Perhaps the most anticipated UFC card of 2020, UFC 254 delivered with stellar performances. The main event featured a lightweight title fight between the champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim champ Justin Gaethje. With his high level wrestling background, Gaethje seemed like Khabib’s toughest test to date. At 28-0, Nurmagomedov looked to go out and prove once again that he is the most dominant champion in the UFC. It all came down to whether or not Gaethje could stop Nurmagomedov’s takedowns.
Before the lightweight title fight, the co-main event featured a middleweight title eliminator. The fight featured former UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker as he came off his first win since losing the title. Whittaker faced off against heavy hitting knockout artist Jared Cannonier. Cannonier entered the fight having won his last three straight fights by TKO. This fight had big implications when it was booked, but it became a bigger deal after Israel Adesanya‘s UFC 253 title defense over Paulo Costa. After his win, during his post-fight interview, Adesanya told Cannonier that if he beats Whittaker, he will get the next shot. Even if Whittaker were to win, Adesanya would likely be open to a rematch.
From top to bottom, UFC 254 featured some back and forth fights and some crazy finishes. There was even a split draw on the card as Da-Un Jung and Sam Alvey put on an entertaining outing. Anyway, with that being said, it’s time to put together the list of UFC 254’s five standout performances. With so many this week, there will likely be a couple of honorable mentions as well.
UFC 254 Standout Performances
#1 Khabib Nurmagomedov
def. Justin Gaethje via Submission (Triangle Choke) at 1:34 of Round Two
After starting his career 25-0, Khabib Nurmagomedov finally got his shot at a UFC title in 2018. Nurmagomedov faced Al Iaquinta for the vacant title at UFC 223. He would defeat Iaquinta by unanimous decision to start his journey as champion. In his first title defense, Nurmagomedov faced former UFC featherweight and lightweight champion Conor McGregor. He defeated McGregor in the fourth round of their fight, submitting him in the fourth round. In his most recent fight, Nurmagomedov faced UFC interim lightweight champion Dustin Poirier at UFC 242. Nurmagomedov won his second straight fight with a rear naked choke that day as he finished Poirier in round three. He looked to improve his record to 29-0 against a tough test in Justin Gaethje.
Justin Gaethje started his MMA career at 18-0 before dropping two straight in the UFC. After suffering back-to-back losses for the first time in his career, Gaethje went on a tear. He returned in the main event of UFC Fight Night 135, knocking out James Vick in about a minute and a half. He followed that up with a two and a half minute knockout against Edson Barboza in the main event of UFC on ESPN 2. Gaethje picked up his third straight KO/TKO finish in just over four minutes against Donald Cerrone at UFC Fight Night 158 to earn an interim title shot. Gaethje won the interim title in his last fight with a round five TKO win over Tony Ferguson at UFC 249.
Justin Gaethje brought out perhaps one of the wildest rounds in Nurmagomedov during the first round of their meeting. Right from the start, Gaethje immediately started attacking the lead leg of Nurmagomedov. He was also doing a good job of stopping takedowns at first as he stuffed a few of Nurmagomedov’s initial attempts. Nurmagomedov was the one putting on pressure during round one as he walked Gaethje down for most of it. As he walked him down, Nurmagomedov was throwing some heavy shots. He landed some, including some knees along the fence. But Gaethje was also landing as he cracked Nurmagomedov a couple of times with some good combinations. Yet Nurmagomedov kept coming forward, even after taking some of Gaethje’s best shots.
Finally, during the last minute of the round, Nurmagomedov got Gaethje down and quickly moved into top mount. Once in top mount, Nurmagomedov quickly started fishing for an armbar, but would run out of time.
As round two started, it was much of the same as the first. Nurmagomedov started the round off by pressuring Gaethje and throwing some good shots. As Gaethje backed up, he was landing some shots as well every now and then. But just over a minute into the round, after eating a heavy leg kick, Nurmagomedov grabbed a hold of Gaethje and got him down. As he took him down, Nurmagomedov took Gaethje’s back but Gaethje quickly turned to let him have top mount instead. Once he was in top mount, Nurmagomedov quickly looked to lock up a triangle choke and seconds later, Gaethje was out.
