Primetime fights are heading our way from Abu Dhabi as the UFC brings their start times forward for UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gaethje. Sure, we’ve got to stump up for a pay-per-view, but as someone who struggles to get through every Sunday after fight nights operating on the US clock most weeks, I reckon it’s a small price to pay to watch the biggest title fight of 2020 on our own timezone.
Seeing as we’re stumping up the cash to watch, we might as well place a few bets to see if we can get some of that PPV money back. So, with that in mind, here are three value picks for Saturday’s fight card on UFC Fight Island.
The big question on many fans’ lips ahead of Saturday night’s UFC lightweight title battle is, “Can Justin Gaethje stop Khabib Nurmagomedov from taking him down?” In reality, the question should probably be, “Can Justin Gaethje defend himself on the mat once Khabib does take him down?”
It’s almost unfathomable to consider Gaethje getting through this fight without being taken down at least once by Khabib. Indeed, unless the American finds the Russian’s chin early, a battle for the takedown seems a virtual cert.
As a former NCAA collegiate wrestling All-American, Gaethje has solid wrestling credentials, but even the sport’s best wrestlers sometimes find themselves on their back. What we haven’t seen much of from Gaethje in the UFC is how he fights – and, crucially, defends – off his back. The fact he hasn’t had to do too much of it in his octagon career may be seen by some as a positive, but he could well be taken into deep water on the mat for the first time in the UFC, and that could be a big problem for the challenger.
Khabib, put simply, is the most dominant fighter on the ground since the great Georges St-Pierre. Once he takes you down, you don’t get up until after the buzzer. Throw into the mix Khabib’s improving striking which, though not on Gaethje’s level, is enough to warrant respect, and it means that Khabib has the ability to engage with the interim champ on the feet, then create openings to take him to the mat. And that’s where Khabib really comes alive.
In each of his last two fights, against Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier, Khabib matched his opponent on the feet, then took things to the mat and utterly dominated. I suspect we’ll see something very similar, with Khabib eventually taking Gaethje down with a well-timed takedown attempt, then working his way to his opponent’s back and locking up a rear-naked choke or neck crank for the submission win.
Jared Cannonier has been anointed as the coming man at 185 pounds by none other than UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, who has arguably been the biggest cheerleader for his championship credentials over the last 12 months.
But while Cannonier is a solid, powerful operator with a ton of ability, his opponent Robert Whittaker has him trumped in most of the key fighting qualities.
The former UFC middleweight champion has insane cardio, is a very smart game planner, has fight-ending punch power and is a notoriously difficult man to pin down. Consider, too, the fact that he’s going to be fighting a three-round fight for the first time since the summer of 2017.
Provided he starts sharply, Whittaker offers excellent value to win on the scorecards in what may well turn out to be a tight, technical battle over the three-round course. Cannonier is tough, with an excellent fight mentality, but Whittaker has championship pedigree, and that could well be the difference-maker on fight night.
Cannonier may be the betting favourite, but Whittaker’s resume is being criminally underrated. The price on a decision win looks like solid value.
4.45pm: Nathaniel Wood vs Casey Kenney
The bantamweight clash between the UK’s Nathaniel Wood and Casey Kenney is one of the most intriguing matchups on the card as the UFC looks to see which 135-pounder is best-equipped to move their way up the rankings and face someone with a number next to their name next time around.
For Kenney, it’s an opportunity to continue the momentum from his last fight, where he defeated Alatang Heili just 20 days ago. For Wood, meanwhile, it’s a chance to build up some steam of his own after a largely impressive start to life in the UFC.
Both men are 4-1 in the UFC, but there are crucial differentiating factors at play. For starters, Wood has faced more experienced opposition in his UFC career compared to Kenney, and Wood has produced three finishes from his four UFC wins compared to Kenney’s one.
The pair are well-matched, but I think Wood holds a narrow advantage in most situations, and the value is with the former Cage Warriors champion taking the victory on the scorecards in what looks a tight matchup.
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