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Diggin’ Deep on UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gaethje - Main card preview

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Get the lowdown on the main card action of UFC 254, featuring a potential title eliminator between former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker and KO artist Jared Cannonier.

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Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Outside of the UFC 254 main event – possibly the most anticipated contest of the year – I’ve seen a lot of people crapping all over the rest of the main card. Usually, I’m more pessimistic than optimistic in my evaluation, needing to take a deep look to find the positives in the card. And yet, I find myself having a higher opinion of this card than those that I’ve come across. The co-main event between former middleweight champion and Jared Cannonier could very well determine Israel Adesanya’s next opponent. There’s no guarantee Alexander Volkov and Walt Harris will be a barnburner – it is a heavyweight contest after all – but I like the chances of it being an entertaining contest. Plus, it looks like the rematch between Ion Cutelaba and Magomed Ankalaev is finally going to come to fruition. It isn’t a stack PPV main card, but it is certainly a passable one.

Robert Whittaker vs. Jared Cannonier, Middleweight

MMA is a fickle sport from a fans point of view. Of course, given most fighters appear roughly two times a year on average, it’s understandable why fans’ recency bias plays into fighting more than it does with other sports. However, fans have not just Whittaker’s tepid performance against Darren Till in their mind, his previous contest from that saw him lose his belt to Adesanya in lopsided fashion. What fans need to do is take a look at his four previous contests and they would realize two things. 1. Whittaker is good. Very good. 2. Whittaker is fun to watch. A lot of fun.

Even with his poor performance against Adesanya and a less than thrilling win over Till, there is proof Whittaker is still improving. He is still south of 30 after all. Whittaker still has a nice burst, excellent combination boxing, and insane toughness. However, against Till, he nailed a couple of perfectly time takedown, a strong indication he’s looking to make the threat of a takedown a permanent part of his arsenal. Given Cannonier has never been much of a wrestler himself, that’s a development that is very favorable to Whittaker.

To be fair to Cannonier, he has been much more effective at stopping takedowns since making the move down to 185, allowing opponents to secure their takedowns on just a quarter of their attempts. Of course, none of those opponents have been known for their wrestling abilities… just like Whittaker. Cannonier’s confidence at stuffing those takedowns has allowed him to execute his simplistic plan to take no prisoners. With his insane power, Cannonier walks down his opposition. He’s also been able to maintain most of his core strength, making him difficult to deal with should he get his mitts on Whittaker in the clinch.

This isn’t a difficult contest to break down… at least what it will look like. Whittaker is going to stay on the outside, looking to pick apart Cannonier as the hard-hitting American stalks him. The outcome is dependent upon whether Whittaker can avoid Cannonier landing a clean shot. While Cannonier has looked like a different animal at middleweight, it has less to do with significant technical strides and more to do with him no longer being concerned about being the smaller fighter. Whittaker’s footwork and ability to take the proper angles has long been a strength. Plus, Whittaker has shown the ability to take a hell of a shot from his contests with Yoel Romero. Cannonier might be able to land a big shot, but it won’t be a guarantee he’ll finish Whittaker. I see the Aussie picking apart Cannonier in two rounds. Whittaker via decision

Alexander Volkov vs. Walt Harris, Heavyweight

It’s easy to forget how close Volkov potentially came to fighting for UFC gold. In October 2018, Volkov was thisclose to defeating Derrick Lewis before the Black Beast pulled out a miracle finish when Volkov was 11 seconds from a decision victory. Lewis would go on to fight for the title the next month, whereas Volkov would go on to fight Greg Hardy next. Damn.

I mention this to give an idea of Volkov’s abilities as many seem overlook how good the former Bellator champion is. At 6’7” with an 80” reach, he offers a unique puzzle for his opponents to solve as he utilizes his length better than most. It was primarily his length that put him ahead of Lewis on the judges’ scorecards. Of course, it can be hard to generate the typical KO power possessed by the rest of the roster, meaning Volkov generally needs to play a game of keep-away once he’s jumped out to an early lead behind his jab. Not that Volkov doesn’t have any power, but his stops haven’t come as suddenly and quickly as it has for the rest of the heavyweight elites, a plethora of volume typically required to do the trick for Volkov.

Harris is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Volkov. While not quite as scary as Francis Ngannou, it could be argued there isn’t a better one-shot artist on the roster than Harris. In a land full of lumbering giants, Harris is an exceptional athlete, and I don’t just mean for heavyweight. That athleticism was the focal point of his flying knee KO of Aleksei Oleinik, adding a layer most heavyweights aren’t accustomed to dealing with. He has also added other aspects to his game that have allowed him to add supplemental volume through a jab in case the KO doesn’t come. However, Harris also tends to blow his wad – my favorite Joe Roganism – looking for the finish the moment he has hurt an opponent. It left him susceptible to Alistair Overeem in his most recent showing as he couldn’t finish the job. In other words, Harris stands little chance of winning a decision.

