The UFC is back in action, live from Fight Island with an exciting PPV on deck. Headlining the card is a Lightweight Championship bout, as Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov returns to the octagon to take on Interim Champion Justin Gaethje. Nurmagomedov hasn’t fought since Septemeber of 2019 at UFC 242, where he defeated Dustin Poirier via submission in the third round. Unfortunately Nurmagomedov was supposed to return in April this year against Tony Ferguson. The pandemic scrapped those plans. The lock down and the sad loss of his father Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov further delayed the Champion’s return.

As for Gaethje, when Nurmagomedov couldn’t fight Tony Ferguson in the UFC’s return, Gaethje stepped in. Gaethje dominated on the feet, ultimately stopping and snapping Ferguson’s twelve fight win streak – as well as capturing the Interim Lightweight Championship. With a title shot granted, Gaethje has the opportunity to not only capture UFC gold, but to be the only man to defeat Khabib Nurmagomedov. The stakes are high for both men, and I would recommend not skipping this fight!

UFC 254 PPV Main Card on ESPN+ (2 p.m. ET):

155 lbs.: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje – Whenever Khabib Nurmagomedov is on a card, the aura of it just feels big regardless of the other fights on the card. The stardom of Nurmagomedov and the quest to stay unbeaten is so intriguing. As Champion too, Nurmagomedov is only fighting the best of the weight class. And boy is Justin Gaethje truly one of the best. Boasting well rounded abilities, highlighted by some of the best striking in the UFC – Gaethje is a handful for any Lightweight.

The one aspect of this fight that I have no idea about is Justin Gaethje’s wrestling. We know that Gaethje was a collegiate wrestler, however we have yet to see any aspect of it inside the octagon. Given the unknown, I find it hard to believe that it’s going to negate Nurmagomedov from doing what he does best – take fighters down. What we do know though is that Gaethje can scramble, so there is potential that could disrupt Nurmagomedov at some point.

However, if Gaethje can keep this fight on the feet, it’s his fight. The energy Nurmagomedov is going to expend bringing this fight to the mat will be costly in the later rounds. On the feet, Gaethje throws volume and boast power. He’s very selective and smart about how much he throws into each punch though, making him even more dangerous. With cardio and a chin from the gods, you truly are in for a war when Gaethje steps into the octagon.

As for my prediction, I have Nurmagomedov. Until someone proves that they can stuff his takedowns or even escape his top control – it’s hard not to side with the undefeated Champion. The unknown of Gaethje’s wrestling abilities is hard to side with too. In the end, I see Nurmagomedov winning this fight via decision.

185 lbs.: Robert Whittaker vs. Jared Cannonier – I’m excited for this fight, as I believe the stakes for the winner equates to a title shot. The former Middleweight Champion Robert Whittaker enters this contest on the heels of a victory over Darren Till. A five-round bout that took place on the feet and essentially was a chess match, with Whittaker getting the better of Till. Whittaker is an excellent striker, who excels fighting at a range and then using his athleticism to explode inside the pocket. The Aussie also boast sneaky good grappling and excellent takedown.

As for Jared Cannonier, the former Heavyweight has been on quite the tear in the Middleweight division. He’s won three consecutive fights, all via TKO. Featuring heavy hands, accuracy and physical strength – Cannoiner is a nightmare for any Middleweight. The one glaring weakness for Cannonier is takedown defense, which I believe is improving. Another thing to keep in mind is that Cannonier has yet to go three rounds at Middleweight. The unknown about cardio is something to think about.

My prediction however is that Cannonier wins this fight via knockout. While I stile maintain Whittaker is durable, you can’t deny the amount of punishment he’s taken over his career. The 50 minutes with Yoel Romero alone was career changing. Now, I could see Whittaker playing it safe and using his wrestling more often here to tire Cannonier. However, when on the feet – the jumping into the pocket strikes is going to get Whittaker cracked and finished.

265 lbs.: Walt Harris vs. Alexander Volkov – The route to victory is clear for both. Walt Harris is a power striker, who looks to finish his opponents sooner rather than later. Alexander Volkov too is a striker, who uses his volume and distance to outpoint opponents on the feet. While Harris could very well knock Volkov out, I just don’t see it. Volkov has been knocked out only once in his last sixteen fights – which was a hail mary in the third round by prolific knockout artist Derrick Lewis.

The fight for me comes down to cardio. Unfortunately Walt Harris doesn’t deliver in that aspect, often fading after the first round. I see Volkov surviving the storm and the sheer outpoint eventually crumbling a tired Walt Harris via TKO.

185 lbs.: Phil Hawes vs. Jacob Malkoun – This is an odd placement for two fighters debuting, one of which only has four professional fights. In the end, I feel as if this is a showcase for Phil Hawes. He’s a specimen, who is well rounded and boost athleticism. Between the power in his hands and wrestling chops, Hawes has potential to deliver some legit highlight finishes. So with that, give me Hawes winning via knockout.

125 lbs.: Lauren Murphy vs. Liliya Shakirova – While I believe Liliya Shakirova will have success inside the octagon, I don’t believe it will start here. The former Strawweight is coming into this fight on short notice, with relatively little experience. The resume boost some decent wins, but nothing relevant. Lauren Murphy is another animal and is on the cusp on a title shot. She’s tough as nails, and very well rounded. Murphy’s sheer strength is a problem for most. I’m not expecting a finish, but it should be a dominant decision victory for Murphy.

205 lbs.: Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba – I’m not sure how I feel about this fight given how the first played out, and then the subsequent booking for the rematch that fell out several times. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m still excited. Ion Cutelaba is an absolute buzzsaw out the gate. He comes out in the first round with ridiculous output and power to put anyone out. Cutelaba also boost sheer physical strength and some wrestling chops.

