Khabib Nurmagomedov (Jason Burgos/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 254 Preview and Predictions

For years, the fight that fans wanted to see in the lightweight division was Khabib Nurmagomedov against Tony Ferguson. After five failed attempts to make that fight a reality, Ferguson suffered a stunning upset in May at UFC 249 when he lost to Justin Gaethje. Now, fans will get the ultimate consolation prize in the form of the title-unification bout between the interim champion Gaethje and titleholder Nurmagomedov this weekend at UFC 254.

Gaethje is a former NCAA Division I All-American wrestler who has yet to shoot for a takedown since joining the UFC. Instead, he prefers to stand and trade with his opponents, evolving from a slugging brawler to a hard-hitting technician who displays surgical accuracy. His wrestling chops will certainly be tested though against Nurmagomedov, who has seemingly rendered the takedown defense of all of his opponents useless.

Nurmagomedov’s patented ground-and-pound drains the fight out of his opponents until they fall via TKO or are forced to submit. If Gaethje is able to keep the fight standing, then it is Nurmagomedov who will have to dig deep and show that his striking game has evolved enough to hang with Gaethje in the Arizona-born fighter’s realm.


The main event is not the only fight that will have viewers on the edge of their seats. The co-headliner is a middleweight title eliminator of sorts in which Jared “The Killa Gorilla” Cannonier takes on former champ Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker. Cannonier is undefeated since moving down to 185 pounds and has finished all three of his opponents. He will look to continue this streak when he meets Whittaker, who rebounded nicely from his title loss with a win against Darren Till. An emphatic victory will give Whittaker the resume he needs to earn a shot at redemption against Israel Adesanya. If Cannonier walks away victorious, then he will be a huge step closer to making Adesanya’s UFC 253 post-fight declaration that Cannonier is next a reality.

Heavyweight contenders try to get back on track when Alexander Volkov meets Walt Harris in another featured bout on the main card. Volkov is coming off a loss to Curtis Blaydes at the UFC Apex, while Harris fell via TKO to Alistair Overeem in his last outing.

The highly anticipated and oft-rescheduled rematch between Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cutelaba takes one of the remaining spots on the docket. Perhaps the only thing more disappointing than the premature stoppage in their first meeting is the number of times the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has caused this fight to be postponed. Finally, it seems that fans will get to see these two thunderous light heavyweights slug it out.

UFC 254 takes place inside the Flash Forum on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, the UFC’s home away from home. The early prelims air on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+ at 10:30 a.m. ET. The action switches to ESPN2 and ESPN+ for the remainder of the preliminary card at noon ET. The main card kicks off at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN+ pay-per-view. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action this week as they go Toe to Toe.

Justin Gaethje has scored four finishes by some form of knockout on his way to the UFC interim lightweight championship. Now, though, he’s set for a title-unification bout against Khabib Nurmagomedov, who has never lost a fight in his pro career. Can Gaethje conquer this beast?

Sumian: This may very well be the most anticipated title bout in the history of the UFC lightweight division. The confident, undefeated champion meets the surging contender who has taken the UFC by storm after rattling off four incredible knockout victories to claim the interim belt. The storyline for this fight is not only exciting, but incredibly significant for the future of arguably the most competitive division in the UFC today. Whatever the outcome, the number of incredible match-ups to make once these two do the dance is astounding.

The path to victory for both combatants has never been more straightforward. For Nurmagomedov, it all comes down to closing the distance, securing the takedown, and doing what he has done to Conor McGregor, Michael Johnson and Dustin Poirier in the past. All three of those men were vastly superior strikers to Nurmagomedov, but they fell prey to his relentless pursuit of the takedown and the overwhelming ground game that followed. The champ averages a jaw-dropping 5.09 takedowns per 15 minutes, 4.29 significant strikers per minute, and under two significant strikes absorbed per minute.

However, as dominant as he has been throughout his pro career, Nurmagomedov can and has been hit. Johnson and Poirier landed precise flurries that sent the champ backpedaling almost immediately in a desperate state as he attempted to re-establish control and secure the takedown. While most fans might not have noticed this due to how well Nurmagomedov is able to mask it, he certainly felt those punches and did not like it. His plan will yet again revolve around controlling the pace of the bout, securing the takedown, and smashing or submitting Gaethje while taking minimal damage

Perhaps the more exciting path to victory lies with the interim champ Gaethje. No one could have predicted what Gaethje would be able to do to Ferguson. His game plan was superb and flawless. He blasted Ferguson with accurate counter strikes, looping hooks and a variety of power punches and combinations that led to the fifth TKO suffered by the long-standing lightweight contender Ferguson. Now, the “Highlight” gets a date with destiny, as he is tasked with defeating one of the most dominant champions in UFC history. The game plan remains the exact opposite of what Nurmagomedov must do. Gaethje has to stuff the takedown and find his opponent’s chin for a highlight finish.

