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UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gaethje results and post-fight analysis

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Mookie Alexander recaps and analyzes all the action from UFC 254 in Abu Dhabi.

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Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

I am pretty comfortable with calling UFC 254 one of the best pay-per-views I’ve ever watched from top to bottom. That was a kickass card. The main event featured an incredible finish by Khabib Nurmagomedov to choke Justin Gaethje unconscious, and then the real shocker was his decision to leave his gloves in the cage and announce his retirement from MMA. He’s the second UFC champ to do that this year, but unlike Henry Cejudo, I tend to believe Khabib might be retired for real. His late father and trainer Abdulmanap meant so much to him and the emotional post-fight interview really emphasized that.

If this is it for Khabib, it’s been a somewhat complicated career in the sense that he lost so much time due to injuries that we have been robbed of seeing more of his greatness over the years. But when he was in the cage? He was great. A freak of nature. He went toe-to-toe with Justin Gaethje and held his own on the feet, all while pressuring him pretty consistently. Then he made Gaethje look like he’d never grappled a day in his life when he took him to the ground. Submitting Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier, and Justin Gaethje back-to-back-to-back is legendary shit. He is an all-time great. I won’t get into a discussion about him being the single greatest or most dominant fighter, but I do know I’ll miss seeing him in the cage.

Oh yeah, and thumbs down to Jason Herzog. He’s normally a very good referee but that was an embarrassing miss. Gaethje must have tapped like 15 times and he somehow didn’t see it when he absolutely had a clear view.

More thoughts below:

Main Card

  • That’s the Bobby Knuckles I remember! Robert Whittaker was in fine form against Jared Cannonier, with his jab and 1-2s working and his head kick providing the biggest moment of the entire fight. Cannonier was on jelly legs when Whittaker landed that head kick after throwing the right hand, and full credit to Jared for recovering and eventually hurting Whittaker at the end of the third round. Whittaker got the deserved unanimous decision in what was a really entertaining bout, and I certainly shouldn’t sell short the effectiveness of Cannonier’s leg kicks. Ultimately, Whittaker is the better overall striker and he is likely going to get a rematch against Israel Adesanya.
  • With that said... a rematch with Izzy probably still ends very badly for him. I’m just happy that Whittaker looked like himself again, at least offensively.
  • Alexander Volkov landed a brutal kick to Walt Harris’ tummy and that was all she wrote early in round two. Volkov had hurt Harris in round one with a jab and otherwise outclassed Walt on the feet. It’s a good way for Volkov to return to the win column after his outing against Curtis Blaydes, but it’s tough for Harris to drop to 0-2 since the death of his stepdaughter. From the context of his fighting career, it’s a long way back for Walt in terms of the title picture.
  • Middleweight Phil Hawes demolished Jacob Malkouin in 18 seconds with a lightning quick combination. Not much more to add to that apart from Hawes being a freak athlete who went from a disappointment to a highly touted prospect who is finally hitting his stride. Good for him and I hope he keeps up his progress.
  • Lauren Murphy extended her win streak to four with a rear-naked choke finish of late replacement Liliya Shakirova. It’s Murphy’s first ever submission victory and while it would’ve been way better to see her take on Cynthia Calvillo as scheduled, she’s still no more than one win away from getting a flyweight title shot. Murphy’s career turnaround really has been impressive.
  • Welp. No early stoppage controversy this time. Magomed Ankalaev knocked Ion Cutelaba out stiff in the rematch and it was nasty. If the first fight was an early stoppage, the rematch was late because Cutelaba was out after the knockdown and then extra out after the ground shots. Five straight wins for Ankalaev should put him in prime position for bigger matchups down the line.

Preliminary Card

  • Stefan Struve retired once before and I really really hope he retires for good. Tai Tuivasa’s uppercut towards the end of round one had “The Skyscraper” collapsing and down in a heap once again. That’s eight knockout or TKO defeats in his UFC career and in more recent times he’s also mixed in losing dreadful decisions. He’s spent the better part of 11 years getting knocked out and heavyweight is absolutely not the division to be a non-contender while getting consistently domed by heavy-hitters. Tuivasa ends a three-fight losing skid and keeps his spot on the roster (presumably).
  • Coming into today, Casey Kenney vs. Nathaniel Wood was easily my favorite fight on the card outside of the main event, and man did these two deliver. To quote Tim Burke from the Bloody Elbow chat room, that first round was “like it’s in fast forward.” Even when the pace slowed down it was still fascinating viewing and Kenney was the deserved winner. This was a catchweight but just sit back and realize that these were two unranked bantamweights. Kenney is a name to watch in 2021 as far as making a serious push for title contention.
  • The rise of Kazakh MMA continues to be something worth monitoring! Shavkat Rakhmonov pulled off a sick guillotine choke on welterweight veteran Alex Oliveira for an opening round win. He hurt Oliveira earlier in the round with a big knee and looked really calm and composed outside of the first few seconds.
  • This is not a misprint: Sam Alvey had an entertaining 15-minute fight. Unfortunately for Alvey, he was unlucky to end up with a split draw vs. Da Un Jung, who had a spirited third-round rally by dropping Alvey with a right elbow that would be the key to hurting Alvey more in that frame and getting a 10-8 to make it a draw. Frankly I thought Alvey clearly won the first two rounds but didn’t see round three as a 10-8, but I’m just glad that Alvey finally upped his volume and we didn’t get an unwatchable mess.
  • Miranda Maverick’s UFC debut couldn’t have been any better. She took apart Llana Jojua with her striking and used a sharp elbow to bust up her nose and get the doctor’s stoppage at the end of round one. To be honest, that probably could’ve continued and I wonder if we get a stoppage if those were men fighting, but it was no doubt a very bloody cut and they couldn’t get it to stop.
  • You don’t want to mess around with Joel Alvarez’s guard. Alexander Yakovlev found out the hard way and had his arm taken early in round one of the card’s opener. Alvarez has 16 of 18 wins by submission and now all five of Yakovlev’s stoppage defeats have come by armbar.