For the first time since the UFC took over Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, a pay-per-view card will actually take place on proper timing locally as Khabib Nurmagomedov defends his lightweight title against interim champion Justin Gaethje at UFC 254.
When the action kicks off on Saturday afternoon for the majority of those in the United States and Saturday morning for those on the West Coast, fans will experience something rare as it relates to UFC: multiple “Fight of the Year” candidates taking place in the middle of the day.
Between a highly-anticipated main event, and some massive bouts in the middleweight and heavyweight divisions, UFC 254 brings loads of variety that could make it one of the year’s biggest and best cards.
While it may not be considered “primetime” when you’re watching the card in the United States on the afternoon of October 24, fighters will be prepared for just that when the event gets started.
So, to help you get just as prepared, it’s time to break everything down with our beginner’s guide to UFC 254 before some of the sport’s best collide on Yas Island:
Main event for the Lightweight Championship: Khabib Nurmagomedov (C) vs. Justin Gaethje (1 / Interim)
It’s hard to believe that the first main event of the UFC’s COVID-19 era was almost six months ago, and that it involved Justin Gaethje winning the interim lightweight title against Tony Ferguson in dominant fashion.
Many wondered who would come out on top if Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov ever stepped into the Octagon for a dream matchup, and many wrote Gaethje off before that fight in May even began as a result. Fans were so focused on the potential Nurmagomedov-Ferguson bout, and seemed to forget about Gaethje’s talent in the process.
Gaethje made sure that no one would ever forget again, obliterating Ferguson with superb striking and earning a TKO victory en route to a 22-2 record. And, while fans looked ahead to Ferguson’s next bout, Gaethje made sure he was focused on his when he refused to take the interim lightweight title after the bout was over.
“I’ll wait for the real one,” Gaethje told Joe Rogan in the center of the Octagon at UFC 249.
If he wants “the real one,” he’ll have to take down his realest challenge to date: a 28-0 champion coming off consecutive title defenses against Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier.
Nurmagomedov is one of the most dynamic and dangerous animals the UFC has ever seen, and could easily go down as one of the company’s greatest fighters of all time when all is said and done. His wrestling is flawless, and it seems like he can maul any fighter that gets in his way.
Casual fans may try to write Gaethje off again based on name recognition, likely claiming that McGregor is a more dangerous opponent for “The Eagle” than the 31-year-old Arizona native. But, he could be Nurmagomedov’s nightmare scenario come October 24.
With Gaethje’s wrestling, powerful striking, and zombie-like persistence, it could turn into an absolute war when he and Nurmagomedov get locked inside the Octagon at UFC 254. If Gaethje’s conditioning holds and his game plan is impeccable, he could be the one to thwart the champion’s undefeated record and claim one of the biggest upsets in UFC history in the process.
Expect fireworks when these two square off in Abu Dhabi, and the potential best fight of the year when all is said and done.
Middleweight bout: Robert Whittaker (1) vs. Jared Cannonier (2)
After Israel Adesanya’s successful title defense against Paulo Costa at UFC 253, the middleweight bout between former champion Robert Whittaker and Jared Cannonier turned into the equivalent of a number one contender’s matchup for Stylebender’s next challenger.
The top and second-ranked fighters in the division, Whittaker and Cannonier represent some of the best of the best at middleweight. With 35 combined wins after a total of 44 fights, the two will each bring plenty of experience to the table, and plenty of firepower, as well.
Cannonier has won by knockout in 69 percent of his fights, with an average fight time of just 8:28. Whittaker has won by knockout in 45 percent of his fights, with an average fight time of 12:20. Both pack a serious punch with each of their strikes, and will look to put on a show in UFC 254’s co-main event.
The difference could turn out to be grappling, however, with Whittaker holding a serious advantage with both takedown averages and takedown defense. Averaging almost double the amount of takedowns per 15 minutes with 57 percent takedown accuracy, Whittaker has proven that he can dish out the wrestling when he needs to.
More importantly, he’s shown that he can properly absorb it, as well, with an 84 percent takedown defense compared to Cannonier’s 44 percent.
Expect a well-rounded bout when these two go to battle, and a callout of Adesanya immediately after one of them gets their hand raised in the center of the Octagon.
Heavyweight bout: Alexander Volkov (7) vs. Walt Harris (10)
The heavyweight division is all over the place at the moment after Stipe Miocic’s title defense against Daniel Cormier in the summer, and Jon Jones’ likely jump up into the division whenever he returns to action. Long story short, if you’re looking to make an impact, you better do it quickly.
