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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday features a headliner for the ages at UFC 254. With decent matchmaking throughout much of the card, a solid percentage of the bouts are pick-’ems. Let us take a big risk and check out a few of the closer fights in this edition of Prime Picks.
Khabib Nurmagomedov-Justin Gaethje Goes Over 2.5 Rounds (-132)
Nurmagomedov is 28-0 for a reason, and despite what people thought about his bout with Gleison Tibau, “The Eagle” has officially lost exactly one single round on the scorecards in 12 UFC appearances. There is little in the way of evidence, whether on tape or on paper, that shows that Gaethje will be able to thwart the constant chain wrestling of his opponent and stay upright. Nurmagomedov’s last opponent, a man who survived Gaethje’s assault to win by stoppage, recently complained in a title fight, “I can’t get him the f--- off of me.” That cry uttered by Dustin Poirier will likely be one echoed by Gaethje as the rounds progress, but the option that this fight hits the over on two-and-a-half rounds is an enticing one. Gaethje has never lost a fight that was the under, and Nurmagomedov has never lost, period. Instead of the easy option of Nurmagomedov at around -310, the round option presents greater value.
If one fighter breaks up this play, it is much more likely to be Gaethje. With 20 finishes across his 22 wins, Gaethje is the author of nine first-round demolitions, and he has stopped 12 men in under 2.5 rounds. Punching out James Vick, Edson Barboza and Donald Cerrone all within one round in consecutive showings leaves a lasting impression about the danger Gaethje poses. In addition to his eye-popping significant strikes landed per minute total of almost eight—the highest of any UFC fighter ever—his leg kicks are deadlier than most to ever grace the cage. His low kicks have played a factor in bouts throughout his career, and Nurmagomedov will have to contend with them for as long as the fight is upright.
The Dagestani champ can put a damper on these leg kicks and Gaethje’s overwhelming volume by doing what he does best. One single takedown attempt is never what Nurmagomedov brings to the table. Instead, the constant pursuit of them, along with continuous mat returns, can stifle even the best strikers in the world. Pound-for-pound talents Poirier and Conor McGregor could barely get off 50 significant strikes against him, and none were truly significant enough to give Nurmagomedov pause. Even when Nurmagomedov let off the gas and decided to stand and trade with Al Iaquinta for the majority of their bout, he held the advantage and kept someone normally known as an effective technical boxer at bay. The ability to adapt is crucial, but his pressure is paramount to winning this fight. Should Gaethje instead advance towards him and keep him at a distance with his back away from the fence, this fight could get a lot more interesting.
Entering this bout, Gaethje’s wrestling credentials are somewhat overstated. A Division I wrestler at the University of Northern Colorado, “The Highlight” was a onetime All-American and placed in the Top 10 nationally once. Although technically the most lauded wrestler Nurmagomedov has faced since the Dagestan native tossed around Kamal Shalorus, the old adage of “there are levels to this game” will likely be more evident in this area than when Gunnar Nelson attempted to outgrapple Demian Maia. Nothing could please Nurmagomedov more than forcing Gaethje to have to fight off takedowns, free himself from the clinch and otherwise exhaust a gas tank that has been questioned in the past.
This lightweight championship unification bout is about as clear-cut of a striker-versus-grappler classic as one could get, and it is indeed compelling. Gaethje’s stopping power and diverse arsenal of strikes, along with his utter relentlessness, are daunting challenges to overcome. An early left hook from Michael Johnson surprised “The Eagle,” and although Gaethje’s striking should surprise no one, getting Nurmagomedov to respect his power would work wonders for him. On the other hand, the takedown and just the mere threat of the takedown has felled lesser men throughout Nurmagomedov’s rise to the top. Even so, Gaethje’s durability has not let him down in the early going, and unless Nurmagomedov snatches an early submission when both fighters are dry or he gets cracked, this fight should reach the later rounds. Should this line be unappealing for the betting populace, Fight Starts Round 3 at -145, Nurmagomedov Wins Inside Distance at -110 or the upset play of Gaethje by TKO/KO at +430 are worth tying to a straight pick for one man or the other.
Robert Whittaker (-110)
Given each man’s body of work in the middleweight division, it might come as a shock that Jared Cannonier is a pick-’em against a former champion like Whittaker. Starting off in the UFC as a heavyweight, Cannonier quickly hit a ceiling that prompted a drop to 205 pounds. After going about as far as he could in this second weight class, a thunderous uppercut from Dominick Reyes blasted Cannonier down to 185 pounds, where he has gained more of a foothold. Three quick stoppages of David Branch, Anderson Silva and Jack Hermansson have rightfully earned him a crack at the top echelon of the division. Against Whittaker, “The Killa Gorilla” will face a tactical striker with heaps of power and an underrated ground game that can be mixed in at will. The tools in Whittaker’s arsenal appear on paper to be more diverse than that of his opponent, and Whittaker’s willingness to find what works and exploit holes will send him to victory.
Cannonier’s heavyweight power has largely followed him as he vaulted up the middleweight rankings, with no statement more emphatic than an uppercut—Cannonier’s previous nemesis—that sent Hermansson crashing to the canvas. This strike was set up by several heavy leg kicks in the opening round, kicks that were so emphatic that Hermansson came out in Round 2 hunting for a takedown. Those same kicks targeting a surgically repaired knee could do some serious damage, as evidenced by Yoel Romero’s first encounter with Whittaker. If Cannonier puts his full body into these kicks, as he did against Silva to finish the fight, it could pay massive dividends and leave Whittaker exposed to absorb other punishment.
