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UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gaethje staff picks and predictions

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Check out the Bloody Elbow staff’s picks and predictions for Saturday’s ‘UFC 254 - ‘KHABIB VS GAETHJE’ card.

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The BE team has made its picks for UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi, and we are unsurprisingly very split on picking a winner between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje for the lightweight title. This is as difficult a fight as I can recall to pick out of Khabib’s entire career and that includes the Conor McGregor bout. As for the co-main, only yours truly is picking Jared Cannonier in the minor upset over former middleweight champ Robert Whittaker.

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje

Anton Tabuena: I think Gaethje’s best chance is to keep it in the center, and land those hard leg kicks very early to try and take away some of Khabib’s movement and explosiveness. That’s a lot easier said than done though. Gaethje has Division I wrestling credentials, but he hasn’t used it much for me to be confident about him surviving Khabib’s MMA wrestling. Like everyone else, I believe Gaethje will be able to stop the first couple of shots, but eventually succumb to the relentless takedown chains. Khabib Nurmagomedov by Submission.

Mookie Alexander: This is a hell of a time for me. I’ve picked against Khabib in his last two fights and I incorrectly picked Justin Gaethje’s first three UFC bouts, all while suggesting at the time that he didn’t have the style to ever really become champion. I seriously have no idea how to pick this fight. A lot of factors favor Gaethje: better striker, good at pressuring and countering, absurd chin, attacking legs, and a wrestling background that he never uses. He just might be Khabib’s kryptonite. And yet, it’s the unknown of Gaethje’s wrestling and grappling against someone of Khabib’s caliber that has me doubting him a bit. Nurmagomedov is seemingly always a step ahead of his opponents when he does establish control, and no matter how hard he prepares I don’t think Gaethje will be any different. With that said, if there are rounds to be won I think Gaethje can win them by staying in the center of the Octagon and peppering Khabib at range, where he’s less effective with his takedowns. I believe we’ll see both fighters have big moments in a back-and-forth affair, and we’ll heavily debate the scoring in the end. Khabib Nurmagomedov by split decision.

Victor Rodriguez: Gaethje’s presenting some problems to finally solve the Khabib riddle. For starters, he can pressure forward without being as concerned with takedowns. Khabib’s defense moving back is exploitable, especially for a guy with monster leg kicks and capable of attacking the body. Add to that the fact that Justin’s got farm strength and an interminable gas tank like Khabib does, and we’ve got ourselves a hell of a fight here. Justin Gaethje by TKO.

Ram Gilboa: I think Nurmagomedov has been largely figured out by now - his shoot to single, overhand to clinch, blitz to the fence, takedown against the cage, leg rides on the ground - the thing is, of course, no one has been able yet to stop him from doing his thing anyway. And I think Gaethje is the guy to do it. A highly capable wrestler in his own right, Gaethje has been mostly using his wrestling in reverse, and along with Gaethje’s newly found dancing shoes, I think the Dagestani champ will have a hard time getting Gaethje to the ground - and a hard time keeping him there, if he does manage the former. Meanwhile, Gaethje is going to pepper him with shots, hard ones, probably adding more and more kicks and knees as he feels safer from takedowns later on, as the results of the hard earned weight cut will might show some effects too. Justin Gaethje by TKO, round 4.

Zane Simon: I gotta see it to believe it. Gaethje’s got a great style to meet Khabib head on, and punish him for his clear striking flaws. He’s also shown some good takedown defense and quick get-ups in the UFC in those rare instances where he’s been called upon to use them. But, they have been very rare, and never with the determination that Khabib shows for implementing his own wrestling game. They also, reflexively, seem to involve Gaethje giving up his back as he stands. If he does that to Khabib, I just see Khabib pulling him down over and over and over again until he gets tired and the mistakes get bigger. Khabib Nurmagomedov via submission, round 3.

Staff picking Khabib: Mookie, Stephie, Anton, Zane, Lewis
Staff picking Gaethje: Phil, Victor, Dayne, Ram

Robert Whittaker vs. Jared Cannonier

Anton Tabuena: Cannonier has power, but I just think Rob is by far the more technical fighter here. Robert Whittaker by TKO.

Mookie Alexander: I guess I’ll be the dissenting voice. Something is not sitting right with me from Whittaker’s last two fights. If I can forgive the Adesanya fight solely because Izzy is Izzy, the Till fight was not a particularly impressive performance. I have a feeling that Whittaker has serious issues with strikes who have power and longer reach advantages. Cannonier doesn’t have nearly the depth to his game as Adesanya (no one really does, to be honest) and the same holds up for Till. He nevertheless is capable of knocking Whittaker out and I just have the feeling that he’ll be able to do it. Whittaker should win this just historically because he’s got his own power to put Cannonier away, but I’m sensing Cannonier’s run at 185 is no fluke at all. Jared Cannonier by TKO, round 2.