Magomed Ankalaev is a technical and dynamic counter puncher that has stiff takedown defense. The use of distance and timing is going to be key here, as Cutelaba is often too aggressive in fights. I almost feel I see the writing on the wall, as Cutelaba’s wildness is going to lead to getting cracked and finished. So with that, give me Ankaleav to close this chapter via knockout.

UFC 254 Late “Prelims” Undercard on ESPN 2/ ESPN+ (12 p.m. ET):

265 lbs.: Stefan Struve vs. Tai Tuivasa – This fight is fairly obvious how it will play out. If it takes place on the feet, Tai Tuivasa most likely wins via knockout. Stefan Struve has often neglected to use distance and a jab. After all, he only boost a nine inch reach and height advantage in this fight. However, if the Dutchman decides to turn this into a grappling match – he should in essence be able to crack Tuivasa’s abysmal takedown defense. On the ground, it would only be a matter of time before Struve locked in a submission. Given Struve’s failures on the feet, I have to believe he tries to get this fight to the mat. So with that, I have Struve winning via submission.

170 lbs.: Alex Oliveira vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov – This fight has fireworks written all over it. Alex Oliveira comes into this fight with eighteen UFC fights under his belt, with victories in his last two. Of those eighteen fights, Oliveira has won eleven – seven of which come via stoppage. The Brazilian is a technical striker, who trades quantity for quality. Oliveira can wrestle too if needed, but often looks to strikes. The issues that often plague ‘Cowboy’ is cardio and three round durability. I think both go hand in hand, as Oliveira has shown he take a punch. However, as the fight wanes, the more likely it is that a tired Oliveira crumbles to strikes.

As for Shavkat Rakhmonov, the former M-1 Welterweight Champion enters the UFC undefeated and full of potential. The Kazakh is a bonafide finisher, having finished all twelve opponents he’s faced. Of those twelve, seven have come via T/KO and the other five via submission – showing well rounded abilities and a comfortability wherever this fight should take place.

As for a prediction, I have Rakhmonov winning. I feel like he’s fought good competition outside the UFC, and should be ready for someone the caliber of Oliveira. I also don’t like that Oliveira missed weight, especially given his cardio concerns. A hard cut just dampers the thought that the Brazilian can last the full three rounds. So with that, give me the newcomer Rakhmonov to debut with a TKO victory.

205 lbs.: Sam Alvey vs. Da Un Jung – As much as we want Sam Alvey to reinvent himself, I think it may be too late. He’s overly reliant on landing the knockout blow, often neglecting to break the hesitancy of throwing his hands more often. The notion of Alvey having power is waning too, as he’s finished only one opponent in his last eleven fights. Da Un Jung started his MMA career off 1-2. Since then, Jung has rattled off twelve consecutive wins – including two stoppage victories in the UFC. Jung entered the UFC boosting durability, having never been stopped by strikes. Thus far, the granite chin has been as advertised in the UFC.

As for a prediction, I have Jung. The Korean throws double the output of Sam Alvey, as well as boost more power and better durability. Alvey is tough as nails, but I can’t see him lasting the full three rounds with the sheer volume that will be thrown at him. So with that, give me Jung to win via TKO.

140 lbs.: Casey Kenney vs. Nathaniel Wood – I feel like a broken record, but I believe Casey Kenney is the dark horse in this division. His striking is evolving and his grappling abilities are excellent. He may get taken down and controlled by better wrestlers, but his scrambling abilities thus far have kept him afloat. Now, Nathaniel Wood is the better striker here. He throws more volume and is precise with his strikes. Wood boost decent wrestling chops too. The only knock on Wood could be potential durability concerns. Of his four professional losses, all have been via stoppage – two of which come via knockout.

As for my prediction, I have Kenney. I’m not entirely sure he finish’s Wood, but then again – the volume output of both men is going to equate to a lot strikes thrown and landed. Sheer volume alone can break any man down. However, unless Kenney grapples, I see don’t see him putting Wood away with strikes. He doesn’t have stoppage power per say and his striking is evolving. So with that, give me Kenney to win via decision.

UFC 254 Early “Prelims” Undercard on ESPN+ (11:00 a.m. ET):

125 lbs.: Liana Jojua vs. Miranda Maverick – This fight is pretty simple. Liana Jojua is a submission specialist and that’s about it. Miranda Maverick is the more well rounded fighter, who normally seeks to take foes down. However, given Jojua’s lack thereof striking, I can’t see why Maverick would even bother entering her opponents strength. Expect Maverick to out-strike her opponent, en route to a decision victory.

155 lbs.: Joel Alvarez vs. Alexander Yakovlev – This fight is more of a toss-up for me. On one hand, I could see Joel Alvarez win on volume striking alone. Of course, as a submission specialist, the threat of catching Alexander Yakovlev is very possible. On the other hand, I could see Alvarez getting taken down and controlled by Yakovlev. After all, Alvarez has zero takedown defense.

As for my prediction, I’m going to go with Yakovlev. A former Welterweight, Yakovlev is physically a very strong Lightweight. Throw in his wrestling chops and the fact that Alvarez has little to no take down, and there’s a clear route to victory. Of course Alvarez is submission specialist and there’s a real chance he can catch Yakovlev. However, Yakovlev has been submitted only once in the last ten years and that wasn’t to Demain Maia – who he went all three rounds with. Alvarez also missed weight, which isn’t going to fare well for him the later this fight goes. So with that, I have Yakovlev winning via decision.

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