UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gaethje – Fights to make

UFC 254 - ‘KHABIB VS GAETHJE’ was a remarkable event. The UFC didn’t stack the card, but sometimes everything just falls into place anyway.…

By: Zane Simon | 3 years ago
UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gaethje – Fights to make
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

UFC 254 – ‘KHABIB VS GAETHJE’ was a remarkable event. The UFC didn’t stack the card, but sometimes everything just falls into place anyway. The main event delivered in spades, with Khabib not only retaining his title in a masterful performance of his grappeling prowess, but then walking away from his MMA career—a perfect record intact. In the co-main event Robert Whittaker proved that he is still the only other clear figure in the middelweight title picture. And every other fight on the PPV finished inside the distance (most of them violently).

So, with Khabib vacating, how does the UFC fill his shoes? Is there any other option for Adesanya than a Whittaker rematch? And has Lauren Murphy truly staked her claim to a flyweight title shot?

To answer those questions – and a whole lot more – I’ll be using the classic Silva/Shelby fight booking methodology from the UFC of years past. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent up against one another. Hopefully, by following that model, a few of these bout ideas will actually make it off the page and into the Octagon. Now, let’s get to the fights.


He said it, I believe it. I know combat sports retirements have all the shelf-life of an ice swan in Hades, but the reasons for Khabib to walk away stack up high against any potential reasons for sticking around. He won his belt, he had the longest title reign in UFC lightweight history, he met the record for most title defenses, and he’s done it all with an unbeaten 29-0 record. After the loss of his father he said he promised his mother his time in the Octagon was done—and given that their relationship was the backbone of his career, that seems entirely reasonable.

He’s made money, he has fame, and – if other star Russian athletes are anything to judge by – he may find himself with a future in politics as well. Maybe someday, in a few years, he’ll come back for some huge showcase fight against some future champion. It will be a massive spectacle and afterward he’ll ride off again, with the reminder that he’s still capable of great things. But, for now, I see no reason not to take Khabib Nurmagomedov at his word, that his time with the UFC is finished.


Whatever the title picture in the lightweight division is going forward, Justin Gaethje deserves to be part of it. Most likely, and straight forwardly, that means fighting the winner of Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier this coming January. Depending on the way the UFC wants to go, the winner of that bout may even walk away from it with Khabib’s vacated title around his waist anyway.

But, if that man is McGregor? I wouldn’t count too heavily on getting a Gaethje/McGregor fight booked. Especially not if he’s suddenly got UFC gold again. The former double-champ has always seen UFC titles as a means to negotiate something bigger. Possible bouts with GSP, Nate Diaz, or even Jorge Masvidal may all carry more interest to the mercurial Irishman—rather than attempting to defend a belt against Justin Gaethje.

The UFC could, of course, save all that hassle and decide that the winner of Poirier/McGregor should fight Gaethje for the belt. But in combat sports the best play is almost always to make the most money in the moment, and hanging a belt on an upcoming McGregor fight is an easy way to make that happen. If, however, the UFC isn’t comfortable giving Gaethje another title shot off this loss, then a scrap with Michael Chandler is right there waiting to crown either man the top contender. But, my first instinct is still that Gaethje should take on the McGregor/Poirier winner.


This was exactly the win Robert Whittaker needed to make him a title contender once again. Which makes it interesting that he frankly doesn’t sound at all like he cares about getting a shot to take Adesanya’s belt back. Given the opportunity to make a call out, he talked about going home putting up the Christmas tree, and spending time with his growing family. I get it, really. After his brutal title run Whittaker has made it abundently clear that he needs to pace himself with the rigors of an MMA career. But, with Hermansson vs. Till the only other middleweight top contender’s bout on tap, there really isn’t another option for the champion. Whittaker vs. Adesanya 2 is a great fight and well worth making. Will the ‘Reaper’ make the same mistakes? Is Adesanya actually a whole level above him in the Octagon? Whittaker’s proved he’s still the best man without the title at 185. Time to take another run at it.


Cannonier made a hell of a run to put himself in title contention. But there’s just a big difference between picking off Jack Hermansson and the shell of Anderson Silva and taking on a former champion like Whittaker still in his prime. And while the ‘Killa Gorilla’ showed that he’s still clearly a powerful, dangerous fighter against all comers, he also didn’t show the depth of skill needed to keep pace with an elite striking game. Time for a step back, a chance to take on another fighter looking to carve out their contender status; someone like Kelvin Gastelum or Paulo Costa. And when I put it like that, is there really any other choice than Paulo Costa vs. Jared Cannonier? ‘Borrachinha’ was a deer in the headlights against Adesanya, if he can’t compose himself better against Cannonier, he might be looking at another hard loss. But, if he can, he pushes exactly the kind of pace that Cannonier has yet to show he can meet. Costa vs. Cannonier is a violent fight to see which man can make a bounce back into contention in the near future.


