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Fight Coverage

UFC 254: Fight by Fight Preview

We Run Down The Full UFC 254 Card, Top To Bottom

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV VS. JUSTIN GAETHJE

In the red corner, you have undefeated UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, a charismatic bulldozer who talks facts to his opponents while grinding them to a pulp in the Octagon.

In the blue corner, you have interim lightweight titleholder Justin Gaethje, a demolition derby come to life inside the UFC cage who claimed his belt with a performance that remains unbelievable more than five months later.

Saturday on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, these two men will step into the Octagon in what is easily the most anticipated fight of this year and one of the top lightweight title fights in UFC history. On the credentials alone, this is an incredibly compelling bout, but when you start getting into the nuts and bolts of it, the intrigue factor just keeps climbing.

Nurmagomedov has literally been unstoppable throughout his career, posting 28 consecutive victories in a run that includes doling out lopsided beatings to Conor McGregor, Edson Barboza, Michael Johnson, and Rafael Dos Anjos. Though his striking has improved considerably over the course of his career, the 32-year-old champion is a grappler first, foremost, and always, using his incredible blend of technique, strength, control, and relentlessness to rag doll the opposition into submission, sometimes literally.

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Gaethje has nine post-fight bonuses in seven UFC appearances, which is the absolute quickest way to explain what you get from “The Highlight” whenever he steps into the cage. He’s rebounded from consecutive losses to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier to deliver four straight victories — three first-round finishes and a masterpiece against Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 in May that is still the single best individual performance this year.

But while Gaethje invites and incites “carnage,” which is the word he used when I asked him how to describe his style to UFC fans that had never seen him fight before ahead of his promotional debut, he is also incredibly resilient and was an outstanding collegiate wrestler back in the day.

While no one wants to be stuck in a series of grappling exchanges and scrambles with Nurmagomedov, few want to get into a protracted striking battle with Gaethje, which is why many pundits and observers are keen to see how the interim titleholder can use his wrestling to stave off the unbeaten champion’s attempts to bring the fight to the canvas and force him to wage this fight in striking range.

Can Gaethje keep the fight standing and author another incredible story on Saturday or will Nurmagomedov continue to be the unstoppable juggernaut who imposes his will on another elite talent on his way to his 30th consecutive triumph?

Saturday can’t get here soon enough.

ROBERT WHITTAKER VS. JARED CANNONIER

Robert Whittaker: Fight Week Interview
Robert Whittaker: Fight Week Interview
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The penultimate pairing on this weekend’s fight card could very well determine the next title challenger in the middleweight division as former champion Robert Whittaker squares off against striking contender Jared Cannonier.

Whittaker lost the middleweight strap to current champ Israel Adesanya just over a year ago and was originally slated to face Cannonier in March at UFC 248, but withdrew from the contest for undisclosed reasons. He later revealed he was dealing with burnout, and after some time away, “The Reaper” was back in action, picking up a unanimous decision win over Darren Till that re-affirmed his standing as one of the top talents in the 185-pound weight class.

The 36-year-old Cannonier started his career at heavyweight, splitting his first two UFC appearances while competing in the big boy ranks. He went 2-3 in five fights at light heavyweight, but those losses came against Glover Teixeira, Jan Blachowicz, and Dominick Reyes; a veteran contender, the current champion, and the man Blachowicz beat to claim the vacant belt last month.

Since moving to middleweight, Cannonier has gone 3-0 with stoppage wins over David Branch, Anderson Silva, and Jack Hermansson, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is a legitimate threat in the middleweight division.

While nothing is ever guaranteed and new possibilities could emerge at any time, there is an obvious avenue for the winner of this bout moving forward to challenge Adesanya for the title next time out — Whittaker is a former champ who would be out to avenge his prior loss after collecting consecutive quality wins, while Cannonier would be on a four-fight winning streak having dispatched two former titleholders, a two-division champion from another organization, and a Scandinavian standout who got back into the win column with a 78-second submission win earlier this summer.

Although a chance to fight for the title following this one is not guaranteed for the victor, what is certain is that this is going to be an extremely entertaining fight for as long as it lasts.