“The Reaper” likes to burst into his attack, and it could not be made more picturesque than in his performance against Darren Till in July. The reaching, leaping attacks of Whittaker kept Till guessing and wondering when the blitz would come, like waiting for a coiled snake to strike. Should Cannonier taste Whittaker’s power or eat, for example, a quick head kick, he might second guess himself and sit back to hope he can guard against another. The varied offense from the PMA Super Martial Arts fighter can confuse Cannonier, who oftentimes loads up on shots and can overextend himself in exchanges. Whittaker will need to make abundantly clear that he is far away when Cannonier unleashes his own fury and not get complacent while absorbing leg kick after leg kick from afar. Although Cannonier’s power can be a gamechanger, Whittaker’s recoverability and speed as a natural middleweight will likely show itself as the bout progresses. With the odds what they are, selecting a particular method of victory is unnecessary, but Cannonier’s willingness to take one to land one could be his undoing as the two enter the latter stages of the fight.
Alexander Volkov (-175)
A tall fighter who knows how to use his reach to his advantage is a tough mountain to climb, and Walt Harris finds himself falling up the rankings despite a recent knockout loss to Alistair Overeem. Against Volkov, he will face a rare heavyweight striker who is unafraid to go to the scorecards. Each of Harris’ 13 career wins have come by knockout within two rounds, though he did have a decision victory overturned to a no contest after he failed post-fight drug test. On the other side of the coin, Volkov’s knockout rate is a still impressive 65 percent, even if he has only notched two stoppages in his five UFC wins. Although Volkov could be caught in the early going, he has faced enough power punchers of late to avoid the brunt of the most dangerous fights and keep out of harm’s way.
A brawler who comes out of his corner like his hair is on fire, Harris will throw everything and the kitchen sink at his opponent in the early going. Each of Harris’ last two wins came in the opening minute, as he blitzed Sergey Spivak and Alexey Oleynik early and put them down fast. Against Overeem, Harris had the Dutchman in all sorts of trouble in the opening minutes—until “The Demolition Man” was able to regain his composure and take the fight down to the ground. Winging high kicks and loading up on his shots, Harris is imminently dangerous in the first five minutes. It would behoove “Drago” to keep his distance, avoid the high-flying antics and power punches and stick to his jab.
Volkov’s jab is his most effective tool, and it can blunt the sharp offense of the hard-charging Harris. Volkov fights long, so his three-inch reach advantage may seem like double or triple that when he reaches out and touches Harris with the jab. Should Volkov follow the jab with a deadly uppercut, he could get Harris to back off and keep his distance. A slow-paced yet methodical performance, like the one the Russian put on Greg Hardy or Roy Nelson, is the key to Volkov’s victory. Keeping his latest opponent at the end of his punches and stabbing kicks from the outside can force a fatiguing Harris to start going for single home run shots, and that is where Volkov can capitalize. Although a narrower option of Volkov Wins by Decision at +200 is a fair bet, the alternative is an easy one with Harris Wins by TKO/KO at a reasonable +225. Volkov’s chin is not indestructible.
Stefan Struve (-110)
This second and final heavyweight play poses a serious risk, as one of two outcomes appear equally likely. Struve could engage his ground game, using his long limbs to tie up the Aussie and snatch a submission. On the other hand, like seven other UFC fighters to come before him—including a similarly styled Mark Hunt—Tai Tuivasa could knock down “Skyscraper” with the wrecking balls he calls fists. The likelihood of either outcome will almost certainly hinge on the fight IQ that Struve brings to the dance, as he will have to make an early decision if he wants to scrap it out or fight smart. Unfortunately for the Dutchman, he does not always take the path of least resistance, and Tuivasa can close in on what should be a nine-inch reach disadvantage in a hurry. In this clash of heavyweight titans who could both use a good win, the UFC veteran can follow the path carved by Spivak and close in on Frank Mir’s all-time UFC heavyweight submission record.
For a big man who cuts weight to reach the heavyweight limit of 266 pounds, Tuivasa has shown he has some serious pep in his step. His UFC debut came in the form of a flying knee knockout, which was the first in divisional history. Harris later replicated the feat some two years later, but Tuivasa notched the first by shutting out Rashad Coulter’s lights with a flying strike. Before his decision against Andrei Arlovski, Tuivasa was the kind of heavyweight who never needed to fight out of the first round. Surprisingly hittable despite lording over his opponents as a 6-foot-11 competitor, Struve may have his chin tested in the first round before Tuivasa burns through his gas tank. With this in mind, the counter play of Tuivasa Wins by TKO/KO at +175 or Tuivasa Wins in Round 1 (+400) are both stellar options.
Tuivasa will almost certainly come out looking to chop down the redwood-sized heavyweight before him, and his leg kicks are effective tools to do so. If a savvy fighter is looking for them, like Spivak in Tuivasa’s most recent bout, they can be used to put “Bam Bam” on his back. Struve’s takedown chops are not in the realm of Cain Velasquez and the like, but a body lock into a trip could spell success in bringing Tuivasa down and nullifying the wild strikes coming at him. Should this fight hit the ground in any fashion, even if Tuivasa manages to reverse position and wind up on top, he will be in grave danger. Although his chin is the ultimate question mark—a dangerous prospect in a heavyweight fight against a banger—Struve’s grappling prowess can make the difference and keep him afloat long enough to snatch a submission. An ideal prop bet to tie to this fight is Fight Doesn’t Go to Decision at -260, because both men present unique dangers.