UFC 254: Nurmagomedov vs Gaethje – The Breakdown:

The sands of time have wisped the UFC octagon along the ocean and landed them firmly back in the dunes of Fight Island. Something we have accustom too in the first appearance of the canvas amongst the glass is serious fight cards. The Abu Dhabi hosts expect the absolute best. There is not a fight anticipated much more, than a Khabib Nurmagomedov fight. Tie in Justin Gaethje, and you have the jackpot.

A Middleweight #1 contender fight props up the sterling main event, two storylines clashing between Robert Whittaker and Jared Cannonier. Two flyweight ladies will look to earn the right to challenge Valentina Shevchenko’s title.

Before the dust inevitably settles, let us look at some fights.

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

Khabib Nurmagomedov is an enigma. In the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, there is almost an undercurrent of pride that fighters do not maintain undefeated records, akin to boxing. This is a feather in the cap of the cavity of weapons at the disposal of the combatants that cross the border from what we mere mortals determine to be real life into the unheralded world of a cage, to engage in human to human warfare. Yet, here is a 32-year-old man in the far reaches of Dagestan, Russia. A devout man of the Muslim faith, a leader in his community, a father, a son, a brother, that so happens to be a wrecking machine that holds such a record.

Much will be spoken about his interactions with McGregor in the lead up to UFC 229, and the aftermath which needs no more coverage. But prior to this, and post this in his victory over Dustin Poirier, we saw the regular Khabib. Humble, confident, and selfless.

The even bigger question will come around his preparations for this fight, considering the unfathomable tragedy that Dagestan as a nation suffered with the untimely passing of Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, the father and head coach of Khabib in July. Several books will be written about Abdulmanap and his influence on Dagestan, let alone on his son’s MMA journey. Thankfully, Abdulmanap finally managed to attend and be in the corner of his son to witness his success over Dustin Poirier last time out, if you have not gone and watched that fight – please pause your reading and go and watch, if nothing more than for the reaction of Coach Abdulmanap.

For his own reasons, Khabib post his father’s passing has chosen to stay at Eagles MMA for this camp. Coach Javier Mendez of AKA is flying to Dagestan to work with Khabib in the final throngs of his preparation, but this camp is all about home. Any fighter that switches camps, or loses a head coach is affected, think back to the tragic passing of Robert Follis and the words of Kevin Lee around that time. However, Khabib during his 8-year tenure in the UFC has never once shown anything but a steel mentality. Holding the continuation of his father’s legacy as his life obligation. It is unclear now, how the champion will react.

Justin Gaethje on the other hand, is a man on a revival. Coming into the UFC, his reputation as one of the most violent men in the sport proceeded him. His debut against Michael Johnson solidified just that. At that time, there were only a few things certain in life, death, taxes, and Justin Gaethje being involved in all-out war. It was well documented that Gaethje in a concoction cocktail of self-sabotage and confidence was begging to find someone who could knock him out, separate him from his consciousness and prove it could be done.

In comes The Underground King, and The Diamond. Both Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier stopped Justin. Both exchanged a portion of their souls in doing so, but the prophecy had been achieved. Gaethje had been stopped. Gaethje returned 4 months later and looked a different fighter, stopping James Vick in the first round with a clinical application of intensity and punching power. A mini documentary was produced that claimed two things. The first being that Justin’s fighting style was predicated on his poor eyesight, he used the fists of his opponents crashing into his facial bones as a range finder, if you hit him, he knew he could hit you. Often, hit you he did. The second was that his goal upon entering the UFC was that he simply wanted to be the most exciting fighter.

Just as cells periodically replace themselves in the body, so did the goals of Justin Gaethje. Having beaten high level opponents with such impairments and yet falling at the hands of the division’s elite, the Trevor Wittman protégé was faced with a crossroads. Change his style and challenge for the title, or continue, and pay the brain damage invoices that concussions will inevitably write to him? He chose the former. Undergoing surgery to rectify his sight impairments and professing to Coach Wittman that he wanted now to be a champion, the changes were made. No fight showed these changes more vividly than his last outing in his destruction of “El Cucuy” Tony Ferguson.

His performance that night was measured, patient, aggressive, and dominant. Handing Tony only his second career loss, and his first loss in 12 fights and 7 years. A notable moment in that encounter came at the end of the second round, when Justin was looking like he was tiring. Trevor told him that he was not going to put Tony away with one big shot, given that he had landed more than we could count. To take 20% off his shots, and land in accumulation, Justin did not even question the direction, implemented it, and stopped Tony in the 5th due to accumulation. That type of relationship is rare. We know from Javier Mendez that Khabib often does the opposite of what Javier wishes or asks for in a fight.