After the fight, Nurmagomedov revealed that due to his father’s passing and a promise he made to his Mother, this was his last fight. Retirement is never a sure thing in this sport, but the timing for Nurmagomedov makes sense and after the career he has had it is completely understandable. Therefore, there will be nothing about his next opponent here as everyone wishes him a happy retirement.
With that being said, who will the UFC choose to fight for the vacant title? During his post-fight interview, Gaethje said he is ready to come back and fight for it whenever. And it seems like there could already be an opponent set up for him. That opponent would be former Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler. Chandler recently signed with the UFC in the last few months and weighed in as a back-up for Saturday’s title fight. Prior to signing with the UFC, Chandler put together back-to-back knockout wins with Bellator. The first of those wins was at Bellator 237 as he finished Sidney Outlaw three minutes into the first round. In his most recent fight, he finished former UFC and WEC lightweight champion Benson Henderson at Bellator 243.
The UFC could also promote the possible match-up between Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier to a vacant title fight. But Gaethje and Chandler would make a lot more sense.
#2 Magomed Ankalaev
def. Ion Cutelaba via Knockout (Punches) at 4:19 of Round One
When these two fighters first met at UFC Fight Night 169, Ion Cutelaba seemed to be acting like he was hurt to bait Magomed Ankalaev. During this alleged act, the ref seemed to think it was all for real and Cutelaba was badly stunned. So, he stepped in and stopped the fight. Cutelaba immediately protested and seemed perfectly fine, so, they meet again at UFC 254.
Prior to his meetings with Cutelaba, Ankalaev had won his last three straight. Two of those wins came by way of knockout as he finished Marcin Prachnio at UFC Fight Night 136. He would then defeat Klidson Abreu by unanimous decision before knocking out Dalcha Lungiambula in round three at UFC Fight Night 163.
As for Cutelaba, before meeting Ankalaev, he had gone 3-1 in his last four fights. At first, he had put together back-to-back KO/TKO wins. The first of those wins was a knockout win over Henrique da Silva in just over twenty seconds at UFC Fight Night 110. Cutelaba would then go on to finish Gadzhimurad Antigulov by first round TKO at UFC on Fox 30. He would then end up losing to former light heavyweight title challenger Glover Teixeira by second round submission at UFC Fight Night 150. After that loss, he bounced back with a big first round TKO win over Khalil Rountree at UFC Fight Night 160.
The first big strike of the fight came about a minute in as Ankalaev moved forward and landing a front kick followed by a left hand. Cutelaba then responded with a big strike of his own seconds later as he landed a heavy counter off an Ankalaev leg kick. As the round continued, each fighter was able to just get out of the way of most of their opponent’s heaviest shots. Every now and then, something will slip through the guard but each man kept coming forward.
With just over a minute remaining, Cutelaba appeared to attempt a spinning back fist. With his chin exposed in this position, Ankalaev landed a nice left hand that knocked Cutelaba off his feet for a second. Once Cutelaba got back to his feet, Ankalaev patiently waited for another opening. As Cutelaba moved forward, throwing some punches, Anklaev found his moment and countered with a quick combo that dropped Cutelaba. Once on the ground, Ankalaev unleashed his ground and pound before knocking Cutelaba out cold.
Now that the rivalry with Cutelaba is over, one opponent that could make sense for Ankalaev’s next outing could be former title challenger Volkan Oezdemir. Oezdemir currently sits at number six in the UFC light heavyweight rankings.
His shot at the title was in 2018 when he faced Daniel Cormier at UFC 220. He would lose by round two TKO, kicking off a three fight losing streak. He lost his next two fights to future title challengers Anthony Smith and Dominick Reyes. Oezdemir finally picked up a win in August 2019 with a second round knockout win over Ilir Latifi at UFC Fight Night 156. Following that win, Oezdemir won a second straight fight as he defeated Aleksandar Rakic by split decision at UFC Fight Night 165. In Oezdemir’s last fight, he suffered a knockout loss to former Rizin light heavyweight champion Jiri Prochazka. A fight between Oezdemir and Ankalaev would surely be entertaining. It gives Oezdemir the chance to rebound from his recent loss while Akalaev looks to keep climbing the rankings.
