One of the most highly-anticipated fights of 2020 goes down Saturday night in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates as undefeated UFC Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov looks to become undisputed again as he takes on Interim Lightweight champion Justin Gaethje. It’s going to be an early awakening for those like myself on the West Coast of the United States so let’s get into my predictions for Saturday’s UFC 254 pay-per-view card.
UFC Lightweight Championship: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje
Khabib remains undefeated in his mixed martial arts career through his overbearing dominance against his opponents. He’s not afraid of the clinch and will do whatever it takes to make sure his opponents feel his weight. He dominates strikers. His last two fights against Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier were one-sided affairs where Khabib quickly took control and scored his takedowns and control time. He took the souls of both Poirier and McGregor with his suffocating and never-ending ground-and-pound to score submission wins in both fights.
As for Gaethje, the odds are stacked against him. This is going to be his first fight in the UFC where his takedown defense is tested. Eddie Alvarez was the best wrestler Gaethje fought to this point but their fight in 2017 was a stand-and-trade throughout the three rounds. In his last fight, Tony Ferguson had a slick ground game but he prefers to work off of his back and most of that fight as well was fought on the feet.
The way I see it, there’s really no clean path to victory for Gaethje. All he can do is hope his takedown defense works and he’s able to hurt Khabib to a point where he gasses out in the latter rounds and gets desperate on his takedown attempts. If he can’t, it’s going to be another cakewalk for Khabib as he improves to 29-0.
Prediction: Khabib via submission
Co-main event: Robert Whittaker vs. Jared Cannonier
We have a very intriguing middleweight contender fight here as former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker takes on the fast-rising Jared Cannonier.
Whittaker is looking to score a rematch against current champion Israel Adesanya, whom he lost to last October. He brings great striking to the table but we’ve seen his chin be tested before. Whittaker doesn’t make fights easy for him, which makes his Darren Till fight from over the summer look like an outlier from his previous outings. Some might say his two grueling fights against Yoel Romero have taking a few years off of his career and the knockout from Adesanya was a testament to that. However, Whittaker may have revitalized himself and caught a second wind after defeating Till. He looked great again and I expect him to push Cannonier to the limit.
This is a litmus test for Cannonier’s career. He’s strung together a three-fight win streak, which all consist of finishes. These are also the only three fights he has contested at middleweight after dropping three of four as a light-heavyweight. Is Cannonier ready to take that next leap and possibly earn a title shot? Well, he’s going to have to be smart and use his power wisely. He should not get into a wild exchange like Derek Brunson did against Whittaker in their fight back in 2016. It’s all about patience against Whittaker and timing your heavy stuff perfectly. If Cannonier can constantly break down Whittaker and force him to get desperate, he has a chance to pull off the upset.
This is going to be a fun fight. I expect it to set the tone for the main event and wake the UFC fanbase up.
Prediction: Robert Whittaker via TKO
Heavyweight: Alexander Volkov vs. Walt Harris
This is an important matchup for both men as they are coming off of losses. Volkov lost a really poor outing against Curtis Blaydes back in June, while Harris was knocked out by Alistair Overeem in May.
Don’t expect high output in this battle. It’s just going to be one of those sloppy heavyweight fights that we have been accustomed to in recent years. I do think there will be a finish to this fight but it will come out of pure fatigue from the defeated.
Prediction: Walt Harris via TKO
Picks for rest of card:
- Phil Hawes via KO
- Lauren Murphy via decision
- Magomed Ankalaev via TKO
- Casey Kenney via decision
- Shavkat Rakhmonov via KO
- Da Un Jung via TKO
- Liana Jojua via submission
- Joel Álvarez via submission
For those in the United States, the early prelims begin at 11:00 a.m. EST on ESPN2, ESPN+ or UFC Fight Pass. The televised prelims begin at 12:00 p.m. EST on ESPN2. The pay-per-view will begin at 2:00 p.m. EST on ESPN+ PPV.