The highly anticipated UFC 254 from Fight Island in the United Arab Emirates drops on Saturday. Preliminary bouts begin at 10:15 a.m. ET, with the main card set for 2 p.m. ET.
The UFC altered the start time to accommodate the sea of fight fans from the other side of the world who support Khabib Nurmagomedov passionately. The UFC believes this new time setup will account for more pay-per-view buys than if it would have tried to accommodate Western markets in prime time.
Here’s a look at some betting angles on the main event.
Khabib Nurmagomedov -358 vs. Justin Gaethje +275, lightweight (155 pounds) championship
Nurmagomedov was born and bred to fight. The tools of his trade include world-class expertise in Russian sambo, judo, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing and pankration, an ancient form of grappling, wrestling and striking. He is undefeated in 28 professional fights and has dominated the top seven fighters in the division.
Nurmagomedov is unrelenting in employing forward pressure that causes opponents to wilt, some early and some late. But at the end of the event, Nurmagomedov’s hand is the one that has been raised, and usually in submission fashion.
Gaethje represents the greatest challenge of “The Eagle’s” career. Gaethje is from a small mining town in Arizona and wrestled Division I in college. His wrestling base is stellar, though it has been underutilized for years as Gaethje prefers to batter opponents with lethal kicks and damaging head strikes. Gaethje walks opponents down, backs them up, then barrages them with strikes that range from numbing calf and ankle kicks to destructive elbows and fists.
Gaethje averages a plentiful 7.74 strikes per minute landed. He also has a chin made of granite, which is important because that is his main form of defense. Gaethje has been able to overcome 8.4 significant strikes from opponents because he is tough as can be. But over time and in world-class competition, shoddy defense is never an asset.
Both combatants have the very best in training partners, camps and supporters. Nurmagomedov trains with Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez, though for this camp he remained mostly overseas. Gaethje trains with Trevor Wittman at Team Elevation in Colorado, one of the top MMA camps in the country. Gaethje also has benefited from training with welterweight champion Kamaru Usman for this fight, as Usman recently joined this dynamic team.
This fight comes down to Nurmagomedov’s ability to repeatedly take Gaethje to the floor for a ground-and-pound party. If he can get Gaethje down and keep him there, this fight will be over quickly, as Gaethje’s lack of BJJ expertise will hinder his ability to remain in bottom position without getting battered.
Gaethje must absolutely scramble to get back to his feet once Nurmagomedov tackles him. If he can do that, the tax and strain of those takedowns is sure to cause Nurmagomedov some loss of energy. Gaethje must keep this bout standing.
This is the game that will go on repeatedly until someone wilts.
Gaethje has admitted many times he does not like to wrestle because of the immense energy drain. He has not needed it much thus far, but make no mistake: Wittman and those in camp are doing their best to prepare Gaethje for this bear.
Nurmagomedov opened -225, and currently BetMGM has Nurmagomedov -358 vs. Gaethje +275.
One last point, which is a major point: Nurmagomedov’s father, Abdulmanap, died this year, and to me this is the key to the bout. Many wonder if his death will adversely affect the Russian. Know this and believe it in your soul: Nurmagomedov’s performance has nothing to do with him, his pride, his career or money. This fight is for his father.
Few handicappers had Gaethje besting Tony Ferguson some months back. After that almost perfect performance by Gaethje, the flow of recency will have bettors jumping him at such a great price. But I find it difficult to believe he’ll be able to match that last effort against this unique opponent.
I was able to take Nurmagomedov at the opening bell, knowing this price would skyrocket like it has. My advice now is to be patient if you like Nurmagomedov because it’s plausible that underdog money will come in late.
At his current price, Nurmagomedov may be used for parlay sides, as those who read me know I rarely take large favorites straight up unless the value is obtuse. In this case it is not.
Best Bet: Nurmagomedov ITD (inside the distance), -110 (Circa).
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