Phil Mackenzie: Cannonier has looked like an absolute physical force down at middleweight, defying expectations that a more skillful division would be rough for him- Silva and Hermansson both simply bounced off. Robert Whittaker seems like a different proposition, however. Against relatively static opponents he offers too much variegated offense and volume, and has thus far been tough enough to withstand the return fire unless he’s swangin’ himself out of position (Adesanya / Wonderboy). While it seems like a strange Romero-Machida dynamic, in that the younger man is more of a physical question mark at this stage due to the wars he’s been in, I think that standing in the pocket is just not the way to beat Whittaker. Robert Whittaker by unanimous decision.

Victor Rodriguez: Cannonier hits as hard as a Mack truck, we know that. But is he savvy enough to set up the kind of situations that allow for him to land those big bombs on Whittaker? To a degree, he’ll find some success. Cannonier’s a great athlete and a way smarter fighter than he’s given credit for, but I don’t know that this prepares him for a fighter as tough to actually hit like Whittaker. Jared’s forward pressure will be a concern for a bit, but Robert’s in-and-out game combined with his underrated wrestling and lovely punishes for guys that rush in should give Robert some great opportunities on offense. Bobby Knuckles by decision.

Ram Gilboa: Power is great but you can’t hit what isn’t there, right? Whitaker to zing and zig and zag, dodging enough of Cannonier’s cannon shells to hear Robert Whitaker by decision.

Zane Simon: I have some real fear that if Whittaker decides to wrestle Cannonier he’s going to walk right into a counter uppercut and get hurt bad. But, if he avoids that, he’s the much more mobile, consistent and higher output striker. Cannonier has big power, but he mostly stalks and throws occasional big 1-2s and low kicks. He’s never been a consistent counter threat. So as long as Whittaker stays active from range, this seems like a fight he can win. Robert Whittaker by decision.

Staff picking Whittaker: Stephie, Phil, Anton, Victor, Dayne, Ram, Zane, Lewis
Staff picking Cannonier: Mookie

Alexander Volkov vs. Walt Harris

Mookie Alexander: Harris is at his most dangerous in the opening round but beyond that he’s screwed if he can’t get a KO. Volkov can win with volume striking or clinch takedowns, at which point he’s way better on the ground than harris. Alexander Volkov by TKO, round 3.

Phil Mackenzie: As a pure striking match this has some interest to it: Harris works at a slower pace but has a pronounced power edge. But, like the Tuivasa fight below, I don’t trust it to stay on the feet. Harris is still an absolutely dismal grappler and Volkov will happily work for clinch takedowns, which should seal rounds (or even the fight) for him, and he’s still been very hard to put away with single shots. Alexander Volkov by unanimous decision.

Victor Rodriguez: While I worry about Volkov sniping Harris from the outside, dude got wrestled by Cheick Kongo ages ago. “But Victor, that was during the Obama administration!” True, but that guy isn’t as a good a wrestler as Harris is, nor was his ground striking as intense, frequent or smart as Harris’. Walt Harris by TKO.

Zane Simon: Walt Harris will almost certainly have a good, competitive first round. He may even hurt Volkov pretty badly there. But Volkov is still tough as hell to put away and is one of the few heavyweights capable of maintaining a serious pace for three solid rounds. Harris is not. If Harris can’t win big in round 1 he’s almost certainly going to lose the battle of volume. Alexander Volkov by decision.

Staff picking Volkov: Mookie, Stephie, Anton, Phil, Dayne, Zane
Staff picking Harris: Victor, Ram

Jacob Malkoun vs. Phil Hawes

Mookie Alexander: They put this on the main card as a showcase fight for Phil Hawes, who has finally reached enough of his potential to get into the UFC. Phil Hawes by TKO, round 1.

Phil Mackenzie: uh, this card falls off pretty quick? Hawes has enough raw power and wrestling chops that he should be able to blow Malkoun out of the water early, but he has not fared well against any kind of pushback in his career thus far. Phil Hawes by TKO, round 1.

Victor Rodriguez: Phil takes way more damage than I’m comfortable with, but this is also a bit of a step up for Jacob. No disrespect to the guy, I just don’t think he’s ready for an athlete of this caliber just yet. Phil Hawes by TKO.

Zane Simon: I like Malkoun’s boxing game, but his level of competition so far has been pretty low. And when it’s been any higher than the basement, his ability to pick up knockouts has vanished. Hawes still has some stiffness to his posture and his form standing, but he’s just an insane physical specimen. Someone who, if Malkoun can’t put him away, will probably take this fight down and start to dominate on the mats. Phil Hawes via TKO, round 2.

