The following story was written by Lou Finocchiaro for VSiN.com.
The highly anticipated UFC 254 from Fight Island in the United Arab Emirates drops this weekend. Preliminary bouts begin at 10:15 a.m. ET Saturday, with the main card set for 2 p.m.
The UFC altered the start time to accommodate the sea of fight fans from the other side of the world who support Khabib Nurmagomedov passionately. The UFC believes this new time setup will account for more pay-per-view buys than if it would have tried to accommodate Western markets in prime time.
Fighters from 11 countries compose the highly competitive 12-fight UFC 254 production.
Lightweight (155 pounds) championship
Khabib Nurmagomedov -345 vs. Justin Gaethje +285
Nurmagomedov was born and bred to fight. The tools of his trade include world-class expertise in Russian sambo, judo, wrestling, BJJ, boxing and pankration, an ancient form of grappling, wrestling and striking. He is undefeated in 28 professional fights and has dominated the top seven fighters in the division.
Nurmagomedov is unrelenting in employing forward pressure that causes opponents to wilt, some early and some late. But at the end of the event, Nurmagomedov’s hand is the one that has been raised, and usually in submission fashion.
Gaethje represents the greatest challenge of “the Eagle’s” career. Gaethje, who is from a small mining town in Arizona, was a Division I college wrestler. His wrestling base is stellar, though it has been underutilized for years as Gaethje prefers to batter opponents with lethal kicks and damaging head strikes. Gaethje walks opponents down, backs them up, then barrages them with strikes that range from numbing calf and ankle kicks to destructive elbows and fists.
Gaethje averages a plentiful 7.74 strikes per minute landed. He also has a chin made of granite, which is important because that is his main form of defense. Gaethje has been able to overcome 8.4 significant strikes from opponents because he is tough as can be. But over time and in world-class competition, shoddy defense is never an asset.
Both combatants have the very best in training partners, camps and supporters. Nurmagomedov trains with Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez, though for this camp he remained mostly overseas. Gaethje trains with Trevor Wittman at Team Elevation in Colorado, one of the top MMA camps in the country. Gaethje has also benefited from training with welterweight champion Kamaru Usman for this fight, as Usman recently joined this dynamic team.
This fight comes down to Nurmagomedov’s ability to repeatedly take Gaethje to the floor for a ground-and-pound party. If he can get Gaethje down and keep him there, this fight will be over quickly, as Gaethje’s lack of BJJ expertise will hinder his ability to remain in bottom position without getting battered.
Gaethje must absolutely scramble to get back to his feet once Nurmagomedov tackles him. If he can do that, the tax and strain of those takedowns is sure to cause Nurmagomedov some loss of energy. Gaethje must keep this bout standing.
This is the game that will go on repeatedly until someone wilts.
Gaethje has admitted many times he does not like to wrestle because of the immense energy drain. He has not needed it much thus far, but make no mistake: Wittman and those in camp are doing their best to prepare Gaethje for this bear.
Nurmagomedov opened -225, and currently the market has Nurmagomedov -345 vs. Gaethje +285.
One last point, which is a major point: Nurmagomedov’s father died this year, and to me, this is the key to the bout. Many wonder if the death will adversely affect the Russian. Know this and believe it in your soul: Nurmagomedov’s performance has nothing to do with him, his pride, his career or money. This fight is for his father.
Total on this fight:
4.5 Under -185
Few handicappers had Gaethje besting Tony Ferguson some months back. After that almost perfect performance by Gaethje, the flow of recency will have bettors jumping him at such a great price. But I find it difficult to believe he’ll be able to match that last effort against this unique opponent.
I was able to take Nurmagomedov at the opening bell knowing this price would skyrocket like it has. My advice now is to be patient if you like Nurmagomedov because it’s plausible that dog money will come in late.
At his current price, Nurmagomedov may be used for parlay sides, as those who read me know I rarely take large favorites SU unless the value is obtuse. In this case it is not.
Best Bet: Nurmagomedov ITD -110
Middleweight (185 pounds), co-main event
Jarod Cannonier -120 vs. Robert Whittaker +100
Whittaker held the middleweight title until Israel Adesanya finished him in October 2019. Since then, Whittaker beat Darren Till via five-round decision in a fight in which neither looked impressive.
The winner of this bout more than likely gets the next shot at Adesanya, who has mentioned Cannonier as his potential next title defense.
Whittaker has a vast experience advantage over Cannonier and has fought in many five-round main events, which can only pad his confidence. For this three-round fight, I expect both to forget measured tactics and instead go right after each other.
Cannonier started his career fighting heavyweight, then light-heavyweight and has now found a home at middleweight, where he has fared quite well. At middleweight, Cannonier’s explosion, power and striking are lethal, and he has an underrated ground game. Cannonier has been smacked by much larger men than Whittaker, and while Whittaker has a whale of a left hook, it’s something Cannonier is preparing for — even though he does not want to taste it much.
For Whittaker, this fight is his career. He earns another title chance with a win. But with a setback he free-falls down the middleweight ranks. The effects of Whittaker’s previous wars have affected the quickness, snap and fluidity of his strikes. It happens that those are the exact attributes his opponent totes into the cage Saturday night.
Cannonier’s speed, explosive striking, hunger for recognition and ability to weather heavy strikes from men well larger than Whittaker provide an advantage. By Round 2 I expect to see the snap of Whittaker’s strikes fading as he begins to slow. At that point, Cannonier will be most dangerous.
This was released in a “Point Spread Weekly” report two weeks ago. Current pricing remains almost the same at Cannonier -120.
The total in this fight: 2.5 Under -135
Heavyweight (265 pounds)
Alexander Volkov -160 vs. Walt Harris +140
Harris is a great human who is a tremendous fighter for six minutes or so. At 37, Harris is explosive, has profuse power and is as game as they get.
But Volkov will be the younger man by six years and will hold height and reach advantages besides being the more complete, well-rounded striker. Wrestling has been considered a major weakness for Volkov, but he used it quite well in his last bout against the division’s top wrestler and he might need to employ it against the 6-foot-5, 265-pound Harris, who will be looking to put out his lights.
In my judgment, Harris has a round and a half to catch Volkov or tackle him to the canvas and try to get on top to employ a heavy dose of ground and pound. If he cannot end this early, I look for Volkov to remain at distance and pick Harris apart with his superior striking.
Volkov opened -195, and we’ve seen some Harris money compress this line a bit.
I like Volkov -160 or less but will use patience to see if his price continues to drop.
Total in this fight: 2.5 Under -150
Alex ‘Cowboy’ Oliveira -160 vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov +140, welterweight (170 pounds)
Oliveira is primarily a Muay Thai striker. He has a blue belt in BJJ but wants to kick and strike his opponents into next week. Oliveira is a smug, cocky fighter whom I have never fancied because of his cheating and sometimes dubious antics in the octagon.
I have been waiting for a spot like this for some time, as I want to see an opponent grind Oliveira’s face on the octagon floor. I believe the UFC has accommodated me in this bout.
At 12-0, Rakhmonov is a rising star from the M1 Global circuit. The Kazakhstani is just the recipe for Oliveira. As a world-class wrestling and grappling savant, Rakhmonov will be kryptonite to BJJ fighters and one-dimensional strikers like Oliveira.
Rakhmonov is younger and taller, and though he’ll be giving away experience to Oliveira, he’ll hold the advantage in wrestling and grappling. Rakhmonov will waste little time in taking this fight to the floor in an attempt to win his UFC debut and satisfy my desire to see Oliveira smoked.