This is it, we finally made it. UFC 254 brings us daytime fights on Saturday, and we get a main event that is as anticipated as any fight can be. Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje will clash to unify the lightweight championship belts. More on this behemoth of a fight later, but there is some incredible matchmaking on this card. With the majority of the fights, there are fairly clear and defined paths to victory for each fighter, and we should truly get some riveting action with the majority of them as well. I don’t need to pump this one up leading into it, let’s get right to the matchups.
Khabib Nurmagomedov -335 vs Justin Gaethje
Fight is five rounds for the lightweight championship and is -210 to end inside the distance.
If you are reading this, I assume I don’t have to tell you the strengths and weaknesses of these two household names. In the case of this matchup, it’s better to outline the paths to victory and the pitfalls that each might run into.
When listing weaknesses for Khabib, the list will be very short. He is on the incredible winning streak he is on because he is that good, and is the most smothering wrestler and grappler we will find in MMA. Khabib has never absorbed more than 51 significant strikes in any UFC fight, as he absorbs just 1.65 significant strikes per minute of fight time, and will look to improve on his 28-0 record in MMA.
No one has come particularly close to solving the puzzle, but if there is a fighter with the skill set required to do so, it is Justin Gaethje. If there is a parallel to draw from any of Khabib’s previous fights, the Edson Barboza fight may be the most similar stylistically. No Barboza does not bring the wrestling credentials that Gaethje does, nor does he have the thunder in his hands, but he does strike opponents with leg kicks the same way, and Barboza was able to put 8 of 10 thrown on Khabib. Stifling Khabib’s movement with those leg kicks will go a long way towards Gaethje not being ground down and out like all of Khabib’s previous opponents.
Those leg kicks are just one piece of the puzzle, as Gaethje will need to both stuff takedowns and return to his feet when taken down early in the fight, or the fight will become a runaway. Both open mat sprawls and more importantly keeping himself off the fence where Khabib does his best work are of paramount importance for Gaethje. The more time Gaethje keeps the fight in the stand up, the better his chances of scoring that elusive KO. Gaethje does have very real power in his hands, and while Khabib has handled elite boxers before, he hasn’t run into one with the combination of a real wrestling skill set, thunderous power and an ability to cripple the leg as well.
I believe that this fight will be decided in roughly the first three rounds. At that point, Gaethje will have already pulled off the upset, or he will be just the latest recipient of the Khabib grinding. Fending off the style if Khabib has to be one of the most exhausting activities a human can partake in, and it is just impossible to envision anyone having anything in the tank in the championship rounds and stealing a decision. I truly cannot envision any iteration of the fight where Khabib would lose on the judge’s scorecards, save for one that he takes so much damage to a leg that he cannot wrestle and becomes a defensive boxer. As such, Gaethje’s lone true path to victory is securing a KO in the first half or so of the fight, and any value to be found on the betting side of this fight comes with the +450 ITD line on Gaethje. Khabib is as good as anyone would advertise, but I cannot in good faith lay over 3:1 on anyone when fighting agaisnt Gaethje. It truly is difficult to bet this fight, but if you do, attack the big plus figure of Gaethje’s lone path to victory on the ITD line.
Jared Cannonier -115 vs Robert Whittaker
Fight is at 185 lbs and is -145 to end inside the distance.
This correctly lined co-main should be quite the banger as well, and it has a similarity to the main event. That similarity is that if and when the fight gets to the judge’s scorecards, we almost certainly know who the victor will be. In this case, Robert Whittaker will get the nod from the judges, should the fight last that long, and there are a few reasons for it. Whittaker is simply the more skilled fighter in this matchup. He is the better and more technical striker and he is the better grappler and wrestler. He is the busier striker, and his path to victory in this fight is to not eat the incorrect shot and be put out, as he was in the Adesanya fight and nearly was in the Till fight. That’s it.
On the Cannonier side, he is the larger, more powerful and more athletic fighter, and he will be and will need to be seeking a finish throughout. His style is one that will not keep pace from a volume perspective, he will not win with offensive grappling, so he, as always, needs to win with the finish. I don’t know that he is ready to land that perfect shot on Whittaker, as his win over Jack Hermansson was the only one in his career close to this level of competition. While it has become cliche to say that there are levels in MMA, Cannonier is likely to find he needs to level up once or twice more before being at this peak echelon. I will say, if Cannonier finds any way to find himself in top position on the floor, his ground and pound is truly vicious and can finish absolutely anyone. He won’t be able to wrestle the fight down, but trips and slips can happen and that would be a bad time for Whittaker.
As stated above, I lean to the Whittaker side of this fight, and he is in play for both decision and finish wins, and is therefore best played flat at -105. If you vehemently disagree with me, I understand, just be sure any Cannonier wager is of the ITD variety for the added value at +165.
Alexander Volkov -185 vs Walt Harris
Fight is at heavyweight and is -170 to end inside the distance.
This is another fight with clear paths to victory for both fighters. The similarity this fight has to the main event is that I believe there is just an early fight window for the underdog to get a finish, or see the favorite run away with it. Walt Harris is a KO finisher, but has a gas tank that lasts just somewhere between one and two rounds. He is low volume and looks to make every strike count, but the volume disparity between him and Volkov will be an increasing problem as this fight progresses. Volkov being taller and longer will present a problem, as Volkov may not be at the end of Harris’ strikes as previous opponents have been. We will also see volume and pace coming from Volkov that will force a pace that will tire Harris on the quicker side of his usual gas tank. Don’t get me wrong here, it only takes one from Harris to end the fight, and Volkov certainly does not bring that one shot power, but he truly will be at an ever increasing higher striking rate in this fight. The more Harris tires, the more Volkov will pour it on. I do not anticipate any grappling in this fight, but if we were to see any I would deem Volkov to have the better skill set.
I think the fight is lined properly, with a higher probability of Volkov winning, but also knowing a Harris win would be of the KO variety. If playing Harris, be absolutely certain to play either the ITD line of +240 or the Round 1 line of +450. The Round 1 play is the more attractive of the two for me. I won’t be playing this fight but if I were forced to make a play, it would be Volkov flat.
Lauren Murphy -235 vs Liliya Shakirova
Fight is 125 lbs and is +285 to end inside the distance.
Lauren Murphy’s plans for this card were turned on their head when Cynthia Calvillo was forced to withdraw. Instead of a fight with number one title contender implications, she now takes on debutant Liliya Shakirova. While that does not bring the post fight advancement she was hoping for, she should run through Shakirova moderately easily. Murphy is highly experienced and has fought truly worlds better competition than that of Shakirova. Shakirova’s striking is sloppy and I see her as quite hittable, both at range and in the clinch. The strength of Shakirova’s game is in her wrestling and grappling, but I would deem Murphy to have fought and beaten better grapplers of late. I don’t believe there will be an advantage for Shakirova to press, and despite her being something of a sudden darling underdog, I don’t believe this fight is lined nearly wide enough. Murphy should control all aspects of the striking, and will just have to make sure her takedown defense holds up, and this fight will become a runaway. Shakirova will find the competition she has faced leading up to this short notice debut has been lacking, and Murphy will earn either an easy decision win or a finish. Despite the wide-ish -285 price tag, I believe Murphy offers the best value on the card and is certainly worth a flat play.
I touched on four of the six pay per view fights, but don’t blink during the first round of either the Hawes or Ankalaev fights. Hawes and/or Cutelaba could put on a show and stop their respective fights in their tracks. Enjoy this card, it’s a great one the promotion has put together!