6 Questions That Need to Be Answered Heading into UFC 254
UFC 254 is just around the corner, and anticipation could not be much higher.
Most of the anticipation for the card, which goes down Saturday on Fight Island, stems from the main event: a lightweight title fight between champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim champion Justin Gaethje.
You know that old quandary about the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object? It tends to get applied to mixed martial arts bouts a little too often, but in this case, it could not sum things up more succinctly.
If ever there was a seemingly unstoppable force in MMA, it's the 2020 iteration of Gaethje: a veritable typhoon of violence, seemingly incapable of doing anything but destroy. And if an immovable object has ever existed in this sport, it's Nurmagomedov: a man who has not been beaten in 28 professional fights and looks increasingly untouchable each time he steps into the cage.
This is a fight that has fans drooling like dogs in a butcher shop—and one that has oddsmakers sweating. And it's just days away.
Of course, this amazing main event is not all UFC 254 has to offer.
The card will be co-headlined by a compelling middleweight fight between former champion Robert Whittaker and surging contender Jared Cannonier. Whittaker will be looking to move to 2-0 since surrendering the title to Israel Adesanya, while Cannonier is expected to earn his own crack at the belt with a win.
The card also features a number of other interesting fights that should result in a night that will answer a ton of questions about different divisions and fighters.
Without further ado, here are the questions we hope will be answered by the time UFC 254 wraps up.
Can Justin Gaethje Stop Khabib Nurmagomedov’s Takedowns?
Khabib Nurmagomedov is arguably the most effective grappler in MMA history. Time and time again, we've seen the Dagestani take his opponents down and drag them into a suffocating and inescapable hell of ground-and-pound and submission attempts.
Interestingly, however, Nurmagomedov's takedown success rate is not actually that good. With a 47 percent takedown accuracy, he doesn't even rank in the top 10 most successful takedown artists in UFC history. Yet he spends the majority of his time in the Octagon on top of his opponents. What does that tell us? He's tenacious. When a takedown attempt fails, he doesn't give up. He just tries again until he succeeds.
Nurmagomedov has acknowledged this reality previously and has made no secret of the fact that his strategy will not change against Gaethje.
"Nothing changes," Nurmagomedov told reporters at the recent UFC 254 media day. "I'm going to try wrestling with him. If he's going to defend my takedowns for a long time, I'm going to try second, third, I'm going to try 100 times."
In past fights, this strategy has been bulletproof for Nurmagomedov. But Gaethje is not like Nurmagomedov's previous opponents.
While the American is known for his chopping leg kicks and his massive punching power, he is also a talented wrestler. With a solid 80 percent takedown defense rate, he is likely to deny Nurmagomedov's shots with more frequency than anyone before.
The big question is, can he do so with enough success to stay out of Nurmagomedov's nightmarish wheelhouse, execute his own game plan and win the fight?
Can Khabib Nurmagomedov Survive a Kickboxing Match with Justin Gaethje?
If Justin Gaethje wants to defeat Khabib Nurmagomedov, he's going to need to stop some takedowns. Probably a lot of them.
If Gaethje is able to deny the champ's takedown attempts, that creates another interesting question: Can Nurmagomedov survive a prolonged kickboxing match?
Gaethje is by no means a world-class striker like Israel Adesanya or Valentina Shevchenko. That being said, he is definitely dangerous on the feet, pairing solid technique with nuclear power. The guy might as well leave a trail of mushroom clouds in his wake.
While Nurmagomedov has become a reasonable striker himself, he will be at a distinct disadvantage if Gaethje is able to turn this fight into a kickboxing match. So much so that one real question will not be whether Nurmagomedov can pull off a win but whether he can survive until the final bell.
Maybe the champ will surprise us with a technical leveling-up like the one Brian Ortega flaunted against The Korean Zombie last weekend, but all signs point to a tough night at the office if he is forced into a firefight with his challenger.
Will Khabib Nurmagomedov Be Impacted by His Father’s Death?
