UFC 254 Predictions: Bleacher Report Staff Main Card Picks
UFC 254 features a stirring main-event matchup between undefeated lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim champ Justin Gaethje. The stakes are high as Nurmagomedov seeks to continue his dominant reign in the division and Gaethje hopes to usurp him.
The main card is stacked with six fights in total, including an important co-main event dustup between former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker and peaking powerhouse Jared Cannonier.
UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gaethje takes place live on Saturday at Flash Forum on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.
Early prelims will begin at 10:30 a.m. ET, followed by the prelims at noon and the main card pay-per-view at 2 p.m. ET.
Click through to read our predictions before the fights go down this weekend.
Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba
The first time these light heavyweight bombers collided, things ended in a supremely disappointing fashion. Magomed Ankalaev's early offense seemed to put Ion Cutelaba on spaghetti legs, but the moment the referee stopped the action, it was pretty clear that the Moldovan was still lucid. It was definitely an early stoppage.
That being said, I think an Ankalaev victory was inevitable. He was landing some big shots on Cutelaba, and I expect him to do so again in this long-awaited rematch. He is the more versatile, creative striker of the two, and provided Cutelaba is willing to engage him in a slugfest—which feels like a certainty—it's just a matter of time before he lands a fight-ender. We can only hope it's controversy-free this time around.
Ankalaev, KO, Rd. 1
Love this fight between two guys who are seriously going to try to wreck each other. The first fight was bananas, but it was stopped way too soon. While I agree with Tom that Ankalaev seemed to be on his way to gaining the early edge, I'm not sure how hurt Cutelaba was in the fight. To me, it looked like Cutelaba wanted to lure in Ankalaev so he could take some swings at him. Regardless, while I believe Cutelaba is probably worth a longshot stake on the betting market, Ankalaev is the most likely winner in the fight.
Ankalaev via unanimous decision
Cutelba has only heard a judge's scorecard read twice in a 21-fight career. The man likes to bang—sometimes to his detriment. While the referee may have stopped the first fight between the two men early, there was no doubt Cutelaba was in a bad place towards the end.
Ankalaev is a clever, mobile striker who seems destined to compete for the championship at some point soon. He's one second away from an undefeated record, falling short in the last second of the third round to Paul Craig in his first UFC fight.
There are levels to this, and the Russian should prove, definitively this time, that he's a class above Cutelaba.
Ankalaev, KO, Rd. 2
Lauren Murphy vs. Liliya Shakirova
We know a lot about Lauren Murphy, a five-fight UFC veteran. The same cannot be said of Liliya Shakirova, a mysterious prospect from Uzbekistan who, after compiling an 8-1 record in China and Russia, was called up on short notice to replace Murphy's originally slated opponent, Cynthia Calvillo.
Scanning Shakirova's records for clues as to the outcome of this fight, one thing does jump out at me. She holds a win over China's Meng Bo, who is the only woman to beat UFC strawweight champion Weili Zhang and, more importantly, one of the best atomweights on the ONE Championship roster. That's a solid win.
Having said all that, I feel like Shakirova is going to be in over her head against Murphy. The American is the No. 5 fighter in the UFC's women's flyweight division—a position she earned with wins over top-flight foes like Roxanne Modafferi and Andrea Lee. Unless Shakirova turns out to be a super-prospect of Khamzat Chimaev's ilk, I doubt she shows Murphy anything new.
Murphy via unanimous decision
I see Murphy train a lot over at Main Street Boxing and Muay Thai gym in Houston, and I can tell you she's locked and loaded for a deep run in her division. She's worked super hard at honing her craft since moving to Texas, and her strong striking skills have never looked better.
Shakirova is an unknown commodity at this point, and she'll surely provide a stern test for Murphy. But Murphy will win this fight, and I like her to eventually win her way to a title shot against flyweight champ Valentina Shevchenko.
Murphy via unanimous decision
A lot is on the line for Murphy, a journeywoman fighter who has put together a three-fight winning streak to find herself on the cusp on title contention in the UFC flyweight class. The pressure is definitely on—an impressive victory could vault her right into a main event.