Justin Gaethje: Fight Week Interview
Justin Gaethje: Fight Week Interview
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ALEXANDER VOLKOV VS. WALT HARRIS

Top 10 heavyweights looking to get back in the win column meet in the middle of this weekend’s pay-per-view main card as towering Russian Alexander Volkov takes on fan favorite Walt Harris.

Volkov has been entrenched in the rankings since arriving in the UFC, posting five wins in seven starts, including a fourth-round stoppage victory over former champ Fabricio Werdum. But so far, he’s failed to clear that final hurdle that would carry him from divisional stalwart to title contender, landing on the wrong side of the results in crucial contests against Derrick Lewis and Curtis Blaydes, who out-wrestled Volkov for 25 minutes in June.

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It took Harris two attempts to really establish his footing in the UFC, but after starting 1-2 in his second run with the promotion, “The Big Ticket” went on a quality run that establish him as a dark horse contender in the division. His career was placed on hold last fall when his daughter, Aniah Blanchard, was abducted and killed.

Harris returned to the Octagon in May against Alistair Overeem, losing to the veteran contender in the second round. Saturday’s bout against Volkov takes places on the one-year anniversary of Aniah being reported missing, and you better believe that Harris will be carrying a heavy heart into the Octagon with him this weekend.

This is a crucial contest for both men, as positioning in the heavyweight hierarchy is at stake at a time when there are some emerging talents starting to make noise a little further down the divisional ladder. With the upper third of the rankings largely settled, the winner of this one will remain a potential dance partner for the odd man out in the Top 5, while the vanquished competitor will likely be tasked with rebounding from a two-fight slide against a hunger up-and-comer looking to usurp their place in the pecking order.

JACOB MALKOUN VS. PHILLIP HAWES

Middleweight newcomers looking to make their mark right out of the chute clash here as Australia’s Jacob Malkoun faces off with American Phillip Hawes.

A training partner of former middleweight kingpin and fellow UFC 254 competitor Robert Whittaker, Malkoun carries a 4-0 mark into his UFC debut on Saturday, having earned three of those victories in a 12-month run between October 2018 and 2019. He’s been out of action since, but made the trip to Fight Island with Whittaker in July, so he should be fully prepared for the experience ahead of him before he makes the walk to the Octagon for the first time.

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Once viewed as one of the top prospects in the sport, Hawes has endured some ups and downs over the course of his career, but the soft-spoken, hard-hitting middleweight appears to have finally put it all together. Now 31, he enters this weekend’s pairing with Malkoun on a four-fight winning streak, capped by his blistering win over Khadzi Bestaev on the Contender Series in early September.

Outside of the Top 10, the middleweight division is fairly wide open and fluid, and while neither of these men is within range of breaking into the rankings, a standout performance on Saturday could put either one on the fast track to contention.

LAUREN MURPHY VS. LILIYA SHAKIROVA

Lauren Murphy was initially scheduled to face fellow emerging contender Cynthia Calvillo in a clash of championship hopefuls, but with Calvillo being a late scratch, the streaking TUF alum welcomes Liliya Shakirova to the Octagon for the first time instead.

Murphy, who won gold under the Invicta FC banner before matriculating to the Octagon, was four fights into her UFC career when she joined the cast on Season 26 of The Ultimate Fighter in hopes of becoming the inaugural flyweight champion. She was bounced early but defeated fellow former Invicta champ Barb Honchak on the finale card and enters this weekend’s clash with consecutive victories over Mara Romero Borella, Andrea Lee, and Roxanne Modafferi.

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A national champion in freestyle wrestling in her native Uzbekistan, Shakirova arrives in the UFC with an 8-1 record and riding a three-fight winning streak. She’s spent time training at Tiger Muay Thai in the past, including working with Calvillo there last fall, but it’s difficult to get an accurate read on where she fits in the division and how she matches up with Murphy heading into this one.

This year has been one where several newcomers have made instant impressions and established themselves as immediate contenders, so it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that the spirited newcomer walks into this short-notice pairing and announces her presence in the flyweight division.

At the same time, this is a chance for Murphy to potentially log a dominant performance and establish herself as a clear challenger for reigning champ Valentina Shevchenko heading into 2021.

MAGOMED ANKALAEV VS. ION CUTELABA

Let’s try this one more time.

Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cutelaba fought earlier this year in Norfolk, Virginia. Ankalaev won the bout by first-round stoppage after hitting Cutelaba with a collection of solid shots that made the hulking Moldovan feign that he was wobbled, which prompted the referee to inadvertently stop the fight early. An immediate rematch was booked and has subsequently been shuffled multiple times, ultimately landing as the main card opener this weekend.

In addition to the tensions between these two from how their first encounter played out, this is also a critical contest in a light heavyweight division that is at the dawn of a new era.

Khabib vs Gaethje: This Is My Dream

Ankalaev is quite literally one second away from being 15-0, having suffered his lone loss at 4:59 of the third round in his promotional debut. Since then, the 28-year-old has been impressive, registering three consecutive victories prior to his first dance with Cutelaba while showcasing a diverse striking game and the potential to be a perennial contender going forward.

Still only 26, Cutelaba has grown from a rambunctious newcomer with more power and brawn than anything else to an emerging talent who better understands how to deploy his considerable power and play to his strengths inside the cage. He’s alternated wins and losses since arriving in the UFC, and if the pattern holds on Saturday, the only fair thing to do would be to book these two in a rubber match next year.

But that’s for the matchmakers to consider come Sunday morning.

For now, let’s just hope these two finally get to settle their differences this weekend, because this one should be every bit as entertaining as the first encounter, just without the controversial ending.

Dana White: Lookin’ FWD to a Fight – Return to Fight Island Ep. 2
Dana White: Lookin’ FWD to a Fight – Return to Fight Island Ep. 2
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STEFAN STRUVE VS. TAI TUIVASA

Heavyweights aiming to right the ship on Saturday meet in what should be an electric affair as divisional staple Stefan Struve strides into the Octagon against returning Australian Tai Tuivasa.

Following his victory over Marcos Rogerio de Lima last February, Struve hinted that it might be time to walk away. He returned December to face Ben Rothwell and ended up on the wrong side of the results in a controversial bout where he was hit with a pair of accidental groin strikes before being finished. Now, the 32-year-old veteran looks to get back into the win column as he makes his 24th appearance inside the UFC cage on Saturday.

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The charismatic Tuivasa rocketed out of the gate with three straight wins at the outset of his UFC run, pushing his overall winning streak to nine to start his career. Unfortunately for “Bam Bam,” it has been all bad news since then as he’s suffered three straight losses, including a second-round submission defeat at the hands of Serghei Spivac last time out.

Each of these men have crafted some highlight finishes inside the Octagon during their respective careers and neither is one for backing away from a tussle, so don’t be surprised if the leather flies early and often once this one gets underway this weekend on Fight Island.

ALEX OLIVEIRA VS. SHAVKAT RAKHMONOV

This is one of those cool matchups designed to immediately figure out where a new arrival stands in their respective division as welterweight veteran Alex Oliveira welcomes unbeaten newcomer Shavkat Rakhmonov to the UFC for the first time.

Oliveira has made the walk to the Octagon 18 times in his career, cobbling together an 11-6 record with one no contest verdict from an assortment of wildly entertaining, often back-and-forth fights that always begin with him dancing in the prep point. After losing three straight against Gunnar Nelson, Mike Perry, and Nicolas Dalby, Oliveira is 2-0 in 2020, posting consecutive wins over Max Griffin and Peter Sobotta.

The 25-year-old Rakhmonov has earned a dozen wins in as many starts to begin his career, winning and successfully defending the M-1 Challenge welterweight title in his two 2019 appearances. Like many fighters arriving in the UFC from Central Asia and many of the former Soviet states, it’s hard to get a real read on where Rakhmonov may fit in the division as he’s faced limited competition thus far, but he’s handled his business without issue, finishing everyone he’s fought to date.

Fights like these are often the most interesting matchups on a particular card because it’s a chance to be surprised by a newcomer as they square off with a veteran stalwart. Oliveira is a known commodity who can be counted on to leave it all in the cage and serve as a tough out for anyone paired off with him, so win, lose, or draw, this one should tell fans and observers a great deal about what to expect from Rakhmonov from here on out. 

UFC 254: Inside the Octagon - Khabib vs Gaethje
UFC 254: Inside the Octagon - Khabib vs Gaethje
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DA-UN JUNG VS. SAM ALVEY

Emerging light heavyweight Da-un Jung looks to make it three straight inside the Octagon as he makes his 2020 debut against durable veteran Sam Alvey.

