The UFC is finishing up another month of fight cards at Fight Island in Abu Dhabi with one of the biggest fights of the year. Khabib Nurmagomedov, the UFC Lightweight Champion, will return to the octagon for the first time in over a year to face interim lightweight belt holder Justin Gaethje in the main event of UFC 254. Gaethje earned this shot be defeating Tony Ferguson back in April, after stepping in for Khabib, who was unable to compete.
I have three plays for the UFC 254 card below, including a pick for the main event. I will be using the best odds available from any of our top rated sportsbooks for Canadians.
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Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Justin Gaethje
Khabib is back in the octagon putting his undefeated record on the line against Justin Gaethje. There are a lot of MMA fans who think that Gaethje has the perfect style to defeat a fighter like Khabib Nurmagomedov. The theory is that Gaethje’s wrestling base will make it difficult for Khabib to score a takedown, allowing Justin to go to work throwing bombs and leg kicks on the feet in order to take Khabib into deep waters.
I can see how this theory would be appealing to Gaethje bettors, but I don’t see the fight playing out like that. Gathje does have terrific takedown defense, but he’s never fought a grappler like Khabib in his career, and you could even argue that he hasn’t fought a wrestling specialist in his UFC career. The last time an opponent even attempted a takedown against Gaethje was five fights ago when Poirier went 0-5 on his takedowns in a fight that Poirier eventually won by knockout in the fourth round. On this current streak of four wins opponents have not even attempted a takedown of Gaethje. Yes, Justin knocked three of them out in the first round, but he did go five rounds with Ferguson as well, and Tony did not go for a takedown.
Going back prior to the Poirier fight, Eddie Alvarez was 1 for 2 on takedowns vs Gaethje, and in his first UFC fight Michael Johnson went 1 for 3. I think that the theory that Gaethje cannot be taken down is a bit of a myth, and I expect Khabib to expose that on Saturday.
Look for Khabib to shoot ever time Justin throws a bomb or throws a leg kick. Khabib is relentless with his takedowns and I expect him to get this fight to the mat without a ton of trouble. From there I expect Khabib to go to work and either get a finish or exhaust Gaethje to the point that his big punches don’t do enough damage later in the fight.
Play: Khabib 1.32 @ SportsInteraction.com
Robert Whittaker vs Jared Cannonier
I haven’t been overly impressed with Whittaker of late, but I still have to go with him here due to his veteran status, counter striking and ability to find different ways to win fights.
Whittaker was outclassed by Israel Adesanya two fights back, but we can’t hold that against him now that Adesanya has shown he’s a class above the middleweight competition. Even in his unanimous decision win over Darren Till, Whittaker didn’t impress me, but I also can’t look too far into that because it’s difficult to look good against Till due to the fact that he almost never initiates the fight.
When you look at Whittaker’s record you see two wins over Yoel Romero (in his prime, knockouts of Jacare Souza and Derek Brunson (two top middleweight fighters) and wins over other top level fighters such as Uriah Hall and Brad Tavares. Whittaker finds ways to win. He is a well rounded fighter with great counter punching. If he can avoid an early knockout I think he finds a way to defeat Cannonier.
Play: Whittaker 2.00 @ SportsInteraction.com
Umar Nurmagomedov vs Sergey Morozov
I think the Nurmagomedov name is making Umar a bigger favourite than he should be in this fight with Sergey Morozov. Yes, Nurmagomedov is a fantastic prospect who is 12-0 in his MMA career, but let’s not pretend this isn’t a big step up in competition for Nurmagomedov. I’m not saying that Umar has been fighting complete cans, but do think Morozov has faced the slightly harder competition and is a step up for Nurmagomedov.
That said, I do think Nurmagomedov is the rightful favourite in this fight and I think he should be a big favourite for that matter. I would line the fight closer to 3-1 though, so I think there may be a little bit of value on Morozov if you want to take a risk on the underdog.
Play: Morozov 5.50