UFC 254 Main Card Predictions

Our final event at Fight Island (this time around) is here and it brings with it a high-profile night that will assuredly be remembered.

In the main event, we have the Lightweight title unification bout between undefeated sensation Khabib Nurmagomedov and the brawling interim champ in Justin Gaethje. The co-main features a Middleweight clash former champion Robert Whittaker taking on Jared Cannonier in a number one contender matchup.

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje (LW)

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The undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0, 12-0 UFC) has clearly established himself as one of the superstars in the world of MMA, let alone Russia and the surrounding areas. The Dagestani-born fighter has wrestling of the highest level and has been able to successfully dominate and even entirely break his opponents and their will to fight. We have seen his striking come along significantly, just take a look at his knockdown of Conor McGregor. His striking revolves around linking into his grappling, as “The Eagle” pressures forward swinging big shots to either clip his opponent or leave them liable to the takedown. Still, his ability to tie up his opponents and not let them off their back is an entirely dominant strategy that we have seen coming to play more and more in recent years. Khabib does it better than anyone else.

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Justin Gaethje (22-2,  5-2 UFC) cannot be described as anything except a brawler, despite starting his pro MMA career with a stellar NCAA wrestling background. Gaethje’s record has an astounding nineteen knockouts on it. Gaethje has a CHIN on him and is well-known for going into brawls with the intent to stand and trade, as his moniker “The Highlight” suggests. Gaethje brings a multitude of weapons into the cage, with ferocious leg kicks from all angles as well as skilled boxing, particularly in his hooks and uppercuts. He has demonstrated his one-shot knockout power against James Vick, Edson Barboza, and Cowboy Cerrone with first round KOs in three straight bouts, which led him to his interim title win over Tony Ferguson with yet another knockout (though technical). 

Gaethje presents a great challenge for Khabib with his pressure and pure violence that he brings, holding clear paths to making his Russian opposition uncomfortable and vulnerable. Khabib utilizes the cage expertly for securing his takedowns and has been unsuccessful when forced to shoot in the center of the cage. Should Justin put Khabib’s back to the cage and hold him there with his pressure brawling style and leg kicks, he has a leg up in avoiding the takedowns. However, that is simply too big an ‘if’ against Khabib, who will be at a disadvantage in the striking but holds the technical edge in just about every other arena. This is particularly evident when examining their respective skill on the mat. Though Gaethje’s wrestling base provides him with excellent takedown defense and scrambling, he is woefully disarmed once secured on his back. Furthermore, Gaethje himself has repeatedly said that his ambivalence towards offensive wrestling is due to how much it gasses him, giving Khabib a massive cardio advantage as well. I see Gaethje with some early success on the feet, but giving in to the Russian’s unparalleled top control and succumbing to ground and pound later in the fight.

Take the Shot: Khabib Nurmagomedov via Knockout

Robert Whittaker vs. Jared Cannonier (MW)

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Robert Whittaker (21-5, 12-3 UFC) went on a stellar eight fight unbeaten run at Middleweight before losing his title to Israel Adesanya last October. Due to several injuries and fight cancellations, this will be his third fight in as many years. The Reaper has incredible kickboxing with amazing combinations and separation strikes, utilizing his expert footwork and lightning quick lead left hook. He brings fight-changing power with both of his hands and kicks as well as being able to pressure or counter-strike with the best of them when the time is necessary. In his most recent bout with Darren Till, he showed just how calculated and technical his striking is, bringing volume, technique, and power behind his hands.

Twitter reacts Jared Cannonier's TKO over Jack Hermansson

This will be the first bout for Jared Cannonier (13-4, 6-4 UFC) in almost a year. “Tha Killa Gorilla” is a former Heavyweight and Light Heavyweight, now holding three straight knockout wins in the Middleweight division. Cannonier looked solid in his Middleweight debut against David Branch, withstanding a thorough grappling attack to deliver his power shots and put Branch away in the second round. Cannonier’s main strength lies in his power and he has put down much bigger people than Robert Whittaker in his career. He brings in thunderous leg kicks to cut down movement, followed up by power shots fired individually. Though his grappling still presents his greatest weakness, he is likely in for a standup battle here.

On paper at least, this looks to be a match between the raw power and athleticism of Cannonier against the superior technique and more versatile striking arsenal of Whittaker. Both fighters are adept leg kickers, with Cannonier’s chopping swings and Whittaker’s teeps to the knee combined with the more standard sweeps and checks. As such, this is a close matchup, but one that I see Whittaker pulling out. The difference maker in this fight is going to be speed and movement, in particular, which fighter will be able to enter the pocket and exit quickly. The Reaper’s advantages here are by far and away his diversity of striking and lateral movement, which he will be able to use to dictate the pace as well as when striking exchanges occur. I see a fairly competitive decision, but one that handedly goes to the Aussie.

I wish this was five rounds.

Take the Shot: Robert Whittaker via Decision

Alexander Volkov vs. Walt Harris (HW)

Alexander Volkov (31-8, 5-2 UFC) came back from an extended layoff to outpoint Greg Hardy, only to be defeated by Curtis Blaydes in a fight that saw Volkov resurgent in the later rounds. Volkov is a tactical, lanky striker who uses his 6’7″ length to establish range and pick apart his opponent from his kickboxing range where they cannot hit him back. Although susceptible to counters inside the pocket, “Drago” can outpoint pretty much any fighter on the roster with his incessant volume, as well as holding knockout victories over Stephen Struve and Fabricio Werdum. Despite having a trio of submissions to his name and surprisingly adept wrestling, Volkov does his best work at kickboxing range where he can exploit his height and superior speed and movement.

