Khabib Nurmagomedov makes his return to the Octagon for the first time in a little over a year in a lightweight title fight against the "Human Highlight" Justin Gaethje in a matinee pay-per-view from Fight Island in Abu Dhabi.
The main event pits the reigning lightweight titleholder against the interim champion in a unification bout. This wasn't the bout everyone expected when it was announced Tony Ferguson and Gaethje would meet for the interim championship, but the former World Series of Fighting star was brilliant in the upset in May.
The matchup is a classic grappler vs. striker pairing. Nurmagomedov's pressure wrestling is the best in the sport, while Gaethje's power and volume striking are matched by his incredible durability and toughness.
After a heated rivalry with Conor McGregor, Nurmagomedov is one of the hottest names in the sport. He has the opportunity to remind fans that he is much more than the Notorious' rival on Saturday afternoon.
Below is a look at the entire schedule which features a special start time and some of the buzz surrounding the biggest fights on the card.
Main Card (2 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV)
- Khabib Nurmagomedov (c) -330 vs. Justin Gaethje (ic) +260
- Jared Cannonier -120 vs. Robert Whittaker +100
- Alexander Volkov -160 vs. Walt Harris +135
- Phillip Hawes -280 vs. Jacob Malkoun +230
- Lauren Murphy -240 vs. Liliya Shakirova +200
- Magomed Ankalaev -270 vs. Ion Cutelaba +220
Prelims (Noon ET on ESPN2/ESPN+)
- Stefan Struve -115 vs. Tai Tuivasa -105
- Alex Oliveira -165 vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov +140
- Da-Un Jung -360 vs. Sam Alvey +280
Early Prelims (10:30 a.m. ET on Fight Pass)
- Casey Kenney -195 vs. Nathaniel Wood +165
- Miranda Maverick -360 vs. Liana Jojua +280
- Joel Alvarez -195 vs. Alexander Yakovlev +165
Odds via DraftKings Sportsbook
Gaethje Wants Khabib in the Middle of the Cage
Justin Gaethje is a pragmatist in addition to being a great fighter. His pre-fight talk hasn't just been about hype, it's centered on what it will take to hold his own against a mauling grappler like The Eagle.
Gaethje seems to understand that he won't avoid grappling exchanges. According to UFC Stats, the last time Nurmagomedov failed to land a single takedown in a fight was 2013, and that was only because he knocked out Thiago Tavares in just under two minutes.
The American does, however, want to make sure that when he does grapple it isn't against the fence.
"My plan is if we're gonna grapple, let's grapple in the middle at all times. I've said it 1,000 times; I cause damage. I have dense bones, and I'm gonna kick his legs. That's where we're gonna start, and we'll go from there," he told the media, per Mike Heck of MMA Fighting.
That's going to require some doing for Gaethje. He won't be able to over-commit to any one strike in the standup. Otherwise, Nurmagomedov will shoot a reactive takedown and get the fight to wherever he wants it.
The interim champion's best shot is to keep things in the middle of the cage and force as many striking exchanges as possible. Nurmagomedov's striking has improved throughout his time in the UFC, but it's still a much better option for opponents than his grappling.
This is all easier said than done. Nurmagomedov's plan to work opponents to the fence, take them down and make their life miserable has been a singular force as great as anything in the UFC's history. Until someone can actually stop it, it's hard to pick against him.
Prediction: Nurmagomedov via decision
Cannonier Eyeing Title Shot with Win over Whittaker
The co-main event is an important middleweight matchup. Jared Cannonier will be back for the first time in over a year. A 3-0 start to his time as a 185-pounder after dropping from light heavyweight had explosive results before a torn pec sidelined him.
He'll see his biggest challenge yet with former champion Robert Whittaker standing across from him on Saturday. The Reaper has only lost to Israel Adesanya since his own move to middleweight in 2014. The former welterweight bounced back with a decision win over Darren Till.
So while Cannonier has title aspirations he recognizes that this is a big fight in its own right.
"This is the biggest fight of my career. A title fight is definitely coming for me next," Cannonier told the media, per MMAjunkie.
As the odds would indicate, this is a tight fight on paper. Both are tremendous strikers who prefer to play the role of aggressor. The result should be a firefight in which both throw heavy leather.
That's the kind of fight that favors the more powerful striker, which appears to be Cannonier. He could extend is finishing streak to four fights.
Prediction: Cannonier via second-round TKO
Volkov Wants to Build Off Loss to Curtis Blaydes
The last time we saw Alexander Volkov he was getting mauled by Curtis Blaydes. Drago was taken down 14 times in a performance that showcased just how good of a wrestler Blaydes is but didn't do much damage to the Russian.
In fact, Volkov said he was feeling fine the next day and is looking forward to resuming his campaign for a title shot against Walt Harris.
"Every loss makes you step back. We have a lot of examples of fighters who lose their fights and then come back and become a champion," Volkov told reporters, per MMAjunkie. "For me, that's just experience. Since I didn't lose like a fool, I made a lot of damage in that fight. After the fight, I was fresh. The next day after the fight, I ran about six miles really easily. I had no damage, no injuries, nothing."
While that's all well and good it doesn't change the fact that Volkov had no answers for the unrelenting takedowns of Blaydes. It's not a question he will likely need to answer on Saturday, though. Harris is a big heavyweight, but he doesn't rely on his takedowns.
He averages fewer than one per 15 minutes and prefers to slug it out. That's good news for Volkov as it gives him a chance to engage in a kickboxing match, which is where he thrives. Volkov is the longer, more tactical striker and should be able to get back on track after his recent loss.
Prediction: Volkov via decision
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