UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gaethje Preview

A preview of Saturday’s UFC 254 card, set to take place in Abu Dhabi.

Updated: Oct. 22, 2020 • 5:45 AM ET

Khabib Nurmagomedov is looking to keep his unblemished record this Saturday.

Presenting one of its biggest events of the year, the UFC will return to Yas Island in Abu Dhabi for UFC 254 this Saturday. In the main event, undefeated lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov will step into the Octagon against interim champion Justin Gaethje to determine the undisputed 155-pound king.

Nurmagomedov’s last fight was more than a year ago (September 2019) when he defeated Dustin Poirier by third-round submission at UFC 242 in September. The win pushed him to 28-0 and 12-0 in the UFC, making him arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. He’ll defend the lightweight title for the third time on Saturday, but many pundits believe it will be his toughest test yet.
 

The 32-year-old Nurmagomedov has collected victories over some of the best fighters in the lightweight division, including Poirier, Conor McGregor, Al Iaquinta, Edson Barboza, Michael Johnson, Rafael Dos Anjos and Gleison Tibau. While he has often been linked to a fight with another one of the best fighters in the division, Tony Ferguson, the fight never happened due to many freak circumstances.

Gaethje defeated Ferguson in dominant fashion at UFC 249 in May to win the interim title.

Nurmagomedov has been virtually flawless inside the Octagon. The one knock on his career, however, has been that he’s not the most active fighter. He has only fought six times since April 2014, and Saturday’s fight will only be his third since winning the title in April 2018.

It took the Dagestani some time to register with casual MMA fans due to his lack of activity, but his fight with McGregor pushed him over the top. He’s now a fighter who some of those fans watch to see lose, which translates well economically in the UFC.

Nurmagomedov may already be looking beyond UFC 254, discussing a possible super fight with all-time great Georges St-Pierre in a recent ESPN interview.

"I really become excited when I think about Georges St-Pierre,” Nurmagomedov said. "I don't know if he wants to fight with me or not. Can he make weight -- 155 or not -- but this fight makes me excited, honestly.

“And I think me vs. Georges is going to be very, very big fight — like big fight for fans, big fight for pay-per-view, big fight for analytics and for everybody. This is only fight in UFC, after Gaethje, what makes me very excited."

When asked about possibly fighting McGregor or Poirier again, who are both linked to a fight with each other in 2021, Nurmagomedov added, “I finished both of them, and finished in dominant position, a dominant performance. And I'm not interested in both of those guys, because I need something new. I need new blood, new energy.

"Justin Gaethje gives me new motivation. He's the real deal. Right now, he's interim champ, he's very tough guy. If I think about both Dustin and Conor, they don't give me good energy. They don't give me motivation. Fight for what? For my legacy? I already put these guys on my list. I already beat them. Everything is finished with these guys."

If Nurmagomedov convincingly defeats Gaethje, he could venture outside the lightweight division, such as possibly booking a fight with St-Pierre or moving up to 170 pounds to challenge for a second belt. The only top name he has not fought and defeated in the lightweight division is Ferguson, but that fight just doesn’t seem meant to be, although not impossible.

With his dominant victory over Ferguson, Gaethje made it clear to the MMA world that he’s the second-best fighter in the lightweight division. Despite being a sizable underdog this weekend, Gaethje is ready to play the role of spoiler at UFC 254.

"I'm here to ruin Ali's day,” Gaethje recently said on Morning Kombat. “I’m here to ruin Dana White's day, I'm here to ruin Daniel Cormier's day, I'm here to ruin Javier Mendes' day, I'm here to ruin Khabib Nurmagomedov's day. "F--- all those guys.

“They already got [a plan]. I don't know what their plan is, but they said they got a plan ahead —I'm going to f--- it up. They’re going to change my nickname from 'The Highlight' to '2020'.”

The 31-year-old Gaethje entered the UFC undefeated in 2017 and defeated Michael Johnson in one of the best fights of the year, instantly making an impression on UFC fans. He suffered setbacks against former champion Eddie Alvarez and Poirier, but he has gone on a tear ever since with brutal wins over James Vick, Barboza, Donald Cerrone and Ferguson.

Many analysts have said that Gaethje has the best chance of handing Nurmagomedov his first loss because of his violent style and ability to endure punishment. But the question for anyone that fights the champion is: what will he do once/if he gets taken down?

