Undefeated lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov will face one of the most dangerous fights of his career when he battles interim champion Justin Gaethje in the main event of UFC 254 from Fight Island in Abu Dhabi on Saturday.
Nurmagomedov (28-0) will enter the Octagon for the first time in over a year after beating Dustin Poirier by submission at UFC 242 last September.
Nurmagomedov Seeks New Challenges
The 32-year-old Russian enters as a -340 favorite over Gaethje (+260) at FanDuel Sportsbook. He sits at No. 2 on the UFC’s official pound-for-pound rankings, trailing only Jon Jones. Many regard him as the most dominant force in MMA today.
Nurmagomedov’s career has advanced to the stage where he says he’s only interested in new challenges. For instance, he says he doesn’t want to fight the winner of an upcoming bout between Poirier and Conor McGregor, given that he’s already beaten them both.
“I finished both of them,” Nurmagomedov said on ESPN’s First Take. “I finished in dominant position with dominant performances. I’m not interested in both of these guys because I need something new. New blood, new energy. Justin Gaethje gives me new motivation. He’s the real deal.”
Gaethje (22-2) has built a resume that makes him a legitimate threat to Nurmagomedov. He’s riding a four-fight winning streak, stopping Tony Ferguson in the fifth round of their interim title fight back in May. His only two losses came in consecutive fights, to Eddie Alvarez and Poirier after an 18-0 start to his career.
Gaethje has proven that he’s among the best lightweights in the world. But Nurmagomedov represents a different challenge, one that no opponent has come close to overcoming so far. Still, Gaethje’s camp believes they have a few tricks up their sleeve for the title fight.
Gaethje Has ‘Hidden’ Weapon for UFC 254
“I tailor my game plans throughout a career for a championship fight,” Gaethje coach Trevor Wittman told reporters on Thursday. “One thing that I think we were able to do very well was keep our most important weapon hidden. With Justin Gaethje, he’s an extremely good wrestler and he’s got a very unique style in wrestling – and he hasn’t had to use it. It’s very hard to go and game plan against someone’s wrestling when they haven’t shown it.”
|UFC 254 Odds – Main Card (via FanDuel Sportsbook)|
|Khabib Nurmagomedov: -330||Justin Gaethje: +265|
|Robert Whittaker: +104||Jared Cannonier: -122|
|Alexander Volkov: -178||Walt Harris: +150|
|Jacob Malkoun: +220||Phil Hawes: -270|
|Lauren Murphy:-240||Liliya Shakirova: +198|
|Magomed Ankalaev: -310||Ion Cutelaba: +250|
If Gaethje can compete with Nurmagomedov on the mat, fans could be in store for an all-time classic. Both men know this is a big fight, and haven’t had to engage in theatrics in order to sell it.
“It’s not one of these fights where these two need to scream at each other and do all this stuff,” UFC president Dana White said at a Wednesday news conference. “People know who both of these guys are. They know what they’re both capable of, and that’s why this fight is so big.”
The main event isn’t the only major attraction on the UFC 254 card. Former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker (+104) will take on Jared Cannonier (-122) in a co-main event that features the top two contenders for Israel Adesanya’s title. The main card also features a tilt between top-10 heavyweights Alexander Volkov (-178) and Walt Harris (+150).