MMA Junkie analyst Dan Tom breaks down the UFC’s top bouts. Today, we look at the main event for UFC 254.

UFC 254 takes place Saturday at Flash Forum at Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. The main card airs on pay-per-view following prelims on ESPN2/ESPN+ and early prelims on UFC Fight Pass/ESPN+.

Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0 MMA, 12-0 UFC)

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’10” Age: 32 Weight: 155 lbs. Reach: 70″
  • Last fight: Submission win over Dustin Poirier(Sep. 7, 2019)
  • Camp: American Kickboxing Academy (San Jose, Calif.)
  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing
  • Risk management: Fair

Supplemental info:

+ UFC lightweight champion
+ 2x world sambo champion
+ 2x Russian combat sambo champion
+ M-1 Selection champion
+ 8 KO victories
+ 10 submission wins
+ 10 first-round finishes
+ Aggressive pace and pressure
+ Improved striking game
^ Active jab and underrated kicks
+ Strong inside the clinch
^ Superb underhook awareness
+ Diverse takedown acumen
^ Chains attempts well from fence
+ Excellent transitional grappler
^ Relentless rides and advancements

Justin Gaethje (22-2 MMA, 5-2 UFC)

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’11” Age: 31 Weight: 155 lbs. Reach: 70″
  • Last fight: TKO win over Tony Ferguson(May 9, 2020)
  • Camp: Elevation Fight Team (Denver, Co.)
  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing
  • Risk management: Fair

Supplemental info:

+ Interim UFC lightweight champion
+ WSOF lightweight title
+ NCAA Division 1 All-American wrestler
+ 19 KO victories
+ 1 submission win
+ 9 first-round finishes
+ KO power
+ Aggressive pace and pressure
+ Improved striking acumen
^ Shifting combos and counters
+ Accurate left hook
+ Hard leg kicks
+ Strong inside the clinch
^ Heavy hips and good dirty boxing
+ Strikes well off the break
+ Excellent wrestling and scrambling ability

Point of interest: Ring of fire

Justin Gaethje, blue gloves, hit Tony Ferguson at UFC 249.

The UFC 254 main event features a fantastic lightweight title fight between two men who have proven to be fearless when it comes to throwing themselves into the proverbial fires on the feet.

Although the sitting lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov typically concedes a striking advantage on paper, he has continued to carry on undefeated, showing signs of improvement along the way.

An aggressive combat sambo champion who stormed onto the UFC stage, Nurmagomedov – who was initially a wild man unafraid to throw himself out of position – now displays a much more competent game than before.

Incorporating a decent dose of feints, the 32-year-old Dagestani draws out his opponents’ reactions so that he can create openings for his approach. From throwing shovel hooks to overhand rights, it is both Nurmagomedov’s confidence and commitment to his punches that make them so effective and potent.

In his battle with Edson Barboza, we saw Nurmagomedov tighten up his defenses, demonstrating a tighter shell and smoother flow than we’re accustomed to seeing from him. But in his fight with Al Iaquinta, Nurmagomedov played it much more fast and loose on the feet, keeping a lower guard and allowing for exchanges that were arguably unnecessary.

Nurmagomedov did show a solid jab from that fight onward, but exchanging for prolonged periods is still not something that will behoove the defending champion against a malevolent, hell-riding slugger like Justin Gaethje.

A man who likely owns the most violent and financially fruitful four-fight start in UFC history, Gaethje has proven to be highlight-reel material, win or lose.

Stepping onto the scene as a relentless forward mover, Gaethje naturally embodies the phrase “a bull in a China shop” with his unabashed aggression and hard-wiring to inflict damage. Traditionally doing his best work when initiating attacks, Gaethje will gain his opponent’s respect with hard hooks and crosses, looking to punctuate his presence with crushing uppercuts and leg kicks when appropriate.

Similar to a Spartan behind his shield in a phalanx, Gaethje can lean heavily upon his double-forearm guard, planting and looking to counter with immediacy.

Outside of his shelling defense, the 31-year-old sometimes has shown little regard for what comes back at him in the past, something that is reflected by his statistics in the strikes absorbed department. That said, Gaethje – under the tutelage of longtime coach Trevor Wittman – has shown improvements in his feints, footwork and fundamentals since sustaining back-to-back losses to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier.

And in his last fight against Tony Ferguson, Gaethje took things to another level in the head movement and counter-striking department, putting together an intelligent process that still incorporates the interim champion’s inherent power and pressure. Whether Gaethje is countering off of an inside parry or looking to roll under hooks to deliver left hands of his own, the hard-hitting American will be live for as long as he can plant his feet.

