Khabib Nurmagomedov has a new challenge to the zero in his 28-0 record in the main event of UFC 254 in Justin Gaethje.
The Human Highlight has blazed a fun path to a lightweight title shot. The former World Series of Fighting champion bounced back from back-to-back losses to Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez to beat James Vick, Edson Barboza, Donald Cerrone and Tony Ferguson by TKO.
That's a stretch of opponents that would have most lightweight champions looking at longer odds than usual to maintain the belt around their waist. Nurmagomedov isn't a normal champion. He's an undefeated champion with his own list of impressive casualties.
Barboza, Poirer, Conor McGregor and Rafael dos Anjos are among those who have tried to give Nurmagomedov his first loss. None have come particularly close.
The Eagle hasn't just managed to beat everyone. He's done so while imposing his brand of dominance on each of them and rarely losing even a minute of a round. Gaethje trying to do that is one of the biggest storylines heading into the latest pay-per-view from Fight Island.
Main Card (2 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV)
- Khabib Nurmagomedov (c) -335 (bet $100 to win $29.85) vs. Justin Gaethje (ic) +265 (bet $100 to win $265)
- Jared Cannonier -110 vs. Robert Whittaker -110
- Alexander Volkov -190 vs. Walt Harris +150
- Phillip Hawes -250 vs. Jacob Malkoun +195
- Lauren Murphy -215 vs. Liliya Shakirova +170
- Magomed Ankalaev -335 vs. Ion Cutelaba +250
Prelims (Noon ET on ESPN2/ESPN+)
- Stefan Struve -112 vs. Tai Tuivasa -112
- Alex Oliveira -112 vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov -112
- Da-Un Jung -345 vs. Sam Alvey +260
Early Prelims (10:30 a.m. ET on Fight Pass)
- Casey Kenney -177 vs. Nathaniel Wood +140
- Miranda Maverick -400 vs. Liana Jojua +300
- Joel Alvarez -175 vs. Alexander Yakovlev +138
Odds via DraftKings Sportsbook
Can Gaethje Stay Upright Long Enough to Damage Nurmagomedov?
Justin Gaethje has openly admitted he didn't watch much tape of Khabib Nurmagomedov in preparation for their title fight. At this point, the Nurmagomedov plan is no secret.
"I didn't watch any tape on Khabib," Gaethje told Mike Heck of MMA Fighting. "I've watched his fights throughout his career because I'm a huge fan of everything. I've always focused on being my best self. He hasn't fought someone that's grappled as long as he has, I have. Everyone says they're ready, and I will not allow him to put me on the fence. If I do, then I'm screwed."
The Eagle's approach to opponents is one-size-fits-all. With a 28-0 record behind it, why would Gaethje expect to see anything different? Nurmagomedov is going to strike with him only as much as it takes to set up his takedowns and look to pulverize Gaethje like he has every other opponent.
The only question that really lies in the fight is what Gaethje can do to delay that takedown in each round and if it will be enough to do damage.
The interim champion is obviously among the most dangerous strikers in the division. McGregor was able to land 51 significant strikes in their bout that saw Nurmagomedov win by fourth-round submission. If Gaethje can find a way to increase that number by a bit it will be interesting to see what he does with the opportunity.
In all likelihood, he won't find the space to do that. He may be keenly aware of the need for distance in this fight, but so has virtually any other fighter Nurmagomedov has seen.
Prediction: Nurmgaomedov via decision
Can Whittaker Neutralize Cannonier's Power?
The co-main event pits two of the top contenders to Israel Adesanya's middleweight crown against each other. The tight odds indicate a close matchup on paper, and it appears it will play out that way for as long as it lasts.
Whittaker has a longer track record of greatness. The former welterweight has only lost to Adesanya as a middleweight and has a championship belt to his name.
But Cannonier has the more impressive win streak going. Since coming down to middleweight from heavyweight then light heavyweight, he has been a one-man wrecking crew. After losing three of four fights at 205 pounds, including losses to Dominick Reyes and current champion Jan Blachowicz, he has ripped off three straight stoppage wins.
Those have come against David Branch, Anderson Silva and Jack Hermansson. It isn't really about who he has beaten, though. It's about how he has beaten them.
Cannonier's power appears to have made the transition to middleweight while still cutting the necessary weight to move like a middleweight. The Killa Gorilla is a smooth striker who has shown one-punch knockout power in the division.
Whittaker is the more well-rounded striker, but the power Cannonier has can be the great equalizer. His knockout punches for Branch and Hermansson were both organic counters that were well-timed and fluid. Yet they melted both guys like he had thrown a wild haymaker.
The Reaper will have to find a way to avoid that right hand for three rounds if his superior kickboxing can carry him to a win. That's a long time to avoid getting clipped.
Prediction: Cannonier via second-round TKO
Are Volkov or Harris Still Relevant in the Heavyweight Division?
A former Bellator and M-1 Global heavyweight champion, Alexander Volkov came to the UFC with some recognition in other promotions. He lived up to that hype by starting off with a four-fight win streak that included wins over former champion Fabricio Werdum and Stefan Struve.
Walt Harris' UFC career started from much humbler beginnings. He was just 4-6 in his first 10 fights with the organization before a four-fight win streak (with his win against Andrei Arlovski later turned to a no contest) brought him to prominence.
Neither man was able to fully cash in on their momentum.
Volkov has now lost two of his three fights. The lone win came in a decision against Greg Hardy in a fight he arguably should have won by a wider margin.
The Big Ticket was last knocked out by Alistair Overeem in the second round of their main event fight in May.
The loser of this fight is going to have a hard time marketing themselves as a contender for the foreseeable future. The winner will have a shot at remaining relevant in the division, especially if they win in convincing fashion.
Volkov's recent losses have come against two opponents that own extreme weapons. Curtis Blaydes has some of the best takedowns in the division. Derrick Lewis's power is a fight changer.
Harris' possesses neither of those traits, at least not to the extent of Volkov's previous opponents. Harris' hands are relatively heavy, but he'll need to be the much better power-puncher to win this one. Volkov's length and movement are strengths that should be the deciding factors in an extended striking fight.
Prediction: Volkov via decision
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