DraftKings MMA: UFC 254 Preview

DraftKings MMA: UFC 254 Preview

This article is part of our DraftKings MMA series.

Get your lineups in Friday night for a card set to cater to a prime-time audience in Abu Dhabi, resulting in a 10:30 a.m. EST start time. By the time the afternoon arrives, fight fans will be treated to a title fight between two of the world's best at 155 pounds.

If you're hoping to turn the event into an opportunity to build your DFS bankroll, DraftKings.com has you covered with a full slate of contests, including a $500k 254 Special with $100k to first place. Players get a $50,000 budget to select six fighters, and the scoring is distributed as follows:

Moves Scoring
Significant Strikes (SS): +0.5 PTS
Advance (ADVC): +3 PT
Takedown (TD): +5 PTS
Reversal/Sweep (REV): +5 PTS
Knockdown (KD): +10 PTS

Fight Conclusion Bonuses
1st Round Win (1rW+): +90 PTS
2nd Round Win (2rW+): +70 PTS
3rd Round Win (3rW+): +45 PTS
4th Round Win (4rW+): +40 PTS
5th Round Win (5rW+): +40 PTS
Decision Win (WBD+): +30 PTS

Scoring Notes
Significant Strikes are any Distance Strike or Clinch/Ground Strikes that are considered "Power Strikes" by official scorers.

Advances include: To Half Guard, To Side Control, To Mount, To Back Control

Now, on to the fights...

Main Event - Lightweight Championship

(C) Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0-0) v. (IC) Justin Gaethje (22-2-0)
DK Salaries: Nurmagomedov ($9,000), Gaethje ($7,200)
Vegas Odds: Nurmagomedov (-330), Gaethje (+270)
Odds to Finish: -215

This is a massive fight and really the only matchup that made any sense at 155 pounds at the moment. A few months ago I thought this would have been a cakewalk for Khabib, but now I'm not so sure.

We last saw Nurmagomedov in September 2019, at which point he was blowing the doors off and eventually submitting Dustin Poirier. Prior to that, Khabib easily submitted Conor McGregor, in addition to taking unanimous decisions from Al Iaquinta and Edson Barboza. We know no one in this sport is untouchable, but Khabib looks the part. He averages 5.35 takedowns per 15 minutes, in addition to connecting on 47 percent of his attempts. I've never seen an MMA fighter get his opposition to the ground with such ease. Nurmagomedov doesn't need perfect positioning on his entries to complete his takedown attempts. He can connect from literally anywhere. Because he spends so much time in top position, Khabib absorbs just 1.65 significant strikes per 15 minutes. He does get hit at times, and his chin has held up just fine in those instances. I find it impossible to believe any opponent is going to outpoint Khabib over the course of 25 minutes, so it's probably going to take a knockout in order to beat him.

Throughout his WSOF (now PFL) run and early days with the UFC, Gaethje earned a (well deserved) reputation as a reckless brawler. He would eat two shots in order to land three of his own. It was a strategy that was largely successful because Gaethje is arguably the most durable fighter in the history of the sport. His chin and ability to absorb punishment from his opposition is truly mind boggling. Yet something changed in Gaethje's most recent fight against Tony Ferguson in May in which he won the interim UFC Lightweight Championship. Gaethje actually took his time and picked his spots and used Ferguson's aggressiveness against him. It was a flawless performance and one I never would have seen coming in a million years. Gaethje's power is ridiculous, and I already discussed his durability. He has a legitimate chance to win this fight if he can keep it standing.

That, however, is the million dollar question. The next opponent to successfully ward of Khabib's takedown attempts on a consistent basis will be the first. Gaethje is a former Division I All-American wrestler, but he has essentially tabled those skills as a professional mixed martial artist. He doesn't need to generate any offense through his wrestling, but he does need to remain upright. Gaethje's takedown defense throughout his UFC career is an impressive 80 percent, but it must be mentioned that he hasn't faced shots from Khabib yet. 

Prior to the Ferguson fight I would have given Gaethje zero chance here. Now, I'm wavering a bit. Not enough to ultimately change by pick of Khabib, but I'm certainly at the point in which I feel Gaethje is being massively undervalued at his $7,000 price tag. He's going to have to fight a perfect fight (which we've seen him do) and get a lucky break or two along the way, but Gaethje is a live underdog. Ultimately, however, like Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson before him, I am at the point in which I will be picking Khabib in every lightweight bout in which he competes until he finally loses. 