Volkov had a list of names ready when Anik asked him what he wants next. Namely JDS, Overeem, or Rozenstruik. Word on the street is that Dos Santos is getting lined up for a fight against Ciryl Gane. But that still leaves Rozenstruik and Overeem wide open. While the Rozenstruik fight definitely has a fun factor, as an all-out striking contest, the Overeem fight, to me, seems like more of a ‘now or never’ booking. The ‘Reem’ is looking for his path back to title contention and with two straight wins he’s building a compelling argument. But having already been KO’d by most of the division’s top contenders, he’s gonna need to put some serious work in. Volkov’s takedown defense would give the Dutchman a clear path to victory. But his durability and work rate would be a real problem. Both men have something serious to gain out of victory. Alistair Overeem vs. Alexander Volkov is a great way for both men to assert their arguments as heavyweight top contenders.


There weren’t a lot of options for Lauren Murphy in this fight. She’s had her eyes set on becoming champion, which means she had to dominate a relatively short-notice UFC newcomer like Liliya Shakirova. Anything less than that and she’d just be treading water. Afterward she said that the next time she steps in the cage it will be for the UFC belt, but behind closed doors, she should be arguing hard for a fight against Jessica Andrade. Right now, the chances that the Brazilian pips her spot for a bout against Valentina Shevchenko seem especially high. If Murphy can get that fight, and a win against her, though? Then she’s basically guaranteed herself that chance at UFC gold she’s looking for. The other option would be a quick re-booking against Cynthia Calvillo, if that fight can be made soon. But, the real prize here for Murphy seems like it has to be Andrade. Anything else and she may find herself waiting a long while to compete for the strap.


No questions about how this fight might have gone now. Much like the first time around, Cutelaba threw some wild strikes and got countered with deadly consistency. Only this time, when he got hurt, there wasn’t any act to go with it. Ankalaev put Cutelaba down hard and nailed him to the canvas with brutal GnP. The win puts him on a 5-0 run after his shocking upset loss to Paul Craig in his debut. Time to get the man into the cage against a top ranked opponent. Nikita Krylova, Misha Cirkunov, Jiri Prochazka, Johnny Walker? I was hoping to see Walker in against OSP. But OSP’s got a fight booked in the meantime. So why not do Ankalaev against Walker. The Dagestani would likely be a serious favorite, but Walker is always powerful, and crazy enough to make something unexpected happen. If nothing else, it’s a must-see chance to enter the top-10 conversation. Magomed Ankalaev vs. Johnny Walker would be a thriller for as long as it lasted.


A win Tuivasa desperately needed just to stay in the UFC, following three straight losses. He’s been dropping weight, and working on his wrestling—and if nothing else, Tuivasa looked much more patient this time out. He’s got the athletic gifts, he’s got the size, and he’s got the durability. Just being a more consistent performer would go a long way to correcting the issues that have seen him lose lately. And a confidence boost from a first-round KO doesn’t hurt either. While this win could line him up to jump in against someone like Marcin Tybura, at this point, I’d rather see Tuivasa keep proving himself against some relatively lower end talent. The winner of Maurice Greene vs. Greg Hardy wouldn’t be a bad idea. But I’ll go with a fight against Chris Daukaus. Daukaus has proved himself a shockingly quick finisher so far, behind a sharp boxing game. Would that be enough to take Tuivasa apart, or would ‘Bam Bam’’s athleticism and power be too much for him? Tuivasa vs. Daukaus seems sure to end early.


Just an unbelievable performance from both Kenney and Wood. Especially considering that Kenney went three hard rounds with Heili Alateng earlier this month. He and the ‘Prospect’ poured every ounce of offense they had into three rounds, and it’s just a shame that either man had to walk away with a loss. That said, Kenney is now on a three fight win streak in the bantamweight division coming off his defeat to Merab Dvalishvili earlier this year. Time to get another top 15 opponent. And, given the current shape of the division, there’s really only one option on the table: Song Yadong. Kenney would be a hell of a challenge for the top prospect out of China, especially given Kenney’s pace and pressure out of the gate and his top flight scrambling. And for Kenney, Yadong is the kind of elite, power punching athlete he’ll have to beat regularly if he wants to challenge for gold. Casey Kenney vs. Song Yadong would be a great fight.

OTHER BOUTS: Walt Harris vs. Ben Rothwell, Phil Hawes vs. Dusko Todorovic, Jacob Malkoun vs. KB Bhullar, Liliya Shakirova vs. Diana Belbita, Ion Cutelaba vs. Rua/Craig loser, Stefan Struve vs. Hardy/Green loser, Nathaniel Wood vs. Montel Jackson, Shavkat Rakhmonov vs. Ramazan Emeev, Alex Oliveira vs. Anthony Rocco Martin, Da Un Jung vs. William Knight, Sam Alvey vs. Michal Oleksiejczuk, Miranda Maverick vs. McCann/Procopio winner, Liana Jojua vs. Luana Carolina, Joel Alvarez vs. Jalin Turner, Alexander Yakovlev vs. Damir Hadzovic

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About the author
Zane Simon
Zane Simon

Zane Simon is a senior editor, writer, and podcaster for Bloody Elbow. He has worked with the website since 2013, taking on a wide variety of roles. A lifelong combat sports fan, Zane has trained off & on in both boxing and Muay Thai. He currently hosts the long-running MMA Vivisection podcast, which he took over from Nate Wilcox & Dallas Winston in 2015, as well as the 6th Round podcast, started in 2014. Zane is also responsible for developing and maintaining the ‘List of current UFC fighters’ on Bloody Elbow, a resource he originally developed for Wikipedia in 2010.

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