Gaethje averages an impressive 7.74 significant strikes per bout, but he also absorbs a concerning 8.37 strikers per minute. However, if you have ever watched him fight, then you are well aware that he is able to withstand an incredible amount of punishment in an effort to dish out his own. In addition, he has a fairly notable wrestling background throughout both his high school and college careers. He was inducted into the University of Northern Colorado’s Hall of Fame for his success in their wrestling program. Gaethje will hold a significant power advantage in the striking department, and it will all come down to how effectively he can negate Nurmagomedov’s predictable game plan while implementing his own.

Despite all Gaethje has done over his last few bouts, the easy answer is still to pick Nurmagomedov by either decision or submission. However, on Oct. 24, 2020, the UFC will have a new undisputed UFC champion in Gaethje. Does this mean his wrestling is anywhere near the level of Nurmagomedov’s mastery? Absolutely not. Will Gaethje be taken down by Nurmagomedov? Probably. However, Gaethje’s athleticism, cardio and underrated wrestling defense will allow him to stuff the majority of those takedowns, which will puzzle Nurmagomedov and force him to fight Gaethje on the cage and in the clinch.

Once in boxing range, expect Gaethje to fire off his outstanding right uppercut and left hook to punish his opponent for coming within striking range. Nurmagomedov will continue to tie Gaethje up repeatedly, probably securing a takedown here and there while Gaethje attempts to work back to the feet and mitigate damage taken. This bout ends with a close, albeit convincing, unanimous decision for Gaethje and a new wave of incredible bouts to make in the near future.

Petela: While my colleague and I agree that Gaethje will be the victor, we disagree on how he gets it done.

Nurmagomedov, to this point in his career, has had nary a moment in his career when he looked truly vulnerable. That will change when he faces Gaethje. Yes, he will probably take down Gaethje, but it will come at a cost. Gaethje’s wrestling defense will impress fans, and it won’t be until the third or fourth attempt that Nurmagomedov grounds his opponent. This will take an incredible amount of energy from “The Eagle,” and after being unable to finish Gaethje, the Dagestani fighter’s gas tank will be compromised. This is normally not the case, as he is known for outstanding cardio, but it can’t be undersold how big of an effect not having his father in his corner or training camp will have. This will be the decisive factor in the fight.

By the third round, Nurmagomedov will have to shoot for a less-than-perfect takedown, and Gaethje will use this opportunity to connect with an uppercut that stuns Nurmagomedov. He will then follow up with a few more shots for the finish that sends Nurmagomedov to the canvas and leads to the crowning of a new champion.

If middleweight champion Israel Adesanya’s words hold true, Jared Cannonier could be fighting for a title shot in the evening’s co-headliner opposite Robert Whittaker. How will Cannonier fare against one of Adesanya’s title predecessors?

Petela: Very well. Cannonier will come away with a statement-making win against Whittaker.

In his last three fights, “The Killa Gorilla” has looked incredible while scoring the finish in each appearance. It is no coincidence that these results have followed his move down to middleweight. With the success he has had so far, it is astounding that he once fought all the way up at heavyweight. Cannonier carries heavy power in his hands and has rounded out his striking by adding an array of thudding kicks to his arsenal.

Going up against someone as technically savvy as Whittaker, it will be the variety of Cannonier’s attack that proves to be the decisive factor. With leg kicks that stopped Anderson Silva, Cannonier will be able to slow down Whittaker. By the later rounds, the Australian fighter will be almost a stationary target. This is when Cannonier will land a combination of devastating punches to close the show, adding UFC President Dana White and a plethora of fans to the list of people who want to see him challenge for Adesanya’s title.

This fight will bring more questions from viewers about whether or not the damage Whittaker sustained in the wars with Yoel Romero has taken something from him that he will never regain. Similar to the effect that the Cain Velasquez trilogy had on Junior dos Santos, those slugfests with Romero will be the first fights that fans think about when they hear Whittaker’s name. Despite being the middleweight champion in the most prestigious MMA promotion in the world, his legacy will be one of “what could have been” in the eyes of many fans.