What makes this fight from a skills perspective just so intriguing is the styles of the men. Khabib wishes to pressure you to the fence, and chain a seemingly unlimited arsenal of wrestling sequences together to ultimately take you down, and when he does so he will look to achieve what is now known as the Dagestani Handcuff, trapping the arm closest to the cage, the same arm you would use to get up, behind your back. Enter half-guard and land as many shots as he can until he either stops you, or forces you to give your back, and he will choke you. Khabib makes fighters wilt, the thousand-yard stare’s definition should have a picture of Khabib Nurmagomedov under it in every dictionary known to man. The Edson Barboza fight comes to mind, that man has never been the same since.

The striking of Khabib has incrementally improved, we saw him drop Conor McGregor with an overhand right after making the Irish man contemplate where the next takedown attempt was coming from. But this does remain his biggest weakness.

Justin Gaethje will be looking to exploit that at every opportunity he can. An NCAA Division 1 wrestler, and a Hall of Fame entrant at the University of Northern Colorado for his achievements in wrestling. Gaethje has spoken at length that his wrestling style is a defensive style; he would score points by stuffing takedowns and counter attacking from there. On paper that sounds like a phenomenal type of antidote to the offensive wrestling style of the champion. However, cage wrestling is an entirely different prospect to that of open cage wrestling. Khabib’s success rate in open cage wrestling is much lower than that of his against cage wrestling.

We don’t often see the wrestling capability of Gaethje as he had just decided to walk forward without fear and if he got taken down, as he did against Michael Johnson, just get back up and keep throwing shots at you. But with Justin 2.0 walking into the cage on the 24th, and on the back of recent performances I suspect we will not see that from him.

His striking however, is something to behold. His main weapon is the leg kicks, this has been his most dominant weapon in his entire career, having won 3 bouts via leg kick stoppages. The leg kicks used to be another range finder, as he does not use them conventionally. You would expect to see a leg kick thrown from a considerable outside range to either setup or finish a combination. Justin throws them whilst almost chest to chest, right there, in the trenches of the pocket. This will be important to try to slow the forward pressure of the champion down.

Against Ferguson he showed vast improvement in his head movement, body work and overall shot selection. Investing in the body work of Khabib will be golden for him, and he will need footwork to keep on the outsides of Khabib’s work, never standing in front of the champion allowing him to be rushed against the fence and into the deep waters of the Dagestani shark.

For Khabib, he will need to pick his shots timely, finding Justin off step or off pace, as he will not want to run into any of the striking offense of Justin if he can help it. Even with the defensive wrestling of Gaethje, if Khabib manages to get the fight to the cage, it’s hard to see him not getting the takedown, and if he gets that takedown, you can expect him to hold Justin there, history often repeats itself.

This has the makings of a classic, does the champion finally find an adversary that makes him face adversity in the cage? Does Khabib just run through Justin as he has every other prospect and ride into the final fight of his career still looking unbeatable? Who knows? But we will find out.

Robert Whittaker (21-5) vs Jared Cannonier (13-4)

The mountain of success is one that is rarely climbed without falter. Robert Whittaker climbed that mountain and sat aloft it; Middleweight title raised above his head. Staring down at the men scrambling with sweat on their brow and blood on their hands. Losing the belt to Israel Adesanya in his home country tumbled Whittaker backwards, down to the pit of ex-champions either laid to rest, or destined to rise back up a mountain side so rough, so <something un ordinated>, few ever make it.

Whittaker spoke openly post UFC 243 about being burnt out from the sport, about taking time to be with himself mentally, and fixing the issues he had inside of his head, in his body and within his training camp. Having achieved that, he feels ready to begin his ascent back to the top, and to where he feels he truly belongs, the throne.

We know what Whittaker brings. Intensity in his pre-fight rituals, and when the referee calls for action at the start of round 1, Robert Whittaker is looking to blitz his way into the pocket, and land with a myriad of combinations. His wrestling pedigree allows for his confident forward pressure style, knowing he can always fall back on that to either defend the takedown, or deliver one should he choose too.

His opponent is the epitome of transformation. A man who made his debut at Heavyweight, weighing in at 265lbs. To drop to Light Heavyweight, to then find his home, all the way down at Middleweight, 185lbs. There is bountiful documentation of Cannoniers bodily transformation, but to watch his style evolve, is something to behold.

Cannonier is a striker, and even in his fight against Cyril Asker, you could see that he was an athletic man, a lighter man, controlling a much heavier suit or armour. He is aggressive, well-paced, and has power that carries through each of the 3 homes he grown in, and out of.

We have seen Cannonier grow into his style, and he is reaching his final form. His destruction of Jack Hermansson, a known fast starter was phenomenal. He defended the unorthodox takedown attempts from the Swede and ensured to issue him with a bill in the form of strikes. Slipping into round two, Cannonier upped the pace to where Hermansson could not last, and stopped him inside a minute of the first, with a wonderfully placed uppercut, following his man to the ground and finishing with strikes.

