It's another action-packed pay-per-view card at UFC 254 on Fight Island, headlined by Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje squaring off.
Our handicapper Reed Kuhn gives his value bets for the card.
Co-Main Event: Middleweights No. 3 Jared Cannonier -115 vs No. 1 Robert Whittaker + 150
The UFC is positioning Cannonier for a potential title shot by pitting him against the former middleweight champion Whittaker. It’s an important matchup for the division, but it could also steal the show before the main event starts.
These two striking specialists are likely to give fans a standup duel before a main event that could turn into a positional fight. With minimal takedown attempts to date (just 10 between them combined), and a complete lack of any submission attempts, we should expect Whittaker and Cannonier to stand and trade for the majority of the fight. And that’s where we’ll see a close striking matchup on paper.
Both men have done lots of damage, but also appear to have received a fair share. However, their losses and most damaging performances came against elite talent. While neither is completely fresh, their durability is not as critical in a three-round fight. We can’t bank on a finish, but we should pay close attention to who could edge out the rounds.
The stylistic lean has to go to Whittaker, who has a busy, yet diverse long-range striking attack that utilizes a variety of kicks at all levels. This often allows him to keep more powerful strikers at bay, using his volume and combinations to win exchanges and pull ahead on rounds. That’s how he survived and outlasted Yoel Romero on two occasions, and more recently Darren Till.
There’s one factor stopping me from being overly confident in the value here, and that’s division switching on both sides of the cage. Whittaker formerly competed at welterweight, while Cannonier entered the UFC as a light heavyweight. Whittaker has been competing at 185 pounds for six years now, so I’d considered his performance metrics indicative of his weight class, but Cannonier moved down just two years ago, and was previously competing against opponents who are now at the top of the light heavyweight division. A relevant portion of his career metrics have come against arguably more dangerous opponents. If Cannonier does win, it’s probably via a striking finish.
Still, the position remains. Whittaker has faced bigger strikers, and if he hasn’t lost his chin already, it’s his long range technical striking and higher pace that should give him the edge from round-to-round. He’s also a finishing threat.
Pick is Robert Whittaker, and you should get him near pick ‘em prices or better.
Main Event Lightweight Championship: Khabib Nurmagomedov -345 vs Justin Gaethje + 285
If you had to design an opponent who stood a chance against incumbent champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, he would have to have a significant striking advantage, while simultaneously having stubborn takedown defense and ability to keep fights entirely on the feet. Finally, several fights into his dominant title reign, Nurmagomedov faces someone who combined those two key traits.
While Gaethje has a collegiate wrestling base, he’s never used it offensively. On defense, he’s stuffed eight of every 10 opponent takedowns, and barely spent any time on the mat at all. But that might not be good enough against the most dominant wrestler in the game today. Nurmagomedov may miss half of his takedown attempts, but he simply follows them up with more (and still more) until he finally gets the fight where he wants it. And once there, he has an uncanny ability to weigh down his opponents and eliminate chance of escape. By spending 42% of all Octagon time on the mat controlling his opponents, he minimizes risk of unfavorable scores or damage from opponent strikes.
Pick is Khabib Nurmagomedov, but his price inflation is limiting the value to parlay fodder for most bettors. The lean is Over 2.5 rounds. This fight could take time to develop, but either man is capable of a late finish in five rounds -- either Geathje by surprise KO, or more likely, Nurmagomedov by choke. Use Over 1.5 rounds for parlays.