guard before being submitted by an armbar. Jojua is a one-trick pony in a division where you can get away with it.

A monster in the Invicta promotion, Maverick has found most of her success on the mat. Controlling opponent’s and creeping towards a submission, Maverick will have to be wary to take this fight down. On the feet, Maverick is the more technical and athletically gifted striker.

Predicted Result: Maverick Decision

Maverick’s only gameplan should be to keep this fight standing. There is no reason to chase Jojua to the mat, but as a result, it will be harder for Maverick to find her preferred submission finishes.

Result: Maverick def. Jojua // TKO (doctor stoppage) Round 1 5:00

Winner ✔️ // Method ❌ // Round ❌

Lightweight (155)

Joel Alvarez (17-2) vs Alexander Yakovlev (25-10-1)

Alvarez boosted his profile after a dominant first-round submission victory over former McGregor foe, Joe Duffy. It was a sad performance from Duffy, but Alvarez deserves some respect on his name. A grappling and submission wizard, he could yet fast rise the Lightweight rankings if he develops his takedown game.

Yakovlev is a durable opponent and a handy wrestler. Not the most exciting to watch, Yakovlev leans on opponents and attempts to outmuscle them with his hulking physique. We will likely get to see the submission offence of Alvarez from bottom.

Predicted Result: Alvarez Submission Round 3

Yakovlev is susceptible to submission losses, most likely due to his preference for wrestling. This will be a close fight and could easily end up being a lopsided decision for Yakovlev based on control time.

Result: Alvarez def. Yakovlev // Submission (armbar) Round 1 3:00

Winner ✔️ // Method ✔️ // Round ❌

Prediction Accuracy

UFC 254: Khabib vs Gaethje

Winner: 9/12

Method: 3/12

Round: 1/12

2020 MMA Season

Winner: 146/233

Method: 107/233

Round: 94/233

Takeaway comments: Lauren Murphy for the next crack at Valentina? Something, something, dancing Ghanaian pallbearers.

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