Transformation, is not something alien to Whittaker either, having started his UFC tenure at 170lbs, he himself decided to make a move, this time upwards after losing to Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson the writing was on the wall, a single further fight against Mike Rhodes was the final punctuation on his 170lb,  weight cutting sentence.

Growing in his weight, fighting everyone there is to fight at Middleweight. The standout performances must be the ones against Yoel Romero but let us not forget he went in and stopped Jacare after spending a good amount of time with Jacare hunting for his back.

This fight is a crossroads fight. Does The Reaper don his scythe, and slice through the rising star of the Gorilla? Or do we see Adesanya’s prediction come true, and another entry in the Death Note threatens to be cross off?

Alexander Volkov (31-8) vs Walt Harris (13-8)

Drago The Giant will attempt to write the wrongs of his last outing against Curtis Blaydes against ex-Golden Gloves champion Walt Harris. Harris made a return to the octagon after a highly publicised family tragedy, and the unruly, unloving MMA Gods, had him fall to the hands of Alistair Overeem.

Volkov will look to implement range here. He has the range and the height advantage (and that is not uncommon for him). However, standing at 6”7 with an 81” reach to the 6”5 of Harris, who has the same reach, this will not be the same disparity as in his fight with Derrick Lewis, for instance.

Harris on the other hand is an explosive puncher, and a great athlete. All his wins have come by KO/TKO.

The tale of the tape is, can Volkov turn away the explosion of Harris with volume, or does Harris close the distance, and blast Volkov into the stratosphere. This is heavyweight after all.

Liliya Shakirova (8-1) vs Lauren Murphy (13-4)

Cynthia Calvillo was taken off this card late. This is not the first change you are going to see on this card either, it has suffered heavy losses up to the point of writing. Liliya Shakirova steps up on short notice to make her UFC debut.

Shakirova is somewhat of an unknown to the brand, and the scene in general. Of her 8 wins, 4 have come by stoppage and the fight against Murphy will be her first in a year.

Murphy has looked good of late, with a finish of Mara Romero Borella and wins over Modafferi and Andrea Lee. Murphy has the UFC experience, and the form coming in here and should be the heavy favourite. But with the debutant coming in with the mystique she has, an upset may be on the cards.

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

The first meeting of these two ended with plenty of controversy. Before the fight even started Cutelaba marches across the cage to the sound of Bruce Buffer. Goes nose to nose with his opponent, only for Ankalaev to grab double under hooks and throw him against the cage.

Early in the first both men exchanged strikes, Ankalaev lands a head kick and a couple of other strikes. Cutelaba is swaying on his feet, but still returning fire. Magomed continues to land. Cutelaba is still swaying and the referee steps in. As soon as the ref’s arm leans across the pair of men, Cutelaba explodes in anger pushing the ref away and imitating that he was playing possum.

The heat is seemingly real between these two, so do not expect this to last much longer than the first fight.

Stefan Struve (29-12) vs Tai Tuivasa (10-3)

Two heavyweights at a juncture that matches their scale readings. Tai Tuivasa exploded into the UFC literally, with some highlight reel knockouts. In a shallow heavyweight division, he was shown the upper echelon and in retrospect was not ready. After taking a tumble back down the platform at the Hype Train station, he has now taken a full year off to re-evaluate things.

Netherlands tallest Skyscraper equally looks to bounce back into the win column, but this is not a fighter looking to establish a foothold in a UFC career. Instead we are watching a fighter who has been plagued by injuries and documented mental struggles, try to get back a position that early showings proved viable.

Struve is currently running 1-4 in his last 5 fights, and although he showed glimpses of his old self in his most recent bout against Ben Rothwell, the tide turned in the 2nd, and he ended up back on the canvas.

This is a huge fight for both men, as it will truly show us where they are at in their career, and big decisions will be made post.

Jacob Malkoun (4-0) vs Phil Hawes (8-2)

Dana White Contender Series has proven to produce some excellent prospects. Sean O’Malley likely the most notable. Phil Hawes will want to stamp his name into that ticket card with his first outing under the full UFC banner.

Securing a contract on his second showing in the Contender Series with a vicious finish over Khadzhimurat Bestaev in the first round that was enough to convince Dana that Hawes had developed enough to earn his spot in the promotion.

His opponent Malkoun, a training partner of Robert Whittaker is another showing of a fighter, that outside of a pandemic, may not yet be getting the call-up to the UFC. At 4-0 he certainly does not have the seasoning you would expect to see from a UFC debutant, especially outside of the HW division.

This is a big opportunity for both men, Hawes has a connection to the brand from his Contender Series performance and will want to solidify that here, and Malkoun will want to steal all of that limelight and replace it with his face.

This is one to watch, for sure.

