UFC 254 was an instant classic and an afternoon that fight fans won’t soon forget. This event was also the promotion’s final booking in Abu Dhabi, and next week it returns to its APEX facility in Las Vegas where it will host its events for the rest of the year.
The 11 a.m. EST start time for prelims is certainly not too common for fight fans, but this didn’t take anything away from the fight we were all waiting for. In the final fight of the prelims, Tai Tuivasa hammered out a finish of Stefan Struve with one second remaining in the first round. This win snaps a three-fight losing streak and comes two months after Tuivasa posted on social media that he had been released by the UFC, but his manager clarified that he was joking. Always one for the dramatic, Tuivasa was able to do a shoey following the fight, after the Nelk Boys, YouTube pranksters, gave him a shoe and a beer.
Building off Tuivasa’s knockout, the six fight pay-per-view main card started off with four finishes. Phil Hawes, who had earned a UFC contract last month after previously coming up short in two other opportunities, made quick work of his debut fight. Hawes knocked out his opponent in 18 seconds, which was the fastest finish in a UFC debut. It should be mentioned that his opponent had only fought in four professional fights, but was undefeated in those four.
Alexander Volkov took on Walt Harris in the heavyweight division and got back on track from his unanimous decision loss to Curtis Blaydes. Former Bellator heavyweight champ Volkov picked apart Harris on the feet and secured an early second finish of Harris with a perfectly placed kick up the middle to Harris’ body. Harris’ body language was already questionable, but after the kick, he doubled over and the fight was stopped. After losing to Overeem earlier this year, this was a difficult matchup for Harris and for his next fight he should be given a step down in competition. On the other hand, a fight between Volkov and Overeem sounds perfect.
In the co-main event, former middleweight champ Robert Whittaker faced Jared Cannonier to determine the next challenger for champ Israel Adesanya. Whittaker faced a four inch reach disadvantage, but this didn’t seem to affect his game plan. Cannonier had some success early with some beautifully placed leg kicks, but once Whittaker found his kickboxing range, Cannonier had a hard time finding answers. Whittaker masked his kicks behind an active jab, and in the third round one headkick resulted in a knockdown. However, Cannonier survived to the final bell and raised his hands as if he had won. Whittaker won by unanimous decision, but interestingly enough, all three judges gave Cannonier one round, when most thought Whittaker won every round. Following the event, UFC President Dana White said that he does not have any problems with booking the rematch between Adesanya and Whittaker, and he believes Whittaker has earned it. I think we can all agree to this statement and look forward to that fight. Going into the main event, only one betting underdog had emerged victorious.
In the main event, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje met to unify the UFC lightweight title. I would argue that this was the most anticipated unification fight, ahead of Conor McGregor vs. Jose Aldo, and White made the claim during fight week that he expected this event to have a higher buyrate than any event in UFC history. Nurmagomedov made sure that there was no feeling out process at the beginning of the fight and looked to engage from the opening bell. Nurmagomedov has never been known for the most technical striking but he makes up for it with his cardio. He threw 60 strikes through the opening five minutes and never let Gaethje get any rhythm. Late in the first, Nurmagomedov got his first takedown and immediately transitioned into a submission attempt. At the end of the round, Gaethje went back to his corner breathing heavily.
Early in the second round, Nurmagomedov got his second takedown of the night and that would possibly be the last he ever needed. He quickly transitioned to full mount and locked up triangle choke from an unusual position. The choke was extremely tight and the judge somehow missed the tap before Gaethje went out, but the action was waved off seconds later. Nurmagomedov rose victorious but then emotionally went to his knees in the center of the Octagon. Nurmagomedov lost his father, who was also his trainer, in July due to COVID-19. At the time, this fight was already in the works, and I cannot imagine what Nurmagomedov went through when every training session must have been a reminder of his loss. I think I am not alone when I say that I was brought to tears seeing the raw emotions flood onto Khabib’s face.
After a few minutes, he was able to compose himself and he began to struggle at the tape around his gloves. After managing to get off his gloves, he laid them in the center of the Octagon and announced his retirement. In a statement that we can all understand, he said while holding back emotions, “This was my last fight. No way I’m gonna come here without my father.”
“The Eagle” retires at age 32 with a perfect 29-0 record. This final win was perhaps the best performance of his career and he will be considered by many as the greatest UFC fighter of all time.