#3 Phillip Hawes
def. Jacob Malkoun via Knockout (Punches) at 0:18 of Round One
After just four fights outside of the UFC, Jacob Malkoun had put together a 4-0 record and earned a UFC contract. Among his four wins were two TKO wins, defeating Ryan Heketa in the first round and Christophe Van Dijck in the third round. His other two wins were by unanimous decision over Cameron Rowston and Sebastian Temesi. Malkoun looked to improve his record to 5-0 and pick up a win in his UFC debut.
Malkoun’s opponent, Phillip Hawes, earned his UFC contract off Dana White’s Contender Series. After a failed attempt in week four of the first season in 2017 against Julian Marquez, Hawes won his next three straight outside of the octagon. The first of those wins was with Bellator as he defeated Michael Wilcox at Bellator 222. He would then go on to defeat Dominic Schober at Brave CF 30 by submission in the first round. His third straight finish was a TKO win over Yuri Fraga at WFC 24/Brave CF 34. This earned Hawes another shot on the contender series this past September as he faced Khadzhimurat Bestaev. Hawes would defeated Bestaev in the first round by TKO to earn himself a shot in the UFC.
Once the fight began, Hawes quickly backed Malkoun up to the fence. Once he got him to the cage, he started unloading combinations and quickly landed cleanly, knocking Malkoun down. After a few shots on the ground, Malkoun was clearly out of the fight as the ref stepped in to call a stop to it.
After the quick win in his debut, Hawes would probably like to get back into the octagon before the year is out. With that being said, who could he potentially face in his next outing? One good option may be another recent debuting fighter in Dusko Todorovic.
Todorovic was another product of Dana White’s Contender Series as he appeared in episode ten of season three. In that fight, he faced off against Teddy Ash and won by unanimous decision. After earning a UFC contract, Todorovic’s first fight was scheduled for UFC on ESPN 16 as he took on Dequan Townsend. Todorovic came up successful in his UFC debut as he finished Townsend in the second round by TKO. A fight between these two contender series alums could easily sprout a new contender.
#4 Alexander Volkov
def. Walt Harris via TKO (Strikes) at 1:15 of Round Two
In his last three fights before UFC 254, former Bellator champion Alexander Volkov had gone 1-2. This after he had put together a six fight win streak with wins over Roy Nelson and former heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum. After his win over Werdum, Volkov’s win streak was snapped with a third round knockout loss to Derrick Lewis at UFC 229. In his next fight, he bounced back with a win over Greg Hardy as he defeated him by unanimous decision at UFC Fight Night 163. Volkov’s most recent outing was over the summer in the main event of UFC on ESPN 11 as he faced off against Curtis Blaydes. Blaydes would defeat him in that fight by unanimous decision.
Facing off against Volkov at UFC 254 would be Walt Harris. Prior to facing Volkov, Harris had gone 3-1, 1 NC in his last five fights. The first of those three wins was a TKO win over Daniel Spitz at UFC Fight Night 131. Then the no contest happened against Andrei Arlovski after Harris failed a drug test. After that, he won his next two fights starting with a fifty second TKO win over Sergey Spivak at UFC Fight Night 151. Harris followed that up with a twelve second knockout over Aleksei Oleinik at UFC on ESPN 4. In his last fight, Harris took on Alistair Overeem in the main event of UFC on ESPN 8. His two fight win streak was snapped in that fight as Overeem finished him by TKO in round two.
During the first minute of the round, Harris was doing a good job of landing combinations. Volkov would fire back with his own hards shots as well as each guy was trading punches. The round went on and each fighter continued landing their own shots but during the last minute, Volkov started landing the most significant ones. He hurt him with a nice two punch combination before backing him up to the cage and landing some nice shots there. Harris was able to recover and survive the final twenty seconds of the first round. It was a close first round but Volkov may have done just enough during the final minute to steal the lead.
As the second round began, Harris looked to shoot for a takedown but bounced back up looking to land some punches. As the first minute of the round went by, Volkov continued pressuring Harris back towards the fence. Once he backed him up nearly all the way, Volkov landed a perfectly placed kick right to Harris’ solar plexus just over a minute into the round. Harris quickly crumbled to the mat where Volkov would land the fight ending ground and pound.
After the fight, Volkov made it clear that he is gunning for the title. He then laid out three opponents he would like to face in order to get there; Alistair Overeem, Junior dos Santos and Jairzinho Rozenstruik. Right now, it seems like a rematch between Rozenstruik and Overeem makes a lot of sense due to their current positions, leaving JDS for Volkov. The only downside to this fight is that dos Santos is on a three fight losing streak, but he is a former champ. Also, Volkov called him out.