Alex Oliveria (22-8-1) vs Shavkat Rakhmonov (12-0)

There are tough fights for your UFC debut, and then there is Cowboy Oliveria. Shavkat Rakhmonov however is a man that carries with him not just an undefeated record, but a record that has never seen him go to a decision. An array of finishing methods gives rise to the well-rounded game that the latest Kazakh fighter brings to the promotion, KO/TKO’s, guillotines, rear naked chokes, and some triangles to boot.

That sounds vastly impressive, until you switch camera angles to the Brazilian Cowboy, who has seen and done it all. Strolling into the octagon with 22 wins, an equal array of finishes, what we have in Alex Oliveria is a man who knows how to control 15 minutes of fighting, knows how to control his opponent in those 15 minutes, and knows when to common the chaos, and when to fight technically and tactically.

This is a great acid test for the young Kazakh, and we will really see the qualities and potential trajectory for him after this matchup.

Da Un Jung (13-2) vs Sam Alvey (33-14)

Da Un Jung has made a tumultuous start to his UFC career, an all-out war with Khadis Ibragimov in his debut resulted in a 3rd round guillotine finish from Jung, he swung that momentum into a fantastic performance against Mike Rodriguez, putting him away in a clinical fashion in the 1st round. So, we have seen that he can go through a war, and we have seen him be clinical. The question pertains to what he can do against a known name veteran in Smilin’ Sam Alvey.

Alvey is the definition of veteran. 8 years he has spent in the UFC fighting up and comers the whole way through. Spicely, Brunson, Nicholson, Evans, Leites, Emeev to list a few. Alvey recently decided to make a move to the 205lb division for the betterment of his health and will be looking to snap a 4-fight skid against Jung. At 33-14 Alvey has had more than double the fights than his opponent and will look to lean on that to get the W.

Umar Nurmagomedov (12-0) vs Sergey Morozov (16-3)

Umar Nurmagomedov was pulled from this card having contracted a staph infection that saw him hospitalised. The UFC are seeking a replacement for debutant, Sergey Morozov.

Liana Jojua (8-3) vs Miranda Maverick (7-2)

We should all bow our heads and pray to the MMA God’s that this fight hits the mat.

In Liana Jojua we have an armbar specialist. Miranda Maverick a rear naked choke specialist. Maverick comes into the UFC an alumnus of the esteemed female MMA pioneer, Invicta FC. Maverick looks like a fresh prospect entering the 125lb division. Picking up only two losses and getting one of those losses back in dominant fashion.

Jojua will step into the octagon for the third time, with a record of 1-1. A loss in her debut against Sarah Moras showed the holes in her stand-up. Those had not looked to improve vastly in her win over Diana Belbita earlier this year. Jojua’s best work comes when she can work her takedowns against the cage and implement her grappling.

As stated previously, if this hits the mat, it should be fireworks.

Nathaniel Wood (17-4) vs Casey Kenney (15-2-1)

This has Fight of the Night written all over it.

English prospect Nathaniel Wood flies out to Fight Island looking to continue buffing out the small dent in the side panel of his UFC career that was his loss to John Dodson. For anyone that has not seen the potential of Nathaniel, it is imperative that you go back and watch his run in Cage Warriors. Then his first 3 fights in the UFC.  

Excellent footwork, stance switching, boxing fundamentals, wrestling ability, and submission threats are the tools boasted by Wood, amongst his greatest asset: bombs in his hands. Under the tutelage of UK MMA pioneer Brad Pickett, Wood has a strong team around him. Jumping at the chance to enter the bubble that is Fight Island.

Casey Kenney is a formidable prospect. This is a man who is not only improving fight by fight but is making Olympic level long jump leaps in his game. The striking display we saw against Heili Alateng was nothing more than ferocious brutality.

From the earlier performances where Casey was primed to push you to the cage and complete his work there. Grinding you down into positions that he can either land heavy ground and pound, or keep you there for 15 minutes and earn his decision. We now see a fighter that is putting the pieces to the puzzle together and it seems the most recent addition is confidence, and bad intentions.

This fight is a brilliant style clash on paper. If it lives up to that – we are in for a barnburner.

Joel Alvarez (17-2) vs Alexander Yakovlev (25-10-1)

Coming off the biggest win of his career against Irish standout Joe Duffy, Joel Alvarez is only looking to climb further upward in the rankings. Alexander Yakovlev is a well-used litmus test for contenders looking to trudge the similar rungs of the UFC ladder. Kamaru Usman, Damien Maia, are two names to have trodden on the shoulders of the Russian, as they made their own journey to the top.

From a style’s perspective, this should be a fight that Alvarez can perform well and showcase his skills. Yakovlev is tall and rangy, as is Alvarez and that should allow the Spaniard to employ his kicking game. Should Yakovlev then decide to engage in his grappling chops, Alvarez is a choke specialist. Favouring guillotine and d’arce chokes, an unsavoury concoction for any wrestler.