Shakirova, by contrast, has nothing to lose. A last-minute replacement, the former wrestling champion from Uzbekistan is a complete mystery. From what I've seen, she's a fast striker with really strong takedowns. How those skillsets will stand up to UFC level competition is anyone's guess.
Until we have more data, it's impossible to get a good read on how Shakirova can be in the big leagues.
Murphy, submission, Rd. 3
Jacob Malkoun vs. Phil Hawes
Phil Hawes, 8-2, will enter this fight with a ton of wind in his sails. In his last outing, he earned a UFC contract with a clubbing of Khadzhimurat Bestaev on Dana White's Contender Series, and that triumph was preceded by stoppage wins in Brave CF and Bellator—both top-flight promotions. It's also worth noting that his only losses came against UFC prospect Julian Marquez and former PFL champ Louis Taylor—certainly solid opposition.
Jacob Malkoun, on the other hand, is an ADCC Asia 2019 Trials winner with some pro boxing experience, but he's just 4-0 in MMA. All of his wins have come against more experienced opponents, so he could definitely spring the upset on Hawes on Fight Island, but I don't see that happening. Hawes is the better kickboxer, and his wrestling background should keep him out of trouble if the fight hits the mat.
Hawes, KO, Rd. 3
Hawes looks to have the better resume, which means he'll be carrying lots more experience into the Octagon. Malkoun is one of former UFC champ Robert Whittaker's training partners. He's making his UFC debut here, which is a heavy burden most fighters struggle to carry at full form. I think it's a close and competitive fight, but Hawes ultimately ends up with the win on the cards.
Hawes via unanimous decision
At one point, Hawes was considered among the top prospects in the entire sport. I watched him train against elite fighters at the famed Jackson-Winkeljohn gym several years ago and, physically, he was as good as anyone present.
Unfortunately, he never quite managed to put it all together in the cage. Now a mature fighter in his prime, Hawes finds himself with one more chance to make the splash that seemed so set-in-stone in his 20s. I still believe.
Hawes via unanimous decision
Alexander Volkov vs. Walt Harris
I feel pretty good about picking Alexander Volkov in this fight. Since joining the UFC roster, the former Bellator heavyweight champ has only lost to Curtis Blaydes and Derrick Lewis, who are, of course, two of the best big men out there right now.
He's proved himself more than capable of taking out mid-level heavyweights, and, by my estimation, that's a pretty good way to describe Walt Harris. I see this fight going a lot like Volkov's fight with Lewis—only he won't get knocked silly in the final seconds of the fight.
I think he'll use his range to land at distance and stay out of danger en route to a decision win, not unlike the ones he picked up against other big punchers like Greg Hardy and Roy Nelson.
Volkov via unanimous decision
I agree with Tom about this fight, too. I think Volkov is a step above Harris in the heavyweight division, and I think he'll show it on Saturday night in Abu Dhabi.
Volkov is a smart veteran who knows how to use his physical advantages quite well. Harris doesn't have the explosive athleticism that might save him in the fight, so Volkov strikes him all night from range over the three rounds for the victory.
Volkov via unanimous decision
WWE's Big E is a simple man at heart. When asked about what he liked in his wrestling on The New Day: Feel the Power podcast, the answer was simple.
"Big meaty men, slapping meat."
That's what I love about UFC heavyweights, which is why I'm so excited to see this fight on the card.
It's hard not to love Harris, whose quiet strength held his family together through tragedy. Unfortunately, Volkov has the skillset to give him fits.
Harris likes to pressure opponents against the fence with a steady jab before letting loose those bungalows. Volkov, however, excels at kicking range and will likely beat the big man to the kick while his jab is still little more than a good idea.
Volkov via unanimous decision
Robert Whittaker vs. Jared Cannonier
All signs point to Jared Cannonier getting a crack at UFC middleweight champ Israel Adesanya if he beats Robert Whittaker in the UFC 254 co-main event. Cannonier wants that opportunity, Adesanya has welcomed it, and UFC President Dana White is on board with the matchup, too. It's almost being treated as a certainty.
Has the world gone crazy? Have people forgotten how good Whittaker is? Sure, he suffered a pretty tough L to Adesanya in 2019, but there's really no shame in that. He's still one of the best fighters in the world—at any weight—and is more than capable of outdueling Cannonier this weekend.
