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UFC 254: Staff Picks

UFC 254: Khabib vs Gaethje is finally here! The fighters are healthy, they’ve made weight, and they’re officially ready to go. Back Sports Page’s MMA team is here for UFC 254 staff picks.

Myself and Alexis Rodriguez examine and select who we believe will emerge victorious in the much anticipated main event between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje. We also pick the co-main event banger, along with a few others.

Here we go.

Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0) vs Justin Gaethje (22-2)

Alexis Rodriguez: Can Gaethje keep the fight standing? Can he withstand the pressure? Can he do enough damage? This fight, for all its simplicity, is intriguing because of the stakes and tension of Khabib’s dominant skillset.

Khabib’s mix of catch wrestling, judo, sambo, and freestyle is perfect for MMA. His chain wrestling and conditioning don’t allow fighters to breathe. He isn’t looking for one takedown, he is looking for all of them.

Gaethje, on the surface, has the credentials to keep up. He is a NCAA Division I All-American. He made history at his university (Northern Colorado), but Khabib has done the same to everyone he’s faced thus far.

Still, it is Khabib’s toughest test on paper. Gaethje has dynamite in his hands and has shown extreme improvement with his movement, counters, footwork, and patience.

Still, Khabib has given no reason to doubt him. He’s dominated and even when it appeared that someone has a good chance, he simply does what he does.

Pick: Khabib Nurmagomedov by Submission, Rd. 4

Ryan Truland: This one, despite all its heavy implications, is quite simple to me. The two fighters have been totally transparent with their game-plans, and I believe what they’re saying.

Khabib will continue to pursue takedowns over and over again; while Gaethje will attempt to keep his back off the fence and stuff as many takedowns as he can.

It’s really all about who can execute their game-plan more effectively. I expect Gaethje to come out and try to land a few heavy leg kicks early on. Meanwhile, you can bet on Khabib not wasting much time before he shoots to get ahold of the interim champ.

This is without a doubt Khabib’s toughest test to date, but I still see him having success. Like all games, there are levels to grappling, and Khabib is on a level of his own. Gaethje will have his moments, but in the end ‘The Eagle’ will remain undefeated.

Pick: Khabib Nurmagomedov by Unanimous Decision

Draftkings Odds: Khabib (-335) vs Gaethje (+265)

Robert Whittaker (22-5) vs Jared Cannonier (13-4)

Alexis Rodriguez: Cannonier has the power to shut anyone off in the division. He’s shown growth with his striking ability as his boxing’s become more precise also. He’s always possessed speed, which may pose problems for Whittaker.

However, Whittaker has many tools in his arsenal. He has fought explosive, powerful strikers and has won, but barely survived. His ability to pander a jab while fighting light on his feet is incredible. He can use the snap head kick to keep Cannonier at distance as well. If he looks to counter, he has a tremendous left hook.

With all that being said, this fight depends on Whittaker’s chin. Can he take Cannonier’s best punches and survive?

I think he certainly can. ‘The Reaper’ should be able to outpoint, out hustle, and out work ‘The Killa Gorilla’.

Pick: Robert Whittaker by Unanimous Decision

Ryan Truland: This is as good of a non-title fight as it gets, Robert Whittaker vs Jared Cannonier. I think some people forgot just how good Robert Whittaker is; the guy fought Yoel Romero for nearly an hour and survived. Oh yeah, and he may not be as powerful as Cannonier, but he is a better striker overall.

On the flip side, Cannonier has knockouts in three different weight class (heavyweight, ligh-heavyweight, and middleweight). He’s found a home at 185lbs and he’s got the attention of the champ, Israel Adesanya.

If ‘The Killa Gorilla’ wins, then he’ll soon after be rewarded with a title shot. However, if Whittaker wins, it will muddy things up a little bit. Will they award him another chance at ‘Stylebender’? We will find out.

I think Whittaker’s striking will slightly be ahead of Cannonier’s for much of the night; which will earn him the decision in an entertaining back and forth affair.