The primary weakness of Volkov that is on the minds of most is his takedown defense. That happens when you’ve been taken down 14 times in your previous contest. Of course, it was also a five round contest against Curtis Blaydes. Volkov’s takedown defense isn’t as bad as advertised, but more telling is Harris’ lack of interest in wrestling, securing a total of two takedowns over his 14 fight UFC career. If Harris at least offered Volkov something to thing about besides his power, I’d be inclined to say he could catch Volkov with something powerful before the fight goes to decision. As it is, I’m more liable to trust Volkov to secure a comfortable decision. Volkov via TKO of RD3

Lauren Murphy vs. Liliya Shakirova, Women’s Flyweight

The week and a half heading into the card for Murphy was about as bad as it can get. Her contest with Cynthia Calvillo looked like it could be a #1 contender’s bout. Instead, Calvillo was forced to withdraw due to a positive COVID-19 test. A replacement was found quickly in Shakirova, leaving the possibility Murphy could still earn a shot at Valentina Shevchenko’s title with a strong performance. Then Jessica Andrade blows the doors off of former title challenger Katlyn Chookagian and it looks like Murphy’s opportunity is blown even before she gets a chance to step into the cage. Ouch.

Granted, Murphy does appear to be at the peak of her powers, continuing to show growth and improvement after a time when it appeared her career had stalled. It can’t be denied that part of that success can be attributed to her move down to flyweight as her wrestling and overall physicality translated better when she wasn’t the smaller person in the cage. However, Murphy has also become a better technician, particularly in her striking, sitting down on her punches to show more power.

Shakirova offers a lot of promise, showing an incredible amount of veteran poise that one usually doesn’t see in someone as young as her. Of course, it could work against her as there is often times little urgency as she knows she is the more talented fighter in the cage. Coming into the UFC, that won’t always be the case. Shakirova may have more raw talent than Murphy and doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses as she comes into the promotion, but she has also faced a much lower level of competition without always dominating. Murphy is a big step up from what she has been facing. Murphy via TKO of RD3

Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba, Light Heavyweight

We’ve seen this fight before… and nobody should mind seeing it again. An early stoppage tainted it the first time around that awarded Ankalaev a quick victory, though no one will deny Cutelaba certainly looked wobbled. Perhaps he was too good of an actor? Will it play out in a similar manner the second time around?

It’s hard to believe much will change about how each fighter approaches the contest. Ankalaev is the more methodical of the two and will look to counter Cutelaba’s aggression. An explanation that simple makes it sound like Cutelaba is a dumb fighter, but his approach has been largely successful as it plays to his strengths. A plus athlete, Cutelaba’s power and strength are his most impressive features. His power double is amongst the most difficult to stop in the division. Couple that with his devastating GnP and there are plenty of wins for the Moldovan to be had.

Ankalaev, one of the more understated prospects in the UFC, has an innate ability to take what his opponent gives him. If he sees an opening for a jab, he’ll thrust it in there. If a leg is out there to be grabbed for the takedown, he’ll latch onto it. However, he’s becoming a major proponent of head kicks, nailing Cutelaba with several of them in the seconds that their contest lasted. The issue with Ankalaev’s approach is that it can be incredibly boring if his opponent isn’t giving him anything to work with. However, Ankalaev’s most impressive feature remains his GnP. While not as aggressive as Cutelaba’s, it is more efficient and may even be more brutal.

Cutelaba’s style is high risk, high reward. However, Ankalaev’s style is designed perfectly to counter what Cutelaba does… at least on the feet. Ankalaev is extremely difficult to takedown, but Cutelaba may want to look at the possibility of takedowns right off the bat to at least give Ankalaev something to think about. Whether Cutelaba does or not, I still favor Ankalaev to pick him apart. Even if Cutelaba finds a way to make it work, this fight isn’t going to a decision. Ankalaev via TKO of RD1

  • How the hell did Phil Hawes and Jacob Malkoun end up on the main card? No disrespect to them – both could whoop my ass with one arm tied behind their back – but neither has an official UFC appearance on their ledger, nor are they considered to be surefire prospects. Hawes was thought to be a super prospect at one point, but a pair of losses quashed much of the hype around the former NCAA wrestling champion. Hawes has developed a threatening striking game to compliment his ground attack, but there are still questions abounding his striking defense and ability to go deep into fights. Malkoun’s claim to fame is being the sparring partner of the aforementioned Whittaker, but hasn’t fought enough to prove he’s even deserving of his UFC opportunity. He does have fast hands and some solid grappling accolades, but his athleticism appears to be limited and his ability to stop takedowns is untested. It’s sure to be tested by Hawes and I don’t see Malkoun being ready for it. Hawes via decision