Sumian: The only impressive victory in Cannonier’s recent three-fight streak was his impressive TKO of fellow contender Jack Hermansson. Wins over an aged Silva and David Branch do not translate into contender status. Cannonier certainly looked impressive against Hermansson, though, and absolutely deserves a battle with Whittaker. However, it will be the “Reaper” that impresses on Saturday night with another five-round decision victory.

Whittaker boasts creative striking, a relentless pace, and plenty of experience despite being only 29 years old. He has fought almost all of the top 10 in the middleweight division throughout his climb to the championship and showed his ability to control and outpace a powerful striker in Darren Till several months ago while avoiding power punches and thunderous combinations.

I believe Whittaker when he said that he was plagued with injuries and inadequate recovery through his title reign. He has now taken the time to rest and heal properly in an effort to compete at his ultimate best. Whittaker tops Cannonier by decision and likely earns a shot to regain his belt.

Phil Hawes, Jacob Malkoun and Shavkat Rakhmonov — do we need to know these names?

Sumian: Rakhmonov is a native of Kazakhstan who has compiled an undefeated professional mark of 12-0 with all of fights ending in either a knockout or a submission. One of his most impressive highlights is a knockout via body punch of Marcelo Brito. The 25-year-old is a welterweight prospect due to his impressive resume, young age, and relentless pursuit of the finish. The UFC also appears to believe this, which has resulted in a match-up with promotional veteran Alex Oliveira, who is no slouch. This only shows how much faith the UFC has in Rakhmonov. This figures to be an exciting fight where both Rakhmonov and Oliveira pursue the finish. The end result will be a highlight victory for Rakhmonov, who adds his name to the crowded welterweight division.

Malkoun and Hawes make their UFC debuts against each other in the pay-per-view opener of UFC 254. Hawes, who stands at 8-2, has a Dana White’s Contender Series record of 1-1, while his fellow middleweight Malkoun has compiled an undefeated record through four fights outside of the UFC. Neither man deserves an unnatural amount of attention just yet, but an impressive victory at UFC 254 can certainly change this.

Petela: The UFC roster seems to be expanding exponentially with the continuous crop of newcomers from across the globe.

Rakhmonov is the real deal. His prowess for finishing fights should not go unnoticed. He won’t get by Oliveira in his debut, but this will certainly mark the beginning of a long and exciting UFC run for the debuting Kazakh fighter.

It’s tough to see two fighters face each other in their debut, because a win ends up meaning much less than a loss to many fans who are seeing them in action for the first time. However, Malkoun and Hawes will both put on impressive displays of their talent. Regardless of the outcome, both names will stick with fans. Keep an eye on these guys.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 254?

Petela: Justin Gaethje. This one’s easy. He not only claims the undisputed lightweight title, but he unseats the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov and jumps up the pound-for-pound list with a win. Furthermore, he gets to prove the doubters, including Dana White and Daniel Cormier, wrong. “The Highlight” will be more than the biggest winner at UFC 254; he will be the biggest winner in MMA for all of 2020.

Sumian: In the spirit of being original, let’s go with Walt Harris. He is coming off a TKO loss to Alistair Overeem despite hurting Overeem badly in the first round. If you are aware of Harris’s life outside the cage, then you can only imagine how important it is for him to rebound with an impressive victory. The UFC has given him the opportunity by matching him up with fellow striker and UFC heavyweight contender Alexander Volkov. Expect Harris and Volkov to trade heavy blows before Harris lands a devastating shot that initiates a fight-ending sequence and secures an emotional victory for the Alabama native.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 254?

Sumian: Lauren Murphy, but not because she will lose. Prior to this week, Murphy was on schedule to face fellow flyweight contender Cynthia Calvillo in what would have likely been a title-elimination bout. Unfortunately, Calvillo tested positive for COVID-19 and was replaced by Liliya Shakirova. The No. 4-ranked Murphy has now been robbed of her contender fight and is tasked with facing a dangerous UFC newcomer with little to gain.