Staff picking Malkoun:
Staff picking Hawes: Mookie, Stephie, Phil, Anton, Victor, Dayne, Ram, Zane

Lauren Murphy vs. Liliya Shakirova

Mookie Alexander: It would’ve been better to just not have Murphy in this card and let her face Jessica Andrade in Vegas instead. Winner gets a title s hot. Oh well. Lauren Murphy by whatever she wants.

Phil Mackenzie: A power wrestling game could work against Murphy but she was able to give Sara McMann a tough fight up at bantamweight, and it seems like a 5’4 natural strawweight is not going to have quite the same physical pop? Lauren Murphy by TKO, round 2.

Victor Rodriguez: Dude, Murphy’s lost to better people than Shakirova’s beaten. Couple that with the fact that her work has improved significantly under John Crouch and she’s riding a strong second wind right now and this is a wash. Lauren Murphy by submission.

Zane Simon: I like the style Shakirova’s developing and I’m interested to see how she improves it over time. But at the moment, it’s still largely based on her just being a way better athlete than her opposition. When she does get pushback, her defense is still terribly raw, and when she’s keeping her own pace, she still doesn’t throw enough or make enough happen. Shakriova might be a fun fighter in 2 or 3 years, but right now, I think she’s just too unprepared for this. Lauren Murphy by decision.

Staff picking Murphy: Mookie, Stephie, Phil, Anton, Victor, Dayne, Ram, Zane
Staff picking Shakirova:

Magomed Ankalaev vs. Ion Cutelaba

Mookie Alexander: Cutelaba has about a couple of minutes to win this before he exhausts himself and loses. Or he could just lose quickly for real without any bad stoppage. Magomed Ankalaev by TKO, round 1.

Phil Mackenzie: Y’all know the drill: Cutelaba funny and angry, Ankalaev can do the wrestle, Cutelaba not good at the wrestle, please don’t get cancelled, etc and so forth. Magomed Ankalaev by submission, round 2.

Victor Rodriguez: Does Cutelaba have compromising photos of Mick Maynard in a fireproof safe somewhere? Is there really no one else for either guy to fight? Ugh. Why should this be any different from the previous encounter. Whatever. Magomed Ankalaev by TKO.

Ram Gilboa: This is probably not a good match-up for Cutelaba or the audience. Magomed Ankalev by decision.

Zane SImon: I feel like I’ve been over this fight 20 times now. Ankalaev is just... better? At... everything? Magomed Ankalaev via TKO, round 2.

Staff picking Ankalaev: Mookie, Stephie, Phil, Anton, Victor, Dayne, Ram, Zane
Staff picking Cutelaba:

Stefan Struve vs. Tai Tuivasa

Mookie Alexander: Why? Tai Tuivasa by TKO, round 2.

Phil Mackenzie: Cripes. Not a good fight, although I thought that Struve actually looked decent against Rothwell before getting TKOd via dick kick. If he can enforce at least that kind of distance, then he should be able to catch Tuivasa when he crashes in and toss him on the mat and smash him. Stefan Struve via TKO, round 2.

Victor Rodriguez: Tai Tuivasa hits hard but has shown himself to be surprisingly limited. Struve has had tons of brain farts but also has a more than competent ground game with some power of his own. It’s peak heavyweight, you can’t trust either guy. But I have to go with the guy that has more avenues to win even if it’s in the most chaotic division possible. Stefan Struve by TKO, I guess.

Zane Simon: Either Struve gets KO’d instantly or Tuivasa burns all his energy and gets subbed while draped in Struve’s guard. I’ll take the former, but the latter wouldn’t surprise at all. Tai Tuivasa via KO, round 1.

Staff picking Struve: Phil, Anton, Victor, Ram
Staff picking Tuivasa: Mookie, Stephie, Dayne, Zane

Alex Oliveira vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov

Phil Mackenzie: Rakhmonov is an interesting case: a fairly experienced young fighter at 26, who has shown the ability to battle through tough spots and pick up finishes, a bit like Michal Oleksiejczuk. He’ll need that here, and I’d be more hopeful of his chances if Oliveira hadn’t looked quite so clinical against Sobotta. Alex Oliveira by TKO, round 1.

Victor Rodriguez: Rakhmonov is a razor with his submission attempts and is one of those lanky dudes that seems to catch guys off guard with how hard he hits. His ground strikes are good, his standup game has polish. Oliveira’s still got underrated striking and farm strength, but missing weight and looking a bit iffish as of late gives me no confidence in his chances here. Shavkat Rakhmonov by TKO.

