What just might be the biggest fight of 2020 is finally here. In what quite simply has the potential to be a tremendous matchup, UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who is undefeated in his 12-year mixed martial arts career, will compete in a unification bout against the man who most consistently delivers exciting fights today, interim titleholder Justin Gaethje.
Throw in an intriguing co-headliner between former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker and rising contender Jared Cannonier, and further interesting storylines throughout the card, and we have an event that is well worth the asking price for those of you who are picking and choosing your entertainment options during tough times.
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+.
Without further ado, then, here are six burning questions heading into UFC 254
How will Khabib fare in his first fight since losing his father?
This is a sensitive subject that the champion made clear he doesn’t want to spend the entire week addressing. That’s entirely understandable, but we can’t pretend it’s not there.
Anyone who has lost a parent – both of mine have passed – understands that you’re never quite the same person you were once they’re gone. In the best circumstances, you use the knowledge of your time spent and the lessons you were taught along to make yourself the best version of yourself going forward to honor their memory.
And that’s where Nurmagomedov (28-0 MMA, 12-0 UFC) finds himself as he returns for his first fight since his father, Abdulmanap, died of COVID-19 complications in May. Abdulmanap wasn’t just Khabib’s dad, he was his coach throughout his entire journey dating back to his youth sambo days. It can’t help but be an emotional day for Nurmagomedov to return to the site of his last title defense in Abu Dhabi, where he beat Dustin Poirier at UFC 242
Perhaps Gaethje (22-2 MMA, 5-2 UFC), the gamest of the game, will shine in his biggest opportunity. But the opportunity for Nurmagomedov to create a memorable moment in his dad’s honor is there, too.
Can Justin Gaethje complete his makeover from bonus specialist to champion?
We’re not all that far removed from the time in which consensus held that Gaethje, while undeniably one of MMA’s most exciting competitors, was destined to simply be a high-level brawler for dollars, and that he better rack up that bonus money while he can.
That was back in 2018, when Gaethje had four bonuses from his first three UFC fights, but only a 1-2 record to show for his efforts.
The change has been subtle. He still hits like a sledgehammer. He still has a chin made of granite. His fights are still thrilling. But he’s become more selective about when to put his foot on the gas pedal and when to ease off. He’s learned when to do his damage and then back off rather than constantly go for the kill shot. It all came together in his interim title-earning victory over Tony Ferguson at UFC 249, when he hung with a cardio freak and looked ready to keep going after 25 minutes were up.
Gaethje, noticeably, has been dismissive of that interim crown. He now faces his greatest challenge. Maybe he’ll be the one to finally defeat Khabib. Maybe he won’t. But either way, before we even get to fight night, let’s acknowledge the maturity and adaptability Gaethje has shown simply getting to this point.
Can Jared Cannonier live up to his biggest moment?
Cannonier’s performances since dropping down to middleweight speak for themselves. A mauling for former WSOF double champ David Branch. Leg kicking the legendary Anderson Silva into a first-round finish. A ruthless finish of one of the division’s hottest contenders in Jack Hermansson.
That’s a hell of a run for Cannonier (13-4 MMA, 6-4 UFC), whose previous two fights before the 185 move were back-to-back losses against the duo who just fought for the light heavyweight belt, Jan Blachowicz and Dominick Reyes.
Now, not only is a man who once competed as a UFC heavyweight on the brink of a middleweight title shot, but he got a postfight invitation from Israel Adesanya, after “The Last Stylebender” disposed of Paulo Costa, to take the next crack at the king. We already know what Cannonier is capable of doing, but can he do it when his stakes are higher than they’ve ever been, against a foe in Whittaker (21-5 MMA, 12-3 UFC) who’s been there and done that?
Can Robert Whittaker force his way back into the middleweight title picture?
The former UFC middleweight champion seemed to answer a lot of questions when he earned a five-round unanimous decision over a game Darren Till in July. Whittaker was coming off a lopsided loss to Adesanya to lose the title at UFC 243, which came after a title reign which could have been epic but never quite reached that level due to a series of health woes.
So Whittaker proved once again that he’s still able to deliver down-and-dirty slobberknocker fights. But it wasn’t enough to immediately make the fans demand a rematch with Adesanya, who doesn’t seem interested in rehashing opponents he’s already beat, anyway.
But now Whittaker is in a situation in which his foe on Saturday, Cannonier, is the flavor of the month at 185 pounds.
Cannonier is a knockout artist. Whittaker is a hard hitter who can give it as good as he takes it. With the world watching during the biggest card of the fall to see whether Cannonier can fill his pre-anointed title challenger slot, Whittaker will never have a better opportunity to prove that actually, people want to see a rematch with “Izzy,” whether they know it now or not.
Will Walt Harris have a fresh start?
We’re supposed to be unbiased observers in these parts, but if you weren’t rooting for Walt Harris last time out, you might not have a soul.
Harris (13-8 MMA, 6-7 UFC) fought Alistair Overeem in the main event of UFC on ESPN 8 in his first fight back since his stepdaughter, Aniah Blanchard, was murdered in a case which made national headlines.
Harris fought his heart out, putting Overeem in a spot which some referees might have waved off, before the crafty Overeem dipped into his veteran bag of tricks and pulled the bout out in Round 2.
Of course, Harris will always carry the memories of his stepdaughter with him. But now the first time back in the public eye is out of the way. Harris’ competitiveness with a fighter of Overeem’s caliber under the circumstances indicates the tear he was on heading into the bout with three straight wins was no fluke, and he’ll have as good a chance as any to get back at it with a solid, but not overwhelming, opponent in former Bellator champ Alexander Volkov (31-8 MMA, 5-2 UFC).
Is Lauren Murphy a legit title contender?
After Lauren Murphy went 1-3 to start her UFC tenure, with all of the losses in that span going the distance, the book seemed written on the former Invicta FC bantamweight champion: She was a tough-as-nails competitor who would give everyone she met a real fight, but perhaps not one who was going to reach championship level in the UFC.
Murphy dropped down to flyweight after that stretch, and she’s looked like a brand-new fighter since. Murphy has won three in a row and four of five to establish her presence in the division.
Murphy takes on UFC newcomer Liliya Shakirova (8-1 MMA, 0-0 UFC), who is a late sub for Cynthia Calvillo. While it’s unfortunate a hot fight between Murphy and Calvillo fell out, if Murphy wins a fourth straight bout and does so in impressive fashion, she’ll have as solid a case for a shot at Valentina Shevchenko’s championship as anyone.