As mentioned, JDS is currently on a three fight losing streak, this coming after an impressive three fight win streak. Those three wins included a unanimous decision win over Blagoy Ivanov and two TKO wins over Tuivasa and Lewis. His win streak was snapped in the main event of UFC on ESPN 3 as he was finished in the first round by Francis Ngannou. Dos Santos was finished once again in his next outing as Curtis Blaydes defeated him in the main event of UFC Fight Night 166. Finally, in his last fight, he suffered another TKO loss to Rozenstruik at UFC 252. A fight with Volkov gives him a good opportunity to bounce back against a good contender. Plus, it gives Volkov the chance to add a former champion to his résumé while improving his win streak to two.
#5 Shavkat Rakhmonov
def. Alex Oliveira* via Submission (Guillotine) at 4:40 of Round One
In his last five fights before UFC 254, Alex Oliveira had gone 2-3. Starting in 2018, he had gone on a three fight losing streak. The first loss came against Gunnar Nelson as Nelson finished him by second round submission. Oliveira then went on to lose to Mike Perry by unanimous decision at UFC Fight Night 150. His third straight loss came at UFC Fight Night 160 as Nicolas Dalby defeated him by unanimous decision. Oliveira would snap his losing streak in his next outing against Max Griffin at UFC 248. In that fight, Oliveira defeated Griffin by split decision. He would then win a second straight in his last outing as he defeated Peter Sobotta by unanimous decision at UFC on ESPN 14. He would be facing UFC newcomer Shavkat Rakhmonov at UFC 254.
Prior to joining the UFC, Rakhmonov appeared multiple times for M-1 and KZMMAF. Over that time, he put together an undefeated record of 12-0. In his last four fights before entering the octagon, Rakhmonov had put together four straight TKO wins. His last two came under M-1 as he defeated Danila Prikaza and Tiago Varejao Lacerda. He looked to pick up a big win in his UFC debut against a veteran like Oliveira.
Oliveira landed the first big shot of the fight as he landed a nice, clean right hand moments into the fight. As the round continued, Rakhmonov was doing a good job of pressuring Oliveira. Backing him up to the cage, Rakhmonov was landing some nice outside leg kicks as well. A couple minutes into the round, Rakhmonov came forward and landed a huge knee to Oliveira’s body. He followed it up with some nice punches along the fence before Oliveira countered with a left hand allowing him to clinch with Rakhmonov. They stayed in the clinch for the rest of the round until there was about forty seconds or so remaining. At that point, Oliveira changed levels to look for a takedown, allowing Rakhmonov to lock up the fight ending guillotine.
Originally, heading into UFC 254, the plan was for Rakhmonov to face off against Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos. However, dos Santos pulled out of the fight with an injury last month, forcing Oliveira to step in. After picking up the big win over Oliveira, why not just match Rakhmonov up with dos Santos again? Another win over someone like dos Santos and Rakhmonov could be earning ranked match ups soon.
For three years, from April 2016 to August 2019, dos Santos had done nothing but win. Over that timespan he put together a seven fight win streak with wins over Lyman Good, Max Griffin and Curtis Millender. After his win over Millender, dos Santos’ win streak was snapped at UFC Fight Night 157. That night, dos Santos lost to Li Jingliang as Jingliang finishes him in the third round by TKO. Coming back from his first loss in a few years, dos Santos faced Alexey Kunchenko in his next fight at UFC Fight Night 170. Dos Santos picked up a win in that fight to avoid back-to-back losses as he defeated Kunchenko by unanimous decision. Finally, in his most recent fight, dos Santos took on Muslim Salikhov at UFC 251 and lost by split decision.
Tai Tuivasa def. Stefan Struve via Knockout (Punches) at 4:59 of Round One
Coming into the fight having lost his last three straight, Tai Tuivasa looked to pick up a much needed win at UFC 254. Towering over him across the cage would be seven foot tall Stefan Struve. In Tuivasa’s last three fights, two of those losses were inside the distance. The first of them was against former champion Junior dos Santos in the main event at UFC Fight Night 142, losing by second round TKO. He then lost a unanimous decision to Blagoy Ivanov before being submitted by Sergey Spivak at UFC 243. As for Struve, he entered the fight with a 1-4 record in his last five outings. The one win came last year at UFC Fight Night 145 as he defeated Marcos Rogerio de Lima by second round submission. His four losses during that time came to notable names like Alexander Volkov, Andrei Arlovski, Marcin Tybura and Ben Rothwell.