We could discuss Nurmagomedov's and Gaethje's technical strengths all day, but it would be foolish not to acknowledge the great intangible factor heading into the UFC 254 main event: the death of the legendary Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov.
Abdulmanap was not only Nurmagomedov's father, but his mentor, coach and biggest influence.
The 155-pound champion has shown steely resolve in the months since his father's death, but it's impossible not to wonder how he's being affected. When you consider the fact that he has ostensibly not even discussed this tragic loss with his team, it's even harder to wonder what kind of turmoil he's internalizing.
"We've never discussed nothing of his father and missing him," Nurmagomedov's coach, Javier Mendez, told Submission Radio recently (via MMA Fighting). "We don't talk; we just go right into what needs to be done. We have not talked about it in this camp at all. We focus on what needs to be done. I (only) say one thing: 'Father's Plan.' Because his father is the one who made him who he is."
A loss of this scale would affect anybody—even a seemingly unbeatable cage fighter like Nurmagomedov. The question is, how much will it affect him when he's locked in the Octagon with Gaethje? If it throws him off his game plan even a bit, it could be a problem.
Where Do Conor McGregor and Georges St-Pierre Fit In?
We've already covered what might happen during the UFC 254 main event. But what might happen after? More specifically, where will Conor McGregor and Georges St-Pierre fit into the fallout?
McGregor and St-Pierre, both former two-division UFC champions and two of the biggest stars in MMA history, could be watching this title fight closely.
Gaethje, on the other hand, hasn't made much mention of a potential fight with St-Pierre—and frankly, that fight will likely never happen—but has spent the better part of two years swapping trash talk with McGregor.
Heading into UFC 254, there are multiple intersecting storylines involving these four stars. If Nurmagomedov wins, will he call out St-Pierre? Will he be called out by McGregor? If Gaethje wins, will he welcome a title defense against McGregor?
We here at B/R are sports scribes, not soothsayers, so we can't answer those questions, but don't be surprised if McGregor's and St-Pierre's names start appearing in the headlines right after the UFC 254 main event concludes.
Is Robert Whittaker Going to Spoil Israel Adesanya’s Plans?
Jared Cannonier has been promised a crack at UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya if he beats Robert Whittaker in the UFC 254 co-main event.
It's certainly possible Cannonier, White and Adesanya will get what they want, but to sleep on Whittaker? Absolutely foolish.
Whittaker's stock took a real hit when he surrendered the title to Adesanya in 2019, but before that fight, he was being hailed as the second coming of GSP: a fighter who could do everything and was dangerous everywhere. Those comparisons were a tad premature, but as Whittaker showed in his summer victory over Darren Till, he's still one of the best fighters out there.
Possibly better than Cannonier. Maybe even a lot better.
It's not going to be easy, as Cannonier, a former heavyweight and light heavyweight, is an absolute wrecking ball, but Whittaker certainly has the skills, durability and fight IQ to ruin Adesanya's plans.
Will he do it? Time will tell.
Will the Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba Rematch Be More Decisive?
Want to see one of the weirdest stoppages in recent MMA history? Fire up UFC Fight Pass and watch the first fight between 205-pound bombers Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cutelaba that went down at UFC on ESPN+ 27 in late February.
After an intense pre-fight staredown, the Russian and the Moldovan met in the center of the Octagon and started pelting each other with the kind of strikes that likely would have flattened lesser men.
Moments later, Cutelaba began to exhibit the signs of a fighter who'd been hurt, wobbling like a table with a short leg, but continued to return fire with complete enthusiasm.
Then it happened.
Evidently suspicious that Cutelaba was more hurt than his upright position suggested, the referee waved off the fight. His protests were both immediate and coherent, giving many onlookers the impression he might have been playing possum or simply having a bit of fun by pretending to be more hurt than he was.
It was an extremely unpopular end to a fight that was eagerly anticipated among fans.
The good news is that, on the UFC 254 main card—after two previous failed attempts at booking the rematch—the pair will meet again. The big question is whether they can battle to a more decisive outcome this time around.
We want to know who's better. Their first fight certainly didn't give us much sense of that. Hopefully, this long-awaited do-over does.