Khabib Nurmagomedov, UFC's most dominant champion, will see a challenge unlike anything he's seen in the Octagon in Saturday's main event against Justin Gaethje.
The Eagle has fought some of the best fighters the lightweight division has to offer. He shut down the Conor McGregor hype train and has smashed every opponent put in his way, but there aren't many who compare stylistically to the volume-fighting and tough-as-nails attitude of the interim champion.
Both the champion and the interim champion love to bring the pressure. Nurmagomedov applies constant pressure to control nearly every aspect of the fight. Gaethje pressures to bring the chaos in every aspect.
It's a fascinating clash of styles, and the lightweight strap, as well as Nurmagomedov's undefeated record, are on the line.
The card also features an important bout in the middleweight division. Former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker looks to get back to a title fight in a bout with a red-hot Jared Cannonier, who has looked very good at 185 pounds.
Here's a look at the entire fight schedule, featuring a special start time. The results of the weigh-ins are detailed below, too, which saw the championship fight become official when the leading men stepped on the scale.
UFC 254 Main Card (ESPN+ PPV at 2 p.m. ET)
- Khabib Nurmagomedov (155) vs. Justin Gaethje (155)
- Robert Whittaker (186) vs. Jared Cannonier (185)
- Alexander Volkov (265) vs. Walt Harris (254)
- Jacob Malkoun (186) vs. Phil Hawes (186)
- Lauren Murphy (126) vs. Liliya Shakirova (126)
- Magomed Ankalaev (205.5) vs. Ion Cutelaba (205.5)
Prelims (ESPN2, ESPN+ at Noon ET)
- Stefan Struve (265) vs. Tai Tuivasa (265)
- Nathaniel Wood (140) vs. Casey Kenney (140)
- Alex Oliveira (173) vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov (171)
- Da-un Jung (206) vs. Sam Alvey (206)
Early Prelims (ESPN+ at 11 a.m. ET)
- Liana Jojua (126) vs. Miranda Maverick (126)
- Joel Alvarez (159.5) vs. Alexander Yakovlev (155.5)
Nurmagomedov Stifles Gaethje to Decision
This fight comes down to one thing: Control.
It is Nurmagomedov's modus operandi from the opening bell to seize it, while Gaethje seems to feed off of never quite having it.
Nurmagomedov has made a career from grinding his opponents to dust. It's a straight-forward, no-nonsense style that is only made theatrical by his talking to opponents as he is choking their will to fight from them.
It isn't just that Nurmagomedov is relentless in looking for a takedown. It's that he doesn't settle once he gets one. He is constantly looking to advance position, do damage or find a submission like a button-mashing kid learning to play EA UFC. Except he seems to have limitless gas on most nights, so he doesn't pay for the spamming.
Gaethje doesn't seek that kind of control. He only seeks to inflict damage, even if it means taking some of his own. The Human Highlight has absorbed plenty of damage in his career. He just usually distributes more.
But that mostly occurs in standup affairs. While Nurmagomedov's boxing has seen steady improvement throughout his career, he likely won't need to practice it here. Gaethje will attempt to keep things in the center of the cage, but that's something just about every opponent before him has tried. They haven't done it.
That being said, Gaethje has shown enough durability and heart it's difficult to see him getting finished. He may succumb to a late submission depending on how much energy he is forced to expend fending off the constant pressure, but he should get the benefit of the doubt that he won't break to the tune of a TKO.
Prediction: Nurmagomedov via decision
Jared Cannonier Extends Finishing Streak
This isn't a slight against Robert Whittaker. The Reaper still has just one loss on his record at middleweight, and it was to Israel Adesanya, which is obviously not something to hold against him.
This is about Cannonier's power and the idea of a middleweight going through three full rounds without getting tagged by it. Whittaker is a well-rounded fighter, but he isn't a defensive juggernaut—he's hittable.
Cannonier is a former heavyweight who will hold a four-inch reach advantage. Since moving to middleweight from light heavyweight, he's finished David Branch, Jack Hermansson and Anderson Silva. The former champion is a huge step up in competition, but power is power.
Watching the knockouts of Branch and Silva, they weren't big, telegraphed bombs that ended the fight. They were simple, quick punches thrown with bad intentions and great timing. He isn't throwing lunging strikes like a heavyweight. He's striking like a middleweight who incidentally has the power of a heavyweight.
Whittaker likes to fight in close quarters and traditionally doesn't back down from exchanges. He's the better overall striker, but it's hard to envision a scenario in which he doesn't get clipped at least once. No one at middleweight has withstood that experience yet.
Prediction: Cannonier via second-round TKO
Tai Tuivasa Snaps Losing Streak Against Stefan Struve
It seems like just a year ago that Tai Tuivasa was trending toward becoming a breakout star with his shoey celebration after a knockout win over Cyril Asker at UFC 221. Two fights later, he was taking on former champion Junior dos Santos in the main event.
JDS slowed the momentum with a second-round TKO of the Australian. Blagoy Ivanov and Sergey Spivak went ahead and took the train clean off the tracks with a decision and submission win over Tuivasa, respectively.
Ivanov turned out to be much too tough a striker to simply be turned away by Bam Bam's power. Spivak took Tuivasa into deep waters on the mat he clearly wasn't ready for.
Seven-footer Stefan Struve could pose a similar problem for Tuivasa. The lanky heavyweight is adept at locking in submissions with his long limbs.
Fortunately, he isn't much of a takedown artist. He hasn't taken an opponent down since 2016 and instead usually looks for submissions once someone already has him on the ground.
With that green light, this becomes a glorified kickboxing matchup. That should favor Tuivasa, who still packs a powerful punch and faces an opponent in Struve who has been knocked out eight times in his career.
Prediction: Tuivasa via first-round TKO