Cannonier definitely has him beat in the power department, but other than that, Whittaker is the better fighter in every facet of the game. So long as he fights smart—which he almost always does—he's got this one in the bag. I expect him to take his time in the early going, being careful not to chow down on a Cannonier knuckle sandwich, then crank it up in the second half with decisive results.
Whittaker, TKO, Rd. 3
Heavy's Stephen McCaugherty and I were talking about this fight on our recent Heavy on UFC live streams on Facebook, and I had to admit to him that I was looking past Whittaker in this fight for what amounts to no good reason.
Sure, Cannonier has enjoyed a solid run since he moved down to 185 pounds, but Whittaker will easily be his toughest test at middleweight to date. On top of that, "Bobby Knuckles" is a complete fighter. He's still just 29 years old and is probably on his way to another run toward UFC gold. Cannonier will make him work for it, but I like Whittaker to score the decision win.
Whittaker via unanimous decision.
Middleweight champion Adesanya would love to see Cannonier across the cage from him for his next title defense. The former heavyweight is undefeated at 185 pounds and finally appears to have found the perfect weight class in the second half of his 30s.
There's one small problem standing in the way of this fresh matchup for gold and glory—former champion Whittaker.
Whittaker rebounded from his loss by dispatching Darren Till in July. To my eyes, he'd lost a step. Earning a UFC title shot and then defending your claim is a real meat grinder. Few come out of the experience the same fighter they were going in. If past is prologue, Whittaker will never completely regain his form.
Cannonier via unanimous decision.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje
All anyone needs to do to beat Khabib Nurmagomedov is stop his takedowns and light him up on the feet. It's amazing how something that sounds so simple in theory could be so unbelievably difficult in practice.
Twenty-eight men have tried to topple the Russian and none have succeeded. None have thwarted his takedowns in a meaningful enough way to knock him out on the feet or even hit him enough to earn a decision. Not Dustin Poirier. Not Conor McGregor. Not Al Iaquinta. Not Edson Barboza. Not Michael Johnson. Not Rafael dos Anjos. Nobody.
Justin Gaethje, Nurmagomedov's UFC 254 challenger, is probably better positioned to pull it off than anybody before him, but I still don't think he will. I think he'll stop a few takedowns, probably instigate some fun scrambles, and maybe even land a few nice punches, but in the end, he'll experience the same fate as the 28 men before him and flame out in the champ's suffocating hell of ground-and-pound and submission attempts.
Nurmagomedov, submission, Rd. 4
Gaethje's surprise run toward the title has been fun, but there's a reason nobody has ever defeated Nurmagomedov.
Gaethje's main problem will be how much better Nurmagomeov is at dictating where and how the fight unfolds. Much is made of Nurmagomedov's ground game, and it's very impressive. But not enough attention is paid to how well Nurmagomedov uses his strikes in combination with his wrestling skills. That very special skill, which can knock his opponent silly just when a takedown seems to be on its way, is what helps separate Nurmagomedov from the other top grapplers in MMA.
Moreover, Gaethje's porous defense provides thrilling action, but that kind of style won't work against the most elite fighters in the sport. I like Nurmagomedov to win in a big way. His ground game will get him there, but Nurmagomedov finishes Gaethje via ground-and-pound.
Nurmagomedov, TKO, Rd. 2
For years, Gaethje was the delight of hardcore fans. Hidden in an obscure promotion called the World Series of Fighting, the sport's top action fighter slugged his way to a 10-0 record inside their cage, waging absolute war with the likes of Luis Palomino and other stalwarts of the regional scene.
When he finally came to the UFC, his head first, two-fisted style was supposed to make it impossible to compete with the elite fighters at 155 pounds. They were, it was thought, too slick and sophisticated to let anyone get away with that kind of ruthless, impossibly reckless aggression.
Instead, Gaethje ran through the class of the UFC's lightweight division the same way he'd decimated WSOF's best. Fans were gifted with classic wars of attrition, and Gaethje earned a spot in a pay-per-view main event.
The fairy tale, unfortunately, ends now.
Nurmagomedov, submission, Rd. 3