Since losing the second and third fights of his career, the 26-year-old Jung has rattled off a dozen straight wins, including each of his first two UFC appearances. After a wild brawl with Khadis Ibragimov in his debut where he secured a third-round submission victory, the South Korean thrilled the partisan, but polite, fans in Busan last December with a blistering first-round knockout win over Mike Rodriguez.

The 34-year-old Alvey will be competing for the 48th time this weekend, adding the United Arab Emirates to the expansive list of places where he’s fought over the course of his career. He arrives on Fight Island on a four-fight slide, but oddly still carrying some momentum, after his final-round rally against Ryan Spann came up just short last time out.

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This is a classic “prospect vs. veteran” pairing that should answer whatever questions remain about Jung at this point in his career. Alvey is easily the most experienced and accomplished fighter he’s faced thus far and if he can add another win to his resume, he’ll establish himself as one to pay closer attention to going forward in the 205-pound weight class.

NATHANIEL WOOD VS. CASEY KENNEY

Bantamweights angling for a place higher up in the hierarchy meet in this one as England’s Nathaniel Wood squares off with ultra-active American Casey Kenney in potential Fight of the Night contender.

Wood had his eight-fight winning streak snapped earlier this year by John Dodson, but rebounded five months later with a patient, measured victory over tricky short notice dance partner John Castaneda at the end of July. Now the Brad Pickett protégé looks to turn his rebound win into a winning streak and work his way back into the rankings.

This will be Kenney’s 10th fight since the beginning of 2018 and he enters having won eight of his last nine and two straight, mostly recently outworking AlatengHeili just a couple weeks ago. The judo player used his failure to secure a UFC contract after twin appearances on the first season of the Contender Series as motivation and has been thriving ever since, with his only loss coming against rising bantamweight contender Merab Dvalishvili.

We could get a scramble-heavy affair here as Kenney prefers to grapple and Wood has shown some slickness on the canvas himself, though he’s at his best working from range behind a long jab and sharp kicks. Something tells me the pace of this one will be frenetic, and it could very well be the clubhouse leader in the Fight of the Night chase to this point in the evening if things shake out as anticipated.

UFC 254 Embedded: Episode 2
UFC 254 Embedded: Episode 2
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LIANA JOJUA VS. MIRANDA MAVERICK

Young flyweights looking to maintain their momentum clash in this one as Liana Jojua looks for her second victory on Fight Island as she takes on debuting Invicta FC alum Miranda Maverick.

After landing on the wrong side of the results in her debut up a division against veteran Sarah Moras, Jojua got back into the win column with a slick first-round submission win over Diana Belbita in the middle of July. The 25-year-old from Georgia has now won six of her last seven, with five submissions, to establish herself as someone to track in the 125-pound weight class.

Maverick had a breakout campaign in 2019, dropping a competitive decision to DeAnna Bennett at the outset of the year before getting back into the win column in July and then running the table in the second Invicta FC Phoenix Series event in September, capping her three-fight night by avenging her loss to Bennett. The 23-year-old began this year with a decision win over another UFC veteran, Pearl Gonzalez, and now she’ll make the walk to the Octagon for the first time, looking to have her hand raised for a sixth consecutive trip into the cage.

JOEL ALVAREZ VS. ALEXANDER YAKOVLEV

Lightweights will not only close the show on Saturdays, but they’ll get the party started as well, as Spain’s Joel Alvarez goes in search of his third consecutive victory against Russian veteran Alexander Yakovlev.

Alvarez arrived in the UFC on a 10-fight winning streak but dropped a decision to Damir Ismagulov in his debut. Since then, the tall 27-year-old has collected back-to-back stoppage victories inside the Octagon, most recently submitting Joseph Duffy in July.

The 36-year-old Yakovlev fights for the first time since losing to Roosevelt Roberts last November in Moscow and just the third time since the latter stages of 2016. A former welterweight who also stands six-foot-three, “Russian Thunder” is just 3-5 in eight UFC appearances, and looks to avoid a third two-fight slide in this one.

UFC 254 SPECIAL START TIME:

Main Card: 2pm ET / 11am PT on ESPN+

Prelims: 12pm ET / 9am PT on ESPN ESPN+and ESPN Deportes

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