Nurmagomedov wears out his opponents with his wrestling, pushing them back against the fence. If Gaethje gets taken down and can find a way back to his feet early in the fight, it could cause problems for the champion. The only fighter to win a round against Nurmagomedov is McGregor, and that was in the third round after managing to find a way back to his feet in the previous round, taking a small amount of the momentum away from Nurmagomedov.

Typically, winning just one round in a fight seems like a lesser accomplishment; but against Nurmagomedov, it’s a huge victory within itself. He’s known for breaking a fighter’s will, but Gaethje is confident it will not happen to him.

“I create damage,” Gaethje said. “I create damage even if I barely miss and I barely clip you, it’s damage. The damage is done.

“In a 25-minute fight, I will create damage one way or another. A thing about Tony (Ferguson) is, Tony loves that. One thing I’m sure about Khabib is he does not love that. His main priority is to not take damage so that he can live a quality of life. And that’s admirable, but when I hit you, where does your mind go whenever your first thought is don’t get hurt? I don’t know. I’m excited to see his reaction to that.”

While seeming confident, Gaethje has much respect for Nurmagomedov.

“I respect him as a fighter, for sure,” Gaethje said. “His skills are phenomenal.”

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Co-main event

Saturday’s co-main event will be a feature fight in the middleweight division with major title implications, as former champion Robert Whittaker will fight surging contender Jared Cannonier.

Whittaker, the UFC’s No. 1 ranked middleweight, is coming off a unanimous decision win over Darren Till in July, which was a big rebound after losing the middleweight title at UFC 243 in October to champion Israel Adesanya. The 29-year-old Whittaker has only lost three fights since 2013 and is trying to make his way back to a title shot to avenge the second-round TKO loss to Adesanya.

The New Zealander has victories over several top fighters, including Yoel Romero (twice), Ronaldo Souza, Derek Brunson, Uriah Hall and Brad Tavares. Of these victories, none have come against a fighter such as Cannonier, who has dropped two weight classes and found major success since doing so. A second straight victory for Whittaker against a surging contender that has caught the champion’s attention could make a great case for him being next in line for a title shot.

The No. 2 ranked Cannonier hasn’t fought in more than a year (September 2019), but he has won three straight, all by TKO, over David Branch, Anderson Silva and Jack Hermansson. After going 1-1 in the UFC at heavyweight and 2-2 at light heavyweight, Cannonier seems to have found a home at middleweight.

Cannonier has displayed vicious power with his hands, and his ability to take a punch seems to be getting better, as well. As previously mentioned, he has even caught Adesanya’s attention as a top contender. After Adesanya demolished Paulo Costa at UFC 253 last month in his second successful title defense, the champion mentioned Cannonier’s name in his post-fight interview as the next challenge, if he can get by Whittaker, of course.

The 36-year-old Cannonier believes if he can defeat Whittaker, he’ll be given the next shot at the title.

“This is the biggest fight of my career,” Cannonier said at UFC media day this week. “A title fight is definitely coming for me next.”

Cannonier believes he’s in the proper place mentally and physically for Saturday’s fight. He also said he has heard Adesanya recognize him.

“Real recognize real,” Cannonier said. “[Adesanya] said in his interview he loves my energy. To me, that means something different to what other people would mean.

When you start talking energy, we all know that I love talking about energy and working with energy and stuff like that. I think we’re looking at each other right here [points to third eye], we see each other right there and that really cool. I think that’s huge, especially in our sport, where a lot of people just look at the physicality of the sport and don’t tap into the mentality of the sport, as well. There’s a spiritual aspect to this, as well. Martial arts is a spiritual thing before it became a physical thing.”

 

The rest of the main card on ESPN+ at 2 p.m. EST

Heavyweight bout - No. 7 Alexander Volkov vs. No. 10 Walt Harris

Middleweight bout - Jacob Malkoun vs. Phillip Hawes

Women’s flyweight bout - No. 5 Lauren Murphy vs. Liliya Shakirova

Light heavyweight bout - No. 11 Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba

 

Prelims on ESPN2 at 12 p.m.EST

Heavyweight bout - Stefan Struve vs. Tai Tuivasa

Welterweight bout - Alex Oliveira vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov

Light heavyweight bout - Da-Un Jung vs. Sam Alvey

 

Early Prelims on UFC Fight Pass at 11 a.m. EST

Catchweight bout (140 pounds) - Nathaniel Wood vs. Casey Kenney

Women’s flyweight bout - Liana Jojua vs. Miranda Maverick

Lightweight bout - Joel Alvarez vs. Alexander Yakovlev

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