UFC 254 Preview

There’s a big fight feel around this weekend’s UFC lightweight unification bout as champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim champion Justin Gaethje will be competing in what many are saying is the fight of the year.

Khabib (28-0) is the king of the hill, the pound-for-pound number one fighter on the planet. He prepared for this fight, for the first time, without his father Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov. Abdulmanap sadly passed away earlier this year due to complications stemming from a Covid-19 infection.

A question I ask myself is, how badly will that loss effect Khabib? Will he be the same fighter? How will he mentally handle all of this?

I don’t think Khabib’s mentality can be questioned, he experienced the full brunt of Conor McGregor’s trash talk, a tactic used solely to take you off your game. McGregor’s mental warfare didn’t work against Nurmagomedov, who went in, got the job done and carried out the exact game plan needed in order to get his hand raised. That to me shows a strong mentality.

It also shows me that Khabib should have the mental capacity to get through what is going to be the toughest test of his career. We might see Khabib perform at a level this Saturday night that we’ve never seen before. If the Russian can harvest all that pain, and all that emotion from the bitter loss of his dad, and unleash it all in the octagon, there aren’t too many fighters who would be able to put out that fire.

If I was to pick somebody as the fireman, I’d look no further that Justin Gaethje, who is an absolute madman. As a fighter, Gaethje puts a whole new meaning on the ole, “take one to give one” tactic. And looking at his past fights, you would be forgiven for thinking he is a strictly stand-up style fighter.

In fact, Gaethje has an impressive pedigree in wrestling as a Division- 1 wrestler. He became the first All American to come out of Northern Colorado when he placed seventh at the NCAA Championship.

Those wrestling credentials of Gaethje are what makes this fight so interesting, Khabib has never faced a wrestler to the calibre of his American advisory. Although the same could be said for Gaethje as he has never faced a fighter with the calibre of wrestling that Khabib possesses.

Justin and Khabib’s game plans will be no secret to each other coming into this fight. The question is, who is more capable of implementing their game plan? Can Justin keep it standing? Can Khabib get it down to the mat?

The fact that it’s in an empty arena will help Justin Gaethje. It helped him when he fought Tony Ferguson, and the guidance of Trevor Wittman will help Gaethje on his quest to become the undisputed champion in the 155 pound division. “The Highlight” needs to keep the fight standing, use his defensive wrestling, and only when the time is right, land big heavy straight punches, hooks and uppercuts.

Gaethje can beat Khabib, he will need to be patient and not force or rush anything. Same can be said on the mat, nothing rushed, you can’t afford to be sloppy when you scramble with “The Eagle”, who is an elite grappler and will take advantage of any openings.

The champion will need to get his opponent backpedaling, whoever is on the front foot in this fight will give themselves the best chance of winning. Khabib will look to put on the pressure, get Gaethje to the cage and take the fight down to the mat.

Same as every fight, if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it.

These guys are undoubtedly the two best lightweight athletes on earth right now, It’s what makes this battle so fascinating and I can not wait to see how it all unfolds.

The co-main event is between two middleweights that both have eyes set on Israel Adesanya, and the next shot at his title. Robert Whittaker returns to fight Island after his last visit ended with a five-round decison win over Darren Till.

Whittaker steps in to fight Jared Cannonier, who at 185 pounds is competing in his third weight class inside the UFC having fought previously in the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions. A win for Cannonier would put him next in line for the title shot. Whittaker has some title aspirations of his own, as he looks to cement his status as number one contender yet again in the middleweight division.

The rest of the main card, which hosts six fights in total, sees a heavyweight encounter between Russian Alexander Volkov and Walt Harris who looks to bounce back from his defeat to Alister Overeem while “Lucky” Lauren Murphy finds herself fighting Liliya Shakirova on short notice after Cynthia Calvillo withdrew from the flyweight bout.

The opening bout of the main card is somewhat of a grudge match between Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba. This fight has been scheduled three times before, the first fight ended with a controversial ref stoppage when Cutelaba appeared to be wobbled, only to be playing possum with Ankalaev. I expect fireworks for this light heavyweight scrap and the UFC made a wise choice putting this fight in the PPV slot.

An early start for European fans and a six fight main card, what more could you ask for? How about a rock solid set of prelims fights. Topping the bill on the prelims are heavyweights Stefan Struve and Tai Tuivasa. Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira is always entertaining, he squares off against undefeated Shavkat Rakhmonov from Kazakhstan.

Sam Alvey looks to smile his way into the win column. The American has lost his last four fights and needs a win big time over South Korean, Da Un Jung. Jung has 10 knockouts in 13 of his victories, and has picked up a nice submission on his debut and a demolition of Mike Rodriguez in one minute in his last outing.

A superb catchweight bout slips under the radar toward the bottom of the card. Casey Kenny and Nathaniel Wood face off at 140 pounds. This will be a phenomenal fight. Two guys who are not afraid to leave it all in the cage, you will not want to miss that fight. Opening up the UFC 254 card is Spaniard, Joel Alvarez who Irish fans will remember from his last bout when he went up against Donegal man Joe Duffy in a bout he won rather convincingly by submission.

So there you have it, top to bottom, a really solid card overall. Stay tuned to SevereMMA for all the results and reaction to one of the biggest cards of the year this Saturday October 26. See the official fight card below.

Main Card (7pm GMT, BT Sports Box Office)

Lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0) (c) vs. Justin Gaethje (22-2) (ic)
Middleweight Robert Whittaker (21-5) vs. Jared Cannonier (13-4)
Heavyweight Alexander Volkov (31-8) vs. Walt Harris (13-8)
Middleweight Jacob Malkoun (4-0) vs. Phil Hawes (8-2)
Women’s Flyweight Lauren Murphy (13-4) vs. Liliya Shakirova (8-1)
Light Heavyweight Magomed Ankalaev (13-1) vs. Ion Cuțelaba (15-5)

Preliminary card (5pm BT Sports 2, BT Sports app, free broadcast)

Heavyweight Stefan Struve (29-12) vs. Tai Tuivasa (10-3)
Welterweight Alex Oliveira (22-8-1) vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov (12-0)
Light Heavyweight Da Un Jung (13-2) vs. Sam Alvey (33-14)

Early preliminary card (3.30pm, UFC Fight Pass)

Catchweight (140 lb) Nathaniel Wood (17-4) vs. Casey Kenney (15-2-1)
Women’s Flyweight Liana Jojua (8-3) vs. Miranda Maverick (7-2)
Lightweight Joel Álvarez (17-2) vs. Alexander Yakovlev (25-10-1)

Ian O'Neill is the host of the SevereMMA UFC Preview show and one of the co-hosts of The Auld Triangle - Irish MMA podcast. You can find more of Ian's work on the SevereMMA Patreon where he co-hosts The Chasing Pack and The Contender. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram @ioneillmma

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