The gameplan for Tuivasa became clear immediately; due to Struve’s height, he had to close the distance quickly if he wanted to land any significant strikes. Throughout the fight, Tuivasa came forward, landing heavy leg kicks before closing the distance and clinching on the fence. Tuivasa was landing some good shots when he was able to get in range. With just about twenty seconds left in the round, Tuivasa got Struve back on the fence again where he started landing some good shots. Struve lost his footing at one point and fell to the mat and as he tried to get back to his feet, Tuivasa landed the fight ending punches that caused “The Skyscraper” to collapse.
As far as what is next for Tuivasa, this win more than likely earned him someone just outside of the top-fifteen. One possibility could be a fight with Ben Rothwell. Rothwell is 2-1 in his last three fights. Those wins came back-to-back as he defeated Struve by TKO before defeating former light heavyweight interim title challenger Ovince Saint Preux by unanimous decision. In his last fight, Rothwell lost to Marcin Tybura by unanimous decision at UFC Fight Night 179.
Robert Whittaker def. Jared Cannonier via Unanimous Decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
Over the summer, former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker made his first appearance since losing the title. In that fight, he faced Darren Till in the main event of UFC on ESPN 14. Whittaker would win the fight by unanimous decision, keeping him at the top of the division, just outside Adesanya. As for Cannonier, he had put together three straight TKO wins before UFC 254. The first of them was a second round finish over David Branch at UFC 230. He would then finish former middleweight champion Anderson Silva in the first round at UFC 237. Finally, before UFC 254, Cannonier finished Jack Hermansson in the second round of his first main event at UFC Fight Night 160.
When these two met at UFC 254, they put on a spectacular fight. Throughout the fight, it was clear that Cannonier’s game plan was to attack Whittaker’s lead leg. And he did a very good job of doing that through the full fifteen minutes. However, Whittaker did a good job of powering through them and checking them every now and then so his movement was not affected.
In the third round, Whittaker landed a head kick that stunned Cannonier and caused him to fall face first into the canvas. The fight could have been stopped but Cannonier quickly regained his senses and was intelligently defending off his back. He eventually got back to his feet and they traded wild exchanges until the end of the fight. Cannonier even stunned Whittaker at one point but it was too little, too late as Whittaker won by unanimous decision setting up a title rematch with Adesanya.
Next week, the UFC holds a card on Halloween as Anderson Silva steps into the octagon for the final time. The former middleweight champion will face off against Uriah Hall in the main event of UFC Fight Night 181. Since Uriah Hall lost a fight to former title challenger Paulo Costa at UFC 226, he has gone on to win his next two outings. The first of those was against Bevon Lewis at UFC 232. Hall finished Lewis in that fight as he knocked him out in the third round. In his most recent fight, Hall defeated Antonio Carlos Junior by split decision at UFC Fight Night 158.
As for Silva, he enters his final fight with a record of 1-4 in his last five fights. Those five fights date back to 2016 as he put together a two fight losing streak. This, coming after serving a one year suspension due to a failed drug test. In his first fight back from suspension, Silva faced Michael Bisping in the main event of UFC Fight Night 84. The pair went all five rounds as a bloodied Michael Bisping picked up the unanimous decision win. Silva would then lose his second straight fight against Daniel Cormier in a light heavyweight fight as Cormier easily defeated him by UD. After that fight, Silva picked up a unanimous decision win in a close fight with Derek Brunson at UFC 208. Since then, Silva has lost his last two straight, dropping a decision to Adesanya and a TKO loss to Cannonier.
Also, in the co-main event Bryce Mitchell debuts the camo shorts as he faces off against Andre Fili. Fili enters the fight coming off a split decision win over Charles Jourdain at UFC on ESPN 10. Meanwhile, Mitchell holds a perfect record of 13-0 as he has gone 4-0 in the UFC. He most recently defeated Charles Rosa by unanimous decision at UFC 249. So do not forget to check back here next week to potentially see UFC Fight Night 181’s standout performances.
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