The second visit back to Fight Island comes to a close with UFC 254 headlined by a lightweight title fight for the ages. Khabib Nurmaegomedov will defend the title against Justin Gaethje. No disingenuous trash talk or fabricated beef heading into this one, just two of the absolute best lightweight fighters on the planet set to determine who is the better man.
Khabib Nurmagomedov (-340) vs Justin Gaethje (+260)
It’s no surprise that Khabib comes into this fight the sizable favorite. With a record of 29-0 and essentially all victories since 2013 being extremely dominant, there is no circumstance in which the champion would be the betting underdog. With that being said, the last time Justin Gaethje was overlooked he put a drubbing on Tony Ferguson to claim the interim Lightweight title. Anyone who enters the grappling realm with Khabib endures a smothering that’s damn near impossible to deal with and downright uncomfortable to watch. But he is yet to fight a fighter like Gaethje. On paper, Gaethje is the most accomplished wrestler Khabib has ever faced. He is an NCAA Division one All American wrestler, but you’d never know it. You wouldn’t know because he has never deviated from the game plan of walking forward, and throwing hellacious hooks and uppercuts until somebody falls. His wrestling and grappling prowess has essentially never been put to use in the octagon. So whether or not his defensive wrestling can keep Khabib off him is the big question. There isn’t much debate about who has the advantage on the feet, Gaethje is the superior striker by a wide margin. But should he end up in the flustering entanglement of Khabib, he will likely end up like the rest.
At the end of the Day
There shouldn’t be such a wide gap in the betting odds in this fight. Gaethje is a very live dog in this contest. Khabib’s run has been dominant, but holes in his game have been exposed over the years. We’ve seen Al Iaquinta stuff and avoid takedowns, and we’ve seen him on the wrong end of striking exchanges in his wins more often than people realize. With the brilliant coaching and game planning of Trevor Whittman, coupled with the amazing run Gaethje is on. All signs are pointing to an underdog win.
Pick: Justin Gaethje
Robert Whittaker (+104) vs Jared Cannonier (-128)
The odds are close in this fight for good reason, though surprising to many that Whittaker comes in as the slight underdog. The former middleweight champion has since rebounded from losing his title with a 5 round unanimous victory win over Darren Till, a contest in which he looked to be in top form. Jared Cannonier is a scary individual. He isn’t the type of striker that strings together 4 and 5 point combinations, but he is highly efficient. With no wasted movement, Cannonier throws full power into every strike. He has a low output, but fully commits to each punch and kick, and it pays dividends. Whittaker is good everywhere, the style of Cannonier is going to create openings for him to blitz and make him pay. He also sustains a lot of damage but remains effective in his offense which will serve him well against an opponent like Cannonier. Whittaker won’t have the advantage of being able to stretch this fight out to 5 rounds which greatly increases his chances of winning this fight. He will have to stand toe to toe with Cannonier for 15 minutes or less, which is no easy feat. This is easily the biggest fight of Cannoniers career, Champion Israel Adesanya has stated that if he wins, he will be granted the next title shot.
At the end of the day
Being the bigger more powerful man isn’t always an advantage, but it will be in this scenario. Whittaker has the footwork and striking defense to stay out of trouble for a while, but if he plans on keeping this fight on the feet, he’s bound to get touched with a shot he won’t recover from by the uber powerful Cannonier
Pick: Jared Cannonier
Alexander Volkov(-154) vs Walt Harris(+126)
Take one look at the record of Walt Harris and you’ll learn all you need to know in terms of what he is all about. All 13 victories come by way of KO/TKO, so it’s no secret what he is looking to do. The athletic heavyweight enters the cage and goes for the kill, in his 13-8 record, he has experienced his fair share of losses. His fighting style is conducive to ending up in precarious situations since being so aggressive in pursuit of the finish is risky as it leaves openings. Volkov is just the type of fighter to capitalize on such openings, the technical kickboxer has a much different approach than his counterpart. Standing 6’7 inches tall, Volkov keeps a high head, his feet moving, and utilizes a big strong jab that serves as both an offensive tool for setups, and a defensive tool keeping heavyweight sluggers off of him.
At the end of the day
Harris is capable of overpowering Volkov on the fence and landing one of his big knees. When Volkov shows up with his head screwed on right, he can beat almost anyone in the heavyweight division. Harris has only gone beyond the second round 4 times in his career, each time that’s happened, he has lost. Volkov is experienced enough to weather the storm, get out of the first two rounds, and cruise to a win.
Pick Alexander Volkov
Stefan Struve(-128) vs Tai Tuivasa (+104)
Despite being just 32 years old, Struve is one of the most experienced Heavyweights on the UFC Roster. Having competed professionally for the past 15 years (11 of which were under the UFC banner), Struve has competed against elite talent with varying success for a long time. He is 1-4 in his last 5 fights but has shown improvement/evolution over the past few years. Heavyweight is a division where fighters hit their physical prime a lot later in life, we’ve seen grizzled vets hit their stride in their mid to late 30’s time and time again over the years. A big criticism of Struve over the years was his inability to use his major reach advantage, this is something he has improved greatly as of late along with his control of distance. Tai Tuivasa is fun, he is an aggressive, fan-friendly fighter that gives fans the optics of a street fight with the way he competes. Although he has that fan-friendly style of always looking to end the fight, he’s been successful going the distance a couple of times in the UFC, including a win over Andre Arlovski
At The End of the Day
Tuivasa is the type of fighter who always has a punchers chance because he possesses the kind of scary, god-given power in his hands that stops people dead in their tracks if he can get to him. But, surprisingly, he is just a slight underdog against the far more experienced Struve. The “Skyscraper” is moving as good as he ever has right now, although he is susceptible to the overhand right because of his height and defense tendencies, he is too smart to let Tuivasa get in position to land the big shot. Struve’s teep’s and long punches will keep Tuivasa at bay on route to victory.
Pick: Stefan Struve
Sam Alvey(+270) vs Da Un Jung (-355)
Sam Alvey may be on a 4 fight losing streak, but the skid isn’t as bad as it seems on paper. While he most recently took a loss against Ryan Spann, that was a fight that went to a split decision and could have easily gone his way. Alvey started slow, but came on strong in the later stages of the fight, landing some heavy, potential fight ending shots towards the final bell. Da Un Jung has just two fights under the UFC banner, both were impressive wins. With the most recent knockout victory over Mike Rodriguez really leaving an impression and showing how devastating he can be, this next progressive step up the ladder in a fight with Alvey seems as though it’s tailored for him to continue his ascension up the rankings. After competing in 48 professional MMA Fights over the past 12 years, it’s hard to imagine Alvey is competing with the same vigor that brought him all of his success over the years . But he is still a relatively young man, and despite the many fights, he hasn’t shown any signs of being shop worn or diminished durability. The southpaw fighter has big power in both hands, and is perfectly capable of shutting the lights off of any middleweight if he can catch them.
At the end of the day
Da Un Jung is on a different path than Alvey in his career right now, he is a big and strong middleweight that is fresh and very motivated to move up the rankings. His aggression coupled with his penchant for overpowering opponents early is going to be trouble for the sometimes slow starter, Alvey.
Pick: Da Un Jung
Something worth noting is that this will be Khabib’s first time fighting since the passing of his father, who was a very significant part of his camp and fight preparation throughout his entire career. It remains to be seen if this will have any impact on Khabibs performance. It would be very interesting to see Gaethje become the undisputed lightweight champion. He isn’t exactly what the UFC loves marketing wise, but would set a great example as a UFC champion.
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