Pick: Robert Whittaker by Unanimous Decision

Draftkings Odds: Whittaker (-110) vs Cannonier (-110)

Alexander Volkov (31-8) vs Walt Harris (13-8)

Alexis Rodriguez: Volkov is a rangy kickboxer who can hurt his opponent from the very end of his strikes. His ground game leaves much to be desired, but he’s not a complete slouch in that department.

Harris has shown explosiveness and it has cost him as seen with his last bout against Alistair Overeem. He has power and he will have to stay patient and look for openings against a polished striker such as Volkov.

Harris’s past year has been extremely difficult with the passing of his daughter, and he’s showing great courage continuing to fight.

Harris will do enough damage in the first and threaten takedowns to keep Volkov guessing.

Pick: Walt Harris by TKO, Rd. 1

Ryan Truland: This is a really important fight for both these guys, who seem to be treading water in the top of the heavyweight ranks. The winner will take a big step forward towards contention, while the loser will likely fight a guy outside the top-10 next.

Harris’s best bet is to get this fight to the ground and beat Volkov similarly to how Curtis Blaydes did. Volkov is underrated in my opinion. Imagine if Derrick Lewis didn’t catch him in the final seconds of their bout in 2018.

Nevertheless, I think Volkov will fare well enough at stuffing the takedown attempts of Harris. Volkov will prove what I believe, which is he’s a level above Walt Harris in terms of talent.

Pick: Alexander Volkov by KO, Rd. 2

Draftkings Odds: Volkov (-190) vs Harris (+150)

Magomed Ankalaev (13-1) vs Ion Cutelaba (15-5)

Alexis Rodriguez: Ankalaev has to simply weather Cutelaba’s storm. His kicks are devastating and although the first fight was marred in controversy, Ankalaev should have no problem here using his superior grappling and striking skills.

Pick: Magomed Ankalaev by KO, Rd. 1

Ryan Truland: We finally get to see this rematch tomorrow after months of waiting and several failed attempts. Try not to overthink this one though. Ankalaev is the better fighter in every facet.

Sure, Cutelaba could catch him early if he baits him into a firefight, but I expect Ankalaev to be very calculated and pick his shots.

Many people believe Ankalaev is a future contender at light-heavyweight; a belief not many have regarding Cutelaba. Again, there’s levels to this sport we love.

Pick: Magomed Ankalaev by KO, Rd. 1

Draftkings Odds: Ankalaev (-335) vs Cutelaba (+250)

Nathaniel Wood (17-4) vs Casey Kenney (15-2-1)

Alexis Rodriguez: This is a fantastic fight on the prelims. Both Wood and Kenney are impressive prospects looking to climb up the rankings. Kenney showed great strides in his striking with his last victory about a month ago.

Meanwhile, Wood also earned a dominant decision victory after suffering his first setback to John Dodson earlier this year. He’s well-rounded and has some good power in his hands. He is very aggressive with his striking.

Kenney’s also showed impressive ground skills to go along with his striking. The difference may be Wood’s aggressiveness though. He should hand out enough punishment to earn a decision.

Pick: Nathaniel Wood by Unanimous Decision

Ryan Truland: Like Alexis said, what a great prelim bout we have here. I truly believe that the winner could be a prime candidate to take on Sean O’Malley next.

Regardless, lets discuss the fight at hand. It really appears to be an even fight on paper. Wood is dangerous when it comes to submissions, but Kenney is a great grappling practitioner. Both have some power at 135lbs (or 140lbs in this case), but I’d argue Kenney has the more impressive resume to this point.

He’s also the bigger man when it comes to frame. If you watch the weigh-in staredowns you’ll know what I’m talking about. Very competitive fight, but I’m going with my gut here.

Pick: Casey Kenney by Unanimous Decision

Draftkings Odds: Kenney (-177) vs Wood (+140)

UFC 254 is live tomorrow with a special start time! Catch the early prelims at 11:00am (ET) on ESPN+, the prelims at 12:00pm (ET) on ESPN 2, and the main card at 2:00pm (ET) only on PPV.

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