2020 has been quite a year for a lot of us, UFC Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov lost a lot this year everywhere but the octagon.
Khabib lost his father Abdulmanap on July 3 due to coronavirus-related complications and not only was Khabib very close to his father but he was also the man responsible for training Khabib all the way to his UFC championship.
This Saturday at UFC 254, Khabib will make his third defense of the lightweight gold, but his first since losing his father, against UFC Interim Lightweight champion Justin Gaethje at Fight Island aka Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. The main card will be on ESPN+ PPV and has a special start time of 11 a.m. PT.
Currently, the betting line has Khabib at -330 at Caesars Sports with Gaethje at +290 at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.
What can be said about Khabib that hasn’t been already? He’s 28-0 and has dominated nearly every opponent that he has ever stepped into the cage with. He has the money, the fame, the adoration of MMA fans for his skill set and tapped out longtime nemesis Conor McGregor in 2019. All that remains in the goals his father and Khabib set for his career is 30-0, then retirement.
Khabib brings up Georges St. Pierre as the one opponent he wants to fight for his last fight, telling people that’s all that he believes he has left. However, he might not want to overlook Gaethje.
After entering the UFC as an undefeated prospect, Gaethje found some tougher sledding, losing two straight fights to Eddie Alverez and Dustin Poirier. We learned he was a fighter that loved to throw hands with anyone and was impossible to take to the mat.
Gaethje has still never been taken down in a MMA fight, which could be his biggest strength against Khabib. Either Khabib is the first to bring Gaethje down and en route to victory or Gaethje consistently stuffs the champ’s takedowns, completely flipping the favorite in the fight.
As a volume puncher I don’t think Gaethje lands one shot that would put Khabib away, so he will need to have elite movement and tire out Khabib by staying on his feet.
For me, there are two ways to approach wagering on this fight: lay the -330 or gamble to Gaethje. Getting under 3-1 on the true challenger doesn’t excite me as the value seems to be on the champion. That said if we wanna go after Gaethje here is how I would approach that and it might sound unusual.
If Gaethje can win this fight, which I do believe he can, he will have to fight as flawlessly as he did against Tony Ferguson. Do not allow Khabib to have control in the first and second round by being a defensive master.
Even if Khabib does win the opening two rounds, if Gaethje hasn’t been on the mat, the door is wide open. In Khabib’s fight vs. Al Iaquinta, after completely dominating the first two rounds, Khabib started to tire and suddenly couldn’t land a takedown and Iaquinta had him backing up in spots. Gaethje is a much better fighter than Iaquinta and those little moments in that fight are the blueprint for how to beat Khabib. It’s not easy however.
Using this angle, I think there could be crazy value in Gaethje Round 4 and Round 5. If he is in the fight and stayed upright, there is a chance he can finish Khabib late with his volume striking and relentlessness. Odds look to be around 20-1 and 35-1 for that result and I don’t think it’s completely nuts.
If you are betting against Khabib you are already gambling so might as well do it in style. Also, a shoutout to Circa Sports, which is offering in-play on fights. So maybe look at Gaethje after Round 2 if he’s down, there’s a chance he sweeps the last three rounds edging Khabib for a decision. But don’t go that route if Khabib has dominated the opening two rounds; it’s only if Gaethje stays on his feet.
That said I can’t give a side pick on Gaethje, so if you want to go the conservative route, lay the -330 with Khabib before it’s gone.
Jared Cannonier vs. Robert Whittaker: One of the more intriguing matchups on the card comes in the co-main event as the winner likely gets a title shot.
Whittaker, the former middleweight champion, has his first fight since losing the crown to Israel Adesanya. Which after that dominating Adesanya performance against Costa, Whittaker’s performance in that fight looks even stronger, though it ended the same way a KO loss to Adesanya.
Cannonier has a ton of punching power and can win this fight. However, I don’t agree with this betting line which has him as a -115 to -120 favorite. Whittaker has done too much in the UFC already and fought the top guys in this weight class, Cannonier doesn’t have a signature win that leads me to believe in him at this level just yet. WHITTAKER
Alexander Volkov vs. Walt Harris: Harris was seconds away from stopping MMA legend Alistair Overeem and instead got stopped himself in an emotional loss in his first fight back from a personal family tragedy.
Volkov has lost three of four with his only win over the inexperienced but strong Greg Hardy.
Harris has too much on the line and I think with his skill set can close the distance between the taller man and put Volkov on the mat like his last fight with Curtis Blaydes. Take Harris at +140. HARRIS