Point of interest: Wrestling battles vs. wrestling wars

Khabib Nurmagomedov, red gloves, on top of Dustin Porier at UFC 242. (Per Haljestam, USA TODAY Sports)

Given Gaethje’s on-paper edges within the striking realm, it’s hard to imagine a world where Nurmagomedov goes against his stated game plan of ground warfare. But in order to get things to the floor, the former sambo champion will first need to show the ability to win wrestling exchanges, which – against Gaethje – is easier said than done.

An unforgiving clinch fighter, the former Division I All-American wrestler has the hip triggers to stop deep takedown attempts while still maintaining the aggressive wherewithal to throw uppercuts and leg kicks in small spaces, consistently striking and making his opposition pay off the breaks (from either stance). Gaethje also does a good job at framing off his opponent’s hips in close quarters, utilizing solid head position to help steer in his desired direction.

Whenever Gaethje’s opposition has been able to get deep on a takedown attempt, he is quick to utilize an overhook as he looks to separate grips with his spare hand, bellying down when necessary. Although there is nothing wrong with this defense from a fundamental standpoint, I’m still not entirely sure how much underhook play Gaethje will want to give a guy like Nurmagomedov.

Primarily predicating his offense off of the establishment of an underhook or the grasp of a lower extremity, Nurmagomedov is OK with failing on his first shot so that he can push his opposition toward the fence. Even on the occasion of an opponent establishing an underhook of their own, Nurmagomedov is quick to collapse the perceived leverage point, often looking to tip opposition to that very same side.

Whether Nurmagomedov is hitting trips and tosses from the bodylock or going through his single-leg repertoire of high-crotch lifts to crackdowns, the Dagestani fighter can chain through it all so long as he can work from the fence. And if he is able to break through the American’s first layer of defense to get him down, then Nurmagomedov’s style of positional rides should have a lot of play against the folk-style wrestling tactics that fuel Gaethje’s get-up sensibilities.

Typically resetting his base through tripod variations to stand, Gaethje could end up giving Nurmagomedov what he wants in regards to getting a lock around his hips.

Even when opponents use this position to entice bad back-takes in transition, Nurmagomedov is too smart to take the bait, as he instead opts to shuck his opponent forward, keeping them heavy on their hands. Not only does this approach preoccupy limbs in an exhausting fashion, but it also allows Nurmagomedov the luxury of more secure entries to a back mount.

But if a fighter doesn’t make it that far off of the mat, then that probably means that Nurmagomedov is crushing their spirits through unforgiving wrist-rides, looking to pick posts and collapse their base anytime they attempt to stand (all while making time to both squawk and strike at his caught prey, of course).

I will, however, be curious to see if Gaethje looks to dust off the granby rolls that got him out of sticky situations with Luiz Firmino – especially when considering the success Abel Trujillo had against Nurmagomedov with said technique. It was a big reason why I liked Tony Ferguson’s chances to give Nurmagomedov problems, as I believe that Gaethje, too, can make hay with it inside of scrambles.

The more pressing question for me, though, is not whose grappling will win out the battle; but whose grappling ability will last longer in a potential five-round war?

Point of interest: Odds and opinions

The oddsmakers and public are siding with the incumbent champion, listing Nurmagomedov -335 and Gaethje +275 as of this writing.

Despite my official pick, I don’t hate the argument of this line deserving to be tighter, as I believe that Gaethje is definitely a live dog. From his first-layer takedown defense to improved counter-punching acumen, I can’t say that I’d be surprised to see Gaethje become the first man to beat Nurmagomedov in MMA.

Between Nurmagomedov’s propensity to sometimes retract his jabs low and slip heavily to his power side, I could see Gaethje’s inside-parry counters and left hook follow-ups having some real fight-ending potential in this matchup. However, as tempting as it is to ride with the American to make history in this spot, I can’t help but think about Gaethje’s own admissions in regards to wrestling tiring him out (something I took a look at earlier this year).

Basically, in looking back at some of the available collegiate wrestling footage on Gaethje, it appeared that the former All-American, akin to portions of his MMA career, seemed to struggle against crafty opposition the deeper the match went. So, with that in mind, I suspect that Nurmagomedov can eventually win the wrestling wars –– even if he’s losing the initial battles.

Although I suspect that we see a similar Nurmagomedov to the one that fought Edson Barboza given the leg kicking threats at hand, expect nothing short of hellfire from Gaethje for the first two rounds of this fight. But if the interim champ fails to hurt the durable Nurmagomedov early, then I think that Gaethje eventually falls victim to the grappling pressure coming his way by the end of the fourth round.