Zane Simon: This fight will tell us a hell of a lot about Rakhmonov. The former M-1 champ is used to being the dominant athlete in the cage, will someone like Oliveira, who’s a fearsome finisher with speed and power in his own right take all the edge off Rakhmonov’s game? Or will the fact that Oliveira tends to break against fighters who can take all his best shots and keep coming come back to haunt him once again, against a fighter used to being the champ who makes people break? I’m betting on the former, frankly. Or at the very least, that Oliveira is dangerous enough early to win the first two rounds. And Rakhmonov won’t be active enough in round 3 to finish him. Alex Oliveira via decision.

Staff picking Oliveira: Mookie, Stephie, Anton, Dayne, Zane
Staff picking Rakhmonov: Victor, Ram

Da Un Jung vs. Sam Alvey

Phil Mackenzie: Alvey is very bad now and Jung is a decent counterpuncher. This could make for a dull fight but at this point everyone seems to know that if you want to hit Alvey, you can. Da Un Jung by TKO, round 1.

Victor Rodriguez: Alvey’s been figured out, man. Outwork him and avoid the big right counter, and (Scott Steiner voice) “chances of winning drastic go down”. Korean dude is way suited for this task. Da Un Jung by decision.

Zane Simon: Da Un Jung does something else other than sit right in the pocket and trade single big strikes, so he should have this one. As long as he’s willing to stay out at range, use his kicks and fight behind his jab, Alvey has rarely had answers to that kind of consistency. Da Un Jung by decision.

Staff picking Jung: Mookie, Stephie, Phil, Anton, Victor, Dayne, Ram, Zane
Staff picking Alvey:

Nathaniel Wood vs. Casey Kenney

Phil Mackenzie: At worst the third best fight on this card, what is this doing all the way down here? Lots to be excited about - Wood is essentially the evolved form of his mentor Brad Pickett, with a more functional jab and combination striking game, whereas Kenney showed impressive growth in his striking last time out. Both are skilled wrestlers and dangerous on the mat, Wood has a power edge on the feet, and Kenney probably has the technical wrestling edge. Should be an absolute banger. Nathaniel Wood by unanimous decision.

Victor Rodriguez: I’m worried about this because Wood is such a great prospect and Casey’s wrestleboxing is a concern for a lot of people in this division. Wood’s talented, but Kenney may be a step ahead of him in terms of being able to control the pace of the fight and could earn him more favor with the judges. Casey Kenney by decision.

Zane Simon: There’s something about Wood’s game that still just hasn’t quite convinced me. I think it’s mostly his defensive posture and hit-ability from range. For a fighter who leans on his muay thai stylings as much as Wood does, there’s just a certain ‘mechanical’ feel to his delivery. And it often seems like he ends up having to rely on his takedown and grappling game to keep that from becoming a bigger liability (like it did against Dodson). Kenney isn’t the cleanest striker, but he’s shown himself to have a better and better mind for landing power shots and getting out of range for the return. Like Wood, he can keep a wickedly high pace. And when fights hit the ground he’s proven to be an insanely durable and thriving scrambler. My guess is Kenney will do just enough standing against Wood to force Wood to try and out-wrestle him. And that’s where Kenney’s game will get a chance to take over. Casey Kenney by decision.

Staff picking Wood: Anton, Phil, Ram
Staff picking Kenney: Mookie, Stephie, Victor, Dayne, Zane

Liana Jojua vs. Miranda Maverick

Victor Rodriguez: Maverick is a dogged grappler that loves to throw hands, and I don’t see Liana posing any major threat anywhere. Especially not against a more complete athlete. Miranda Maverick by submission.

Zane Simon: Jojua seemed pretty fortunate to pick up that last win. And all the armbars on her record have me thinking she’ll be more than happy to drop and play guard against an aggressive top game. As long as Maverick can keep her elbows safe, she should have a clear path to victory. Miranda Maverick by decision.

Staff picking Jojua:
Staff picking Maverick: Mookie, Stephie, Anton, Phil, Victor, Dayne, Ram, Zane

Joel Alvarez vs. Alexander Yakovlev

Victor Rodriguez: Yakovlev is a smart and strong grappler, but I’ve got a hunch that Alvarez and his submission hunting will create problems for him. Joel Alvarez by submission.

Zane Simon: Alvarez is proving a lot better than I thought he’d be in the UFC given his rangy single-strike offense and guard grappling attack. The more I see of him though, the more he feels like he’s picking up what Leo Santos is putting down. And that’s hard to deal with. Yakovlev has some talent everywhere, but he’s never really been able to put it together into a fight-winning style at the UFC level. Seems likely Alvarez will force him to shoot, and find the sub from there. Joel Alvarez by submission, round 2.

Staff picking Alvarez: Mookie, Stephie, Victor, Zane
Staff picking Yakovlev: Anton, Phil, Dayne, Ram

Poll

Who wins?

This poll is closed

  • 51%
    Khabib Nurmagomedov
    (410 votes)
  • 48%
    Justin Gaethje
    (393 votes)
803 votes total Vote Now