Saturday in Abu Dhabi, the most dominant champion in the UFC meets arguably the toughest test of his career when lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov battles interim champ Justin Gaethje. The fight will serve as the main event of the UFC 254 pay-per-view, which emanates from Fight Island.
Twenty-eight men have tried and 28 have failed as Nurmagomedov enters the bout undefeated in his career while utilizing his superior wrestling game. He has notable wins over Dustin Poirier, Al Iaquinta, Edson Barboza, Rafael dos Anjos and, of course, Conor McGregor. Gaethje, meanwhile, has been his own wrecking ball of violence. "The Highlight" has yet to reach the judges' scorecards in seven UFC fights since 2017 and has recorded four straight knockouts.
Plus, the co-main event sees a de facto middleweight title eliminator take place as former champ Robert Whittaker takes on veteran Jared Cannonier. Whittaker rebounded nicely from his TKO loss to Israel Adesanya with a decision win over Darren Till earlier this summer. Cannonier, meanwhile, has won three straight since dropping to 185 pounds, but none of his opponents have been the level of Whittaker.
But this card is much deeper than the main event. Let's take a look at every bout on the six-fight main card, with odds below provided via William Hill Sportsbook.
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Magomed Ankalaev -330 vs. Ion Cutelaba +260, light heavyweights: Ankalaev (14-1) defeated Cutelaba (15-5) just 38 seconds into their first meeting in February. The finish was controversial, with the referee stopping the fight despite Cutelaba seemingly being fine to continue and actively throwing return fire at the time of the stoppage. The UFC attempted to rebook the fight for UFC 249 in Brooklyn, but the event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the fight was moved to UFC 252 before being scrapped again when Cutelaba tested positive for the coronavirus. An attempt to make the fight two weeks later on a Fight Night card fell through when Cutelaba's COVID test again came back positive, so the promotion was forced once again to bump the matchup, this time to Saturday's card. Ankalaev will bring a four-fight winning streak to the Octagon while Cutelaba is 2-2 since 2018.
Lauren Murphy -195 vs. Liliya Shakirova +165, women's flyweights: Murphy (13-4) is on the best run of her UFC career, entering UFC 254 on a three-fight winning streak. She signed with the promotion with a perfect 8-0 record but dropped her first two fights in the Octagon and four of her first six. Shakirova (8-1) is making her UFC debut at the event, having won her three most recent fights. Four of Shakirova's eight career victories have come via some form of stoppage, but Murphy has yet to be stopped in her professional career.
Phil Hawes -260 vs. Jacob Malkoun +210, middleweights: Malkoun (4-0) is a longtime training partner of Robert Whittaker, and has a strong grappling resume while also holding a 3-0 record as a pro boxer. With that well-rounded base, Malkoun has picked up two wins by decision and two by knockout. Whittaker has called Malkoun "the next biggest thing in the UFC." Hawes (8-2) was knocked out with a head kick in his first appearance on Dana White's Contender Series, but was given another shot on the show after picking up three wins on the regional circuit and punched his ticket to the Octagon with a 78-second TKO. Hawes has never seen the judges' scorecards in his 10 career fights, scoring six knockouts and two submissions while losing once by each form of stoppage.
Alexander Volkov -180 vs. Walt Harris +155, heavyweights: Harris (13-8) is coming off a crushing TKO loss to Alistair Overeem, a loss made all the more difficult as it marked Harris' first fight since the abduction and murder of his stepdaughter. The loss also snapped a three-fight winning streak that had Harris inching toward title contention. All 13 of his pro victories have come via form of knockout. Volkov (31-8) had been similarly close to title contention before an October 2018 bout where he was knocked out by Derrick Lewis with Volkov just 11 seconds from winning a decision. He rebounded with a win over Greg Hardy but suffered a disappointing, lackluster decision loss to Curtis Blaydes in his most recent fight.
Jared Cannonier -115 vs. Robert Whittaker -105, middleweights: Cannonier (13-4) started his UFC career at heavyweight before moving down to light heavyweight and, eventually, middleweight. At 185 pounds, however, is where Cannonier has found his greatest success, going on a three-fight winning streak since moving to the division. That run includes TKO wins over MMA legend Anderson Silva and heavily-favored Jack Hermansson. The Hermansson win came in September 2019, but a torn pectoral muscle put him on the shelf until the fight with Whittaker was finally able to be set up. Whittaker (21-5) is coming off a July win over Darren Till, a victory that helped him rebound from a TKO loss to Israel Adesanya that cost Whittaker the middleweight title he'd held since July 2017. Whittaker has won 10 of his 11 most recent fights and has finished 67 percent of his victories inside the distance.
Khabib Nurmagomedov (c) -330 vs. Justin Gaethje (ic) +260, lightweight championship: Nurmagomedov (28-0) is the sport's current pound-for-pound king. His dominant wrestling game has been a puzzle no one has been able to solve through 28 career fights. After nine UFC victories, Nurmagomedov defeated late-replacement opponent Al Iaquinta to win the then-vacant lightweight championship. Two dominant defenses followed with submissions of Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier. Nurmagomedov's career plan has been to retire undefeated at 30-0, which would only require victories over Gaethje and one other man to achieve. Things will be different in the Nurmagomedov corner this fight, however, as Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, Khabib's father and longtime coach, died earlier this year after COVID-19-related complications.
Gaethje (22-2) is coming off a career-best performance, scoring a fifth-round TKO of top contender Tony Ferguson to capture the interim lightweight championship. The victory ran his current winning streak to four, all by knockout, rebounding from back-to-back losses that were the first suffered in his career. Despite a strong wrestling background, Gaethje has become an almost pure knockout artist, scoring 19 knockouts in 22 career victories. His two losses have both come via TKO late in the fight.
Who will win Nurmagomedov vs. Gaethje, and how will every fight end? Visit SportsLine now to get detailed picks on every fight at UFC 254, all from the incomparable expert who's up more than $20,000 on MMA and has nailed 22 of the last 28 main events.