UFC 254 – Tips & Predictions

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Written by Kieran Green (@kierlfc12)

This weekend brings the culmination of the second instalment of UFC’s Fight Island, and with it comes one of the biggest UFC title fights ever.

Following his ruthless stoppage of Tony Ferguson back in May, Interim-Lightweight champion Justin Gaethje will represent the USA against the 28-0 undefeated champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, in a fight destined to go down in the history books.

Leading up to this incredible bout is a bill of fights as good as any we have seen from the UFC matchmakers in the last few years, making this unmissable for fight fans all over the world.

As always, I will be picking the most exciting fights from the card and offering my thoughts, alongside how I believe they will ultimately end.

Magomed Ankalaev (13-1-0) vs Ion Cutelaba (15-5-0-1NC)

Starting things off, we have a Light-Heavyweight grudge match, between the number 11 ranked Magomed Ankalaev, and the Moldovan Ion Cutelaba.

UFC Fans are excited for the highly anticipated second meeting between the two fighters, with the fight rebooked onto the 254 card after Cutelaba tested positive for COVID-19 back in August.

After the incredibly controversial ending to the first fight, it is still unclear who will emerge victorious after three potential rounds on Saturday night. From the brief exchange that we saw during the first fight, it is very clear that Ankalaev is much better at striking from range, and will look to work his opponent from the outside by picking him off with leg kicks.

Given Cutelaba’s short temper and tendency to over-swing, he will need to lure his opponent into the pocket if he is to land big shots. However, this could also go against him if he is baited in from frustration, as he will likely be caught with a high kick or the same wide hook that we saw from Ankalaev in the first fight.

Similarly to his Dagestani counterpart Khabib Nurmagomedov, Ankalaev is highly skilled when it comes to sambo wrestling, meaning he has the ability to win this fight on the canvas if necessary.

Overall, I see him as the more complete fighter, and the more likely to emerge victorious come fight night.

My Prediction: Ankalaev via TKO

 

Robert Whittaker (22-5-0) vs Jared Cannonier (13-4-0)

The co-main event of the evening sees Robert “The Reaper” Whittaker take on Jared Cannonier, with the winner guaranteed a challenging berth for the Middleweight title.

For former champion Whittaker, this presents a chance to move towards regaining his crown, whilst Cannonier is eager for a first chance to secure a belt. In terms of recent fights, none have been harder to predict at all, with both fighters boasting a vicious arsenal of fighting abilities.

Whittaker comes in as a slight underdog amongst the bookmakers despite claiming he is the more well-rounded fighter, whilst many favour Cannonier due to the power he possesses when striking. ‘Tha Killa Gorilla’ is 3-0 at Middleweight since his progression down through the weight divisions, and looks in formidable shape as he approaches Saturday night. Whilst Whittaker is arguably the busier fighter, Cannonier possesses terrifying power in his striking and kicking, and could prove to be too explosive for his opponent.

Meanwhile, it has been a topsy-turvy journey for Whittaker as of late, losing his belt to Israel Adesanya at the end of 2019, before taking some time away from the sport. He made his comeback in July, outsmarting Darren Till in what was an absolute chess match of a fight.

Whittaker looked much better when not carrying the pressure of being the champion, and showed outstanding fight intelligence throughout the five rounds. This was evident, especially in his striking and the way he chipped away at the lead leg of Darren Till to stop the heavy feinting.

I believe Whittaker is the better all-rounder, and stands a real chance if he can approach the fight with intelligence and confidence.

My prediction: Whittaker via judges’ decision

Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0-0) vs Justin Gaethje (22-2-0)

Khabib will look to cement his legacy as the greatest UFC Lightweight of all time on Saturday’s main event, with the eyes of the world fixated on this incredible Lightweight match-up. No fighter has posed more of a threat to Khabib than Justin Gaethje, and nobody has had more of a chance on paper to actually beat him, which is what makes this so exciting.

Gaethje has proved himself to be a hitman inside the octagon, robbing Tony Ferguson of his long-awaited title shot on little to no notice, by picking him apart across five brutal rounds last May.

What makes Gaethje so well equipped for this fight is his nature – the man loves violence. He is hellbent on representing his family and country to the best of his ability, and will never even consider quitting at any point during a fight.

This will take him a long way against a fighter that mentally tires his opponents by essentially making them carry his weight upon their back. ‘The Highlight’ is also an incredibly well-rounded fighter, and boasts an array of skills that makes him a nightmare to come up against inside the octagon.

Whilst he prefers to stand up and strike, the man is a champion all-American wrestler that has competed against the very best in the USA, so the prospect of five rounds on the ground with Khabib will be much less daunting.

Gaethje must look to try to out-box Khabib in rounds one and two, and inflict as much damage as possible whilst he is still fresh. If he can land enough significant strikes here, and then defensively wrestle in the latter rounds, he could very well take it to a decision. He must avoid the takedown when possible, keep the clinch, and try to land as many elbows and knees as he can to keep up on points and tire Khabib.

However, it is very hard to write off a man who is undefeated in 28 professional fights.

Khabib has made it clear to Gaethje that he will be wrestling with him for five rounds, and it will be some task for his opponent to try and nullify the world’s greatest sambo wrestler. The Dagestani mauls his opponents, and has lost probably one round in his entire career.

It is for this reason alone that many cannot see him being stopped at all, with a perfect 30-0 retirement looking very likely for Nurmagomedov. Whilst I disagree that the unfortunate passing of his father will have any impact on his performance, Khabib did not look himself at all when weighing-in, and seemed incredibly relieved when he made the championship weight of 155.

I am somewhat worried for his shape, and general headspace going into this fight, because he needs to be in peak form going up against someone as determined as Gaethje. If Nurmagomedov can keep his opponent quiet in the earlier rounds and then tire him with his grappling, then a win seems almost inevitable.

I cannot lie when admitting that I am slightly worried for Khabib when looking at the challenger, but it seems impossible to not side with a 28-0 animal that does not lose a round. I am so torn here on my pick for this bout because it is so difficult to call. My heart says Gaethje, but when looking at it purely from a fighting perspective, Khabib should be getting the job done on the canvas.

My prediction: Khabib via submission