Undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov will make his much-anticipated return to action on Saturday, taking on Justin Gaethje in the headlining bout of UFC 254.
The fight looks to unify the UFC’s two current lightweight champions as Gaethje has become the interim champ during Nurmagomedov’s absence from the cage.
Here’s a full preview of the pay-per-view event which is scheduled to happen on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Early Prelims (11:00AM EDT / 7:00PM GST) (ESPN+ / UFC Fight Pass)
Bout 1: Joel Alvarez (17-2) vs. Alexander Yakovlev (25-10-1) (Lightweight)
The 12-fight card will kick off early in the day in the west, with the prelims beginning at 11:00AM EDT. The first fight will be a bout between Joel Alvarez and Alexander Yakovlev.
Alvarez won in his return to the cage in July, defeating now-retired fighter Joe Duffy in the first round with a guillotine choke. His previous fight was a year before, where he picked up his first UFC win against Danilo Belluardo.
Yakovlev will be returning for his ninth fight in the UFC. His last fight was his fifth loss in the promotion, dropping a decision to Roosevelt Roberts in November of 2019.
Alvarez missed weight for the fight, coming in three-and-a-half pounds over the non-championship lightweight limit. He will lose 30 percent of his fight purse for the miss, per MMA Junkie.
Bout 2: Liana Jojua (8-3) vs. Miranda Maverick (7-2) (Flyweight)
Invicta FC veteran Miranda Maverick will make her UFC debut on the prelims against Liana Jojua. Maverick competed in Invicta from 2016 to 2020, picking up eight wins during her stint. Maverick won a one-night tournament in the promotion in 2019, defeating DeAnna Bennett in the finals of the eight-woman bracket
Her last fight was in February, defeating former UFC fighter Pearl Gonzalez via decision.
Jojua picked up her first UFC win in July, defeating Diana Belbita with an armbar in the first round.
Preliminary Card (12:00PM EDT / 8:00PM GST) (ESPN+ / TSN 5)
Bout 3: Da Un Jung (13-2) vs. Sam Alvey (33-14) (Light Heavyweight)
Sam Alvey has a crucial bout ahead of him on Saturday as he looks to stop what could become a five-fight losing streak if he loses to Da Un Jung. Alvey’s fourth loss in the streak came in May, losing a split decision to Ryan Spann at UFC 249. He last won in 2018 over Gian Villante.
The fight will be Jung’s third in the UFC. His debut year in the promotion was successful, defeating both Khadis Ibragimov and Mike Rodriguez via stoppage in 2019.
Bout 4: Alex Oliveira (22-8-1) vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov (12-0) (Welterweight)
The long-awaited UFC debut of Shavkat Rakhmonov is expected to happen on Saturday’s prelims against Alex Oliveira. Rakhmonov’s UFC debut has been attempted since March, with three previous bookings having fallen through.
After Elizeu Zaleski was taken out of a fight on UFC 254, Oliveira stepped in to take the fight. Oliveira bounced back in 2020 from a three-fight skid, defeating Max Griffin and Peter Sobotta each by decision.
Undefeated with a dozen pro fights, Rakhmonov is the former M-1 Welterweight Champion.
Oliveira missed weight for the bout, coming in two pounds over the limit. He lost 30 percent of his fight purse for the weight issues, per an on-site report by MMA Junkie.
Bout 5: Casey Kenney (15-2-1) vs. Nathaniel Wood (17-4) (Catchweight 140 lbs)
Looking for this third win in the year, Casey Kenney will fight Nathaniel Wood on the prelims. Kenney’s first appearance in 2020 was a loss, being defeated via scorecards by Merab Dvalishvili. He has since gotten back into the win column with victories over Louis Smolka and Alatengheili.
Wood won his first fight of 2020 in July, defeating John Castaneda. The shutout performance was a good return for the former Cage Warriors Bantamweight Champion, as he had previously taken his first loss in years to John Dodson.
Bout 6: Stefan Struve (29-12) vs. Tai Tuivasa (10-3) (Heavyweight)
Heavyweights will finish the preliminary card as Stefan Struve will face Tai Tuivasa.