That’s exactly what seventh-ranked Alexander Volkov and 10th-ranked Walt Harris will look to do when they square off in the cage on October 24. And, with each coming off losses in June and May respectively, it’s truly do-or-die time as it relates to each of their careers.
Volkov was on the rise in the division before his fight against Curtis Blaydes in June, but fell by way of a five-round decision in the main event of a Fight Night card on ESPN to halt his journey.
Harris was battling a rollercoaster of emotions en route to his main-event fight against Alistair Overeem on ESPN in May, but lost by TKO in the third round to stunt his own momentum, as well.
Now, each will look to bounce back in a big way as they head to Fight Island, and will look to make a case for a top-five fighter in the division before Jon Jones or Francis Ngannou land the next title shot.
Each would need to make a serious splash and land on the highlight reel in this fight in order to land a big-time, top-tier next opponent, but with 67-percent and 100-percent knockout rates in the two fighters’ respective wins, that seems like a given.
Middleweight bout: Jacob Malkoun vs. Phillip Hawes
Every fighter needs to start somewhere, but it seems like many would agree that the main card of UFC 254 is an intense position to make your debut.
Enter middleweights Jacob Malkoun and Phillip Hawes, who will each step into the UFC’s limelight for the first time in Abu Dhabi.
The differences in this fight are clear, specifically from an experience perspective. Hawes brought along an 8-2 career record inside the cage as part of his baggage when making the flight out to Fight Island, with six knockouts to his name.
Malkoun…doesn’t have the same resume. He has less than half the amount of fights under his belt, and a third of the knockouts, as well. But, a 4-0 record isn’t too shabby, especially when 50 percent of them have come by knockout.
The one thing Malkoun does have that Hawes doesn’t? Robert Whittaker, a fellow middleweight and a fellow UFC 254 main card member, as a training partner. When you have a fighter like that at the same exact weight, going through the same exact camp en route to a bout just two away from yours on the main card, there are likely to be some similarities.
If Malkoun can even capture a third, or even a quarter, of the talent and aggression that Whittaker brings to the table, then it could lead to some serious trouble for Hawes in his UFC debut.
No one can truly know what to expect when this fight gets underway, but it’ll be an exciting way to ramp up the intensity at UFC 254.
Women’s Flyweight bout: Lauren Murphy (5) vs. Liliya Shakirova
Speaking of UFC debuts, Uzbekistan’s first female UFC fighter Liliya Shakirova will step into the Octagon for the first time against quite the challenge at UFC 254 as she takes on fifth-ranked flyweight Lauren Murphy.
Heading onto Fight Island with an 8-1 career record in the sport, Shakirova will look to pull off a major upset on short notice after Cynthia Calvillo was forced out of the main card bout against Murphy.
Meanwhile, Murphy will look to stay on track in the women’s flyweight division, turning her attention from a bout against the fighter ranked one spot ahead of her to an unranked foe looking to make a name for herself in the UFC.
With the nickname “Lucky,” Murphy will look to squash any hopes of a fortunate debut for Shakirova, and will try to move to 14-4 with a “business as usual”-type approach in Abu Dhabi.
A win on Saturday would keep Murphy right towards the top of the conversation when talking about women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko’s potential challengers, and set up a potential bout with either Calvillo or another top-ranked flyweight in the future.
A win for Shakirova? Well, that would be “lucky.”
Light Heavyweight bout: Magomed Ankalaev (11) vs. Ion Cutelaba
The modern-day edition of the Khabib Nurmagomedov-Tony Ferguson matchup from a scheduling standpoint alone, the rematch between Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cutelaba feels like one of those fights that you can’t believe will happen until the first round officially starts.
Delayed numerous times for a variety of reasons related to COVID-19, this fight has seemed doomed from the start. And, if the two fighters’ first encounter back in February of 2020 serves as any sort of warning, it will either turn into a fan-favorite bout on a historic card, or a beautiful disaster that many will hope to forget.
There has been lots of bad blood shown between the two, and tons of intensity throughout the entire process. But, their first fight ended because Cutelaba was “playing possum” before a debatable stoppage, and the beauty of the matchup may only be a result of the mystery of it all.
With so many question marks surrounding these two fighters throughout 2020, it will be interesting to see what can actually happen if these two are allowed the opportunity to battle in a proper, three-round fight.
UFC 254 will stream live from Fight Island in Abu Dhabi on October 24, 2020 at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN+. Early preliminary fights will begin at 10:15 a.m. ET, while the main prelims will start at 12 p.m. ET.