THE PICK: Nurmagomedov
 

Co-Main Event - Middleweight

Robert Whittaker (22-5-0) v. Jared Cannonier (13-4-0)
DK Salaries: Whittaker ($8,000), Cannonier ($8,200)
Vegas Odds: Whittaker (-105), Cannonier (-115)
Odds to Finish: -155

Cannonier is a legitimate title contender at 185 pounds, and that doesn't get talked about as often as it should. This is a guy who was nothing more than roster depth upon entering the company at heavyweight (!!!!!!!!) in January 2015. He then dropped to light heavyweight and appeared to be on the verge of being released following a 1-3 stretch from February 2017 to May 2018. Recognizing a chance was needed, Cannonier dropped down to middleweight and has since scored knockout victories over Jack Hermansson, Anderson Silva and David Branch in his first three bouts at 185 pounds. Cannonier suffered a torn pectoral muscle earlier this year, but he is clearly fully healthy now. "The Killa Gorilla" has plenty of power and is calm and confident inside the Octagon. He knows when to step on the gas and knows when to pull back and wait for an opening. Cannonier could never win another fight in his UFC career and his run would have to be viewed as a success.

We're going to get a good idea about Cannonier's future potential awfully quickly, because he will be going up against one of the most decorated middleweights in recent memory in Whittaker. "Bobby Knuckles" lost his UFC Middleweight Championship to Israel Adesanya in October 2019 in what was a rare off night for the New Zealand native. Whittaker returned this past July after taking some much-needed time off and looked fantastic in taking a unanimous decision from Darren Till in a main event spot. Whittaker has legitimate power and excels in stringing together combinations. He hits hard and often makes a point of damaging his opposition's body. He's also exceedingly durable. The Adesanya fight was the one bout in which all of these things went out the window for some reason. 

The winner of this fight (especially if it's Whittaker) will be no more than one big victory away from a title shot. We've seen enough good work from Whittaker over the years that I believe the Adesanya fight was nothing more than a rare poor effort. Maybe it's a bad stylistic matchup for Whittaker, but you aren't going to see him struggle that badly too often, if ever.

I like Cannonier and think he's legitimate, but his three big victories at middleweight came against a pop-up guy in Hermansson and a pair of aging veterans in Silva and Branch. I don't think the performances were a fluke by any means, but I need to see more against a top-tier challenger like Whittaker before I can seriously consider picking Cannonier is such a big spot. I'm very surprised he's favored here given Whittaker's past body of work.

THE PICK: Whittaker  
 

Heavyweight

Alexander Volkov (31-8-0) v. Walt Harris (13-8-0, 1NC)
DK Salaries: Volkov ($8,600), Harris ($7,600)
Vegas Odds: Volkov (-155), Harris (+135)
Odds to Finish: -165

Volkov has lost two of his past three bouts but has still been plenty impressive during his nearly four years with the UFC. Volkov has looked just fine in each of his seven UFC fights other than his most recent bout against Curtis Blaydes this past June. Volkov really struggled with the pace and wrestling of Blaydes, as Blaydes landed a whopping 14 takedowns on 25 attempts. By comparison, Volkov had been taken down just five times in his other six UFC fights. Volkov is a kickboxer by nature. He's very, very tall (6-foot-7) and excels at standing at a distance and peppering his opposition with kicks. The Russian doesn't have a ton of one-punch knockout power, but he is good at stringing together combinations. 

The circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Harris' stepdaughter are well known. Fighting with a heavy heart, Harris was knocked out by Alistair Overeem in a main event spot this past May. I'm not even going to attempt to dissect his mindset going into that fight, or this one. We have to assume that if Harris is stepping into the Octagon, that he is ready to go. Harris has far more talent than his 6-7 career record with the UFC would lead you to believe. He's 37 years old now, but the former collegiate basketball player possesses the type of athleticism that few men in division can match. I thought Harris' explosiveness would give Overeem all sorts of issues, and while it did here and there, Harris wasn't able to land any consistent offense. This projects as a tougher fight for him. 

The odds of Harris outpointing Volkov over the course of 15 minutes are exceedingly small given Volkov's kickboxing background. That means Harris has to rely on his power and explosiveness to win, and that's a difficult thing to predict given the fact Volkov has been knocked out just twice in a professional career that has lasted well over a decade. On the flip side, I like Harris' odds of seeing the final bell, but I think Volkov will wear him down with volume. Harris isn't the worst underdog on DraftKings due to his ability to end a fight in an instant.

THE PICK: Volkov
 

Women's Flyweight

Lauren Murphy (13-4-0) v. Liliya Shakirova (8-1-0)
DK Salaries: Murphy ($8,800), Shakirova ($7,400)
Vegas Odds: Murphy (-255), Shakirova (+215)
Odds to Finish: +285

This was scheduled to be Murphy v. Cynthia Calvillo before the latter tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced to withdraw about a week before the proceedings. 

Murphy has won three in a row, but there's a questionable split decision in there and she was 2-4 in the UFC prior to this most recent run. Murphy's most significant advantage over Shakirova comes in the experience department. Shakirova has never fought anyone of note, while Murphy has gone up against the likes of Sara McMann, Joanne Calderwood, Andrea Lee, Liz Carmouche and others. Murphy also has durability on her side, having never been stopped as a professional. That being said, it's a near guarantee Murphy's next three fights won't go as well as the prior three. She's 37 years of age and has never beat anyone of note via anything other than stoppage in her long pro career. Murphy's crafty enough to hang around and see the final bell in virtually all of her fightsm but she can't fall behind on the scorecards early because she doesn't possesses the athleticism to generate a ton of offense in short order. 

I'd love to put together a large technical breakdown of Sharikova's game, but the truth of the matter is that I never heard of her until she signed on to face Murphy. I have also never heard of anyone she has fought in the past. Shakirova has three career wins via knockout and one via submission. She hasn't fought in just over a year. Maybe there's something here we don't know about, but the more likely scenario is that the UFC wanted to keep Murphy on this card and Shakirova was ready to fight and could get to Abu Dhabi without issues.

I was picking Calvillo over Murphy, but I don't see how you can go against Murphy here. I feel less confident than I probably should about this one, but Sharikova doesn't appear to be useable from a DraftKings perspective (assuming she is added) until we see her in the Octagon at least once. 

THE PICK: Murphy
 

Light Heavyweight

Magomed Ankalaev (13-1-0) v. Ion Cutelaba (15-5-0, 1NC)
DK Salaries: Ankalaev ($8,900), Cutelaba ($7,300)
Vegas Odds: Ankalaev (-270), Cutelaba (+230)
Odds to Finish: -385

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. This is a rematch of a February bout which Ankalaev won via TKO in 38 seconds. It was an extremely controversial decision due to a baffling and foolish stoppage by referee Kevin MacDonald. Since then, the UFC has tried to book this fight on two occasions since. It has fallen apart both times. 

Cutelaba predictably appealed his defeat to the Virginia Athletic Commission (the fight took place in Norfolk), and his request was predictably denied. He was then due to face Ovince Saint Preux in late-April before that one was cancelled due to the pandemic. Cutelaba his 4-4 through his first eight UFC bouts. Three of his victories and three of his defeats have come via stoppage. Cutelaba is a pure power puncher, with 12 of his career victories coming via knockout. The first fight with Ankalaev was the only time in Cutelaba's pro career that he has been stopped via strikes. He's young (26 years old) and generally durable, so it's possible the Moldovan could make some strides moving forward.

Ankalaev was submitted by Paul Craig with exactly one second left in Round 3 in his company debut back in March 2018, but has run off four straight victories since. The competition level he has faced has been lousy (Cutelaba, Dalcha Lungiambula, Klidson Abreu, Marcin Prachnio), but Ankalaev's power is legitimate. He has no ground game to speak off, and that will become more apparent when he goes up against better competition, but it hasn't really hurt Ankalaev to date. 

Cutelaba averages 2.59 takedowns per 15 minutes, and while Ankalaev has little in terms of an offensive ground game, his takedown defense is a very solid 85 percent. I'd