Struve’s last fight ended with controversy, as Ben Rothwell stopped him in the second round shortly after landing unintentional groin strikes that forced pauses in the action. The fight was Struve’s return from retirement just 10 months after announcing it.
Tuivasa is in an important spot with the fight, as he has lost his last fight. Rumours surfaced in the summer that Tuivasa was cut from the UFC, although it was later proven wrong by a fight announcement. The fight will be his first since 2019, as his last fight was a loss to Serghei Spivac.
Main Card (2:00PM EDT / 10:00PM GST) (PPV)
Bout 7: Magomed Ankalaev (13-1) vs. Ion Cutelaba (15-5) (Light Heavyweight)
The light heavyweight rematch between Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cutelaba will seemingly finally happen on Saturday.
The first meeting between the fighters happened in February, where Ankalaev defeated Cutelaba within a round with punches. The finish was controversial, as Cutelaba claimed he was pretending to be wobbled on his feet.
A rematch between the two has fallen through in its previous three iterations due to various reasons. The storyline between the fighters could get its payoff on Saturday.
Bout 8: Lauren Murphy (13-4) vs. Liliya Shakirova (8-1) (Flyweight)
Short-notice opponent Liliya Shakirova will make her UFC debut on a PPV main card on Saturday against Lauren Murphy. Shakirova replaces Cynthia Calvillo, who withdrew from the bout as it was approaching.
Shakirova has a nine-fight career with eight wins as a pro.
Murphy will look for her fourth-straight victory in the fight. Her most recent fight came against veteran Roxanne Modafferi in June, taking her to a decision.
Bout 9: Phil Hawes (8-2) vs. Jacob Malkoun (4-0) (Middleweight)
“Dana White’s Contender Series” stand-out Phil Hawes will make his UFC debut on the main card against Jacob Malkoun. He won his UFC contract in September, defeating Khadzhimurat Bestaev in the second minute with strikes.
Malkoun walks into his respective UFC debut after four wins as a pro. His last win was in late 2019, defeating Sebastian Temesi on an Eternal MMA card.
Bout 10: Alexander Volkov (31-8) vs. Walt Harris (13-8) (Heavyweight)
Heavyweights Alexander Volkov and Walt Harris will attempt to come back from their respective recent main event losses on the main card.
Volkov lost a main event in June to Curtis Blaydes, being taken five rounds before losing on the scorecards.
Harris lost his return to action in May, being finished in the second round by veteran heavyweight Alistair Overeem.
Both fighters had wins prior to their loss.
Bout 11: Robert Whittaker (21-5) vs. Jared Cannonier (13-4) (Middleweight)
After Israel Adesanya picked up a quick title defence at UFC 253 over Paulo Costa, many wondered who would be next in line to challenge him. That question may be answered on Saturday when Robert Whittaker and Jared Cannonier fight in the co-main event of the PPV.
Whittaker, a former champion, lost his belt just over a year ago, being stopped by Adesanya at UFC 243. He got his first win since the loss in July, defeating Darren Till via decision in the headlining spot of a “Fight Night.”
Cannonier has put together a three-fight streak of wins in the past three years. His last win came in September of 2019, stopping Jack Hermansson in the second round of a headlining fight with strikes.
Bout 12: Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0) vs. Justin Gaethje (22-2) (UFC Lightweight Championship)
The two lightweight belts will be unified in the main event of the evening, as UFC Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov will fight interim champ Justin Gaethje.
Still undefeated through 28 fights as a pro, Nurmagomedov will look to defend his belt for the third-straight time. His last two defences came in the past two years with wins over Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier, who smothering and dominating performances where he broke his opponent.
Nurmagomedov was originally supposed to fight in April against Tony Ferguson, although COVID-19 restrictions stopped Nurmagomedov from travelling. Ferguson fought Gaethje in the meantime, giving Gaethje a win that put him next in line for a title shot.
Prior to the win, Gaethje had three-straight first-round stoppage wins over high-level fighters with punches.