Walt Harris (13-8, 6-5 UFC) had an impressive 2019 run with two devastating knockouts that put Alexey Oleynik and Sergey Spivak to sleep quickly, only to lose to Alistair Overeem after nearly finishing the veteran in the first round. “The Big Ticket” has all of his 13 wins coming in by knockout, packing some serious one-punch (or knee) power. Although he doesn’t have the greatest volume and is typically lost when a fight goes the distance, his hard-changing aggression and show-closing cannon of a punch make him a dangerous opponent for any Octagon competitor. Standing and trading with Walt Harris is a surefire way to end your night fast. However, Harris is marred by sub-par grappling skills and limited offense off of his back.

This is a fun striking matchup between styles. Harris relies on his explosiveness and power shots, whereas Volkov holds a big advantage with his movement and pacing. Given Harris’ propensity to gas and his reliance upon his own reach, which is no longer an advantage when facing Volkov, I don’t see him finding Volkov’s chin early. “Drago”‘s steady jab and precision will carry him to a lopsided decision.

Take the Shot: Alexander Volkov via Decision

Phil Hawes vs. Jacob Malkoun (MW)

Phil Hawes (8-2) made good on his second Contender Series appearance just last month, earning him a UFC contract. “Megatron” comes in with a wrestling background with particularly explosive power doubles and a dominant top control. His striking has vastly improved since his loss in his first DWCS appearance, as he scored a first-round KO to make his debut here. He shows good boxing fundamentals and range utilization, entering the pocket well. Hawes lives and dies by the sword, as he has never seen a third round in victory or defeat.

Also making his debut here in Abu Dhabi is Jacob Malkoun (4-0). Though his record seems a little paltry, Malkoun is the main training partner of former champion Robert Whittaker, as well as sporting a 3-0 pro boxing record. His striking is evidently his main prowess where he uses his quick jab and range awareness to set up his power shots. He is not lost on the ground either, as he possesses aggressive top control and a BJJ purple belt. 

I can honestly see why this was boosted up to the main card and it is a much closer fight than the -220 range they currently sit at time of writing. Hawes is an offensive powerhouse, combining powerful top control along with ground and pound and heavy hands. Malkoun is the much more technically savvy striker with his boxing credentials and more varied range of output. However, Malkoun is unproven off of his back and does not have the takedown defense to avoid the power charges of Hawes. So long as Hawes is able to manage his pace, his well-timed pocket entries will do damage standing and allow avenues for his powerful grappling to take over.

Take the Shot: Phil Hawes via Knockout

Lauren Murphy vs. Liliya Shakirova (FLW)

Though starting her Octagon career at a paltry 2-4, Lauren Murphy (13-4, 5-4 UFC) is now riding a three-fight win streak including a knockout of Mara Romero Borella. “Lucky” is a skilled  striker with powerful hands and adept usage of eight-point striking. She strikes laterally and is incredibly precise when leading the dance, but has shown openings to be tagged when she strings together combos. Although Murphy showed poor defense to wrestling in her early Octagon career, she has been more offensive on the mat as of late.

Liliya Shakirova (8-1) is making her UFC debut here on short notice. The Uzebkistan-born fighter comes out of the Russian regional scene, currently riding a three-fight winning streak. Shakirova has competent Muay Thai striking and most recently picked up a second round TKO. On top of that, she has a nice wrestling background, although I was unable to find any tape truly showing her skills in this department. Although I am excited to see what Shakirova has going forward, this seems like too much, too soon. The #5 ranked Murphy has clear advantages in power and speed, as well as a significantly higher level of opposition. Unless Shakirova can ground Murphy early and often, this will a be a bad night for her.

Take the Shot: Lauren Murphy via Decision

Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba 2 (LHW)

It’s been a difficult ride up to this point for this heated rivalry, as the horrid stoppage in their first meeting has been further marred by three cancellations for their rematch. I will be knocking on wood until the ref raises one of their hands.

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Ion Cutelaba (15-5, 4-4 UFC) has consistently been one of my favorite fighters in a fun division. Before coming to the UFC, he had only seen one fight go to the second round and he has replicated that success in the world’s greatest proving ground, earning three of his four UFC wins by violent first round finish. He has unreal power at Light Heavyweight and great foundational wrestling, especially in scrambles. However, his biggest issue has consistently been his gas tank and wearing himself out too early with his surging pressure. If you can withstand a furious first round, you have a good shot to win against Cutelaba.

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Russian striking sensation Magomed Ankalaev (13-1, 4-1 UFC) should technically be undefeated, but after a dominant showing against Paul Craig in his UFC debut, Ankalaev succumbed to a literal last-second submission attempt. Since then he has rattled off three straight victories, two of which being violent finishes. Ankalaev has great striking, boasting an incredible 68% striking defense and a fairly constant pressure. On top of that, he has well-timed reversals and clinch skills, making it incredibly difficult to take him down to the mat.

Ankalaev is one of the best prospects for good reason, as he has shown barely a minute of weakness in his Octagon tenure. His expert kickboxing attack is rivaled only by his grappling success, showing the ability to score and defend takedowns with relative ease. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind about what this fight will be like after all the drama surrounding the match, and the result all comes down to whether Ankalaev can survive the Hulk’s early blitz. He has shown ability to be hit inside the pocket without his deadly kicks  to establish range and that is exclusively what Cutelaba will look to exploit. Is Ankalaev the better and more technical striker? Without question. However, he requires range and his own pacing, which Cutelaba will look to take advantage of by lulling him into a brawl (which is precisely what caused the early stoppage in their first meeting). I see Ankalaev pulling out a dominant decision or late finish, but the lines should be much closer.

Take the Shot: Magomed Ankalaev via Knockout

Stay tuned for the prelims predictions, where we have eight fights set to get our 2 PM EST card main card going!

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