Petela: Alexander Volkov. The former M-1 and Bellator champion is in danger of losing consecutive fights and three out of his last four. His only win in that period is a lackluster decision over Greg Hardy. What really makes UFC 254 unfortunate for Volkov is that, unlike with the Hail Mary punch that Derrick Lewis landed, Curtis Blaydes and Walt Harris will have developed an actual blueprint for Volkov’s future opponents. Wearing out the tall Russian fighter through constant level changes and takedown attempts will further open up a hole in his game that fighters in other promotions haven’t been able to capitalize on. A loss to Harris will mark the end of any real shot Volkov has at being a legitimate UFC title challenger.

What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?

Petela: Tai Tuivasa. After a three-fight winning streak to open his UFC career, Tuivasa has fallen on hard times. He has suffered three consecutive losses — and bad losses at that — which have derailed the hype train in a major way. It is certainly not impossible for fighters, especially heavyweights, to turn around their career after a losing streak, and Tuivasa’s mentor and teammate Mark Hunt may be the best example of this, but that won’t be the case for Tuivasa. “Bam Bam” seems wholly disinterested in the grappling realm, and that means going up against someone like Stefan Struve will spell disaster. Another submission loss will be the final nail in the coffin for Tuivasa, who will be looking for a fighting home elsewhere after UFC 254.

Sumian: Sam Alvey. The UFC veteran who never stops smiling is on a four-fight skid and faces a powerful UFC prospect in Da Un Jung, who has cemented himself as a top knockout artist and is currently 2-0 in the UFC. Jung is on a 12-fight winning streak, whereas Alvey has looked less and less able of competing with the UFC’s talent throughout the later part of his career. Jung will extend his UFC record to 3-0 at the expense of Alvey, which will likely lead to an end to Alvey’s UFC tenure.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Sumian: Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cutelaba. It is finally happening, ladies and gentlemen! If you watched the first bout between these two sluggers, then you are aware that it was a wild 38 seconds before it came to an end in a premature TKO for Ankalaev. The UFC has attempted to book the rematch several times since May, but it has failed to do so with Cutelaba testing positive for COVID-19 twice. The UFC hopes the third time’s the charm. This one will deliver fireworks as Ankalaev and Cutelaba look to knock each other’s head off.

Petela: As is the case in many high-profile events, several undercard fights have gone largely unnoticed. Out of all of the fights lacking their rightful attention, the one that stands out the most is the catchweight contest between Casey Kenney and Nathaniel Wood. Kenney has been on a roll inside the UFC, where he suffered his lone loss against Merab Dvalishvili. Meanwhile, Wood’s lone defeat with the promotion came at the hands of John Dodson. These two up-and-comers will get the show kicked off with a high-action fight that sets the table perfectly for what follows.

Pair this card with…

Petela: You’re going to want to be fully alert for this magnitude of an event, so stay away from anything mind-altering. Instead, take advantage of this card’s early start and pair it with a hefty portion of bacon and eggs. You’re going to need the energy for all the times this card prompts you to jump out of your seat.

Sumian: A classic American breakfast, including bacon, sausage, eggs and whatever else you’d like to add. The action starts early, with the main card at 2 p.m. ET and the prelims coming much earlier at 10:30 a.m. ET time. If you’re on the West Coast, those times get even ridiculously earlier. If you are a morning cocktail type, then perhaps put some Baileys in your coffee or mix up a Bloody Mary to celebrate one of the most anticipated fights and cards of the year.

Fight Picks

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 2 p.m. ET)
LW Championship: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje Gaethje Gaethje
MW: Robert Whittaker vs. Jared Cannonier Whittaker Cannonier
HW: Alexander Volkov vs. Walt Harris Harris Harris
Women’s FlyW: Lauren Murphy vs. Liliya Shakirova Murphy Murphy
LHW: Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba Ankalaev Ankalaev
MW: Phil Hawes vs. Jacob Malkoun Hawes Hawes
Preliminary Card (ESPN2 and ESPN+, 12 p.m. ET)
HW: Stefan Struve vs. Tai Tuivasa Struve Struve
WW: Alex Oliveira vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov Rakhmonov Oliveira
LHW: Da Un Jung vs. Sam Alvey Jung Alvey
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+, 10:30 a.m. ET)
Catchweight (140 pounds): Casey Kenney vs. Nathaniel Wood Kenney Kenney
Women’s FlyW: Liana Jojua vs. Miranda Maverick Jojua Jojua
LW: Joel Alvarez vs. Alexander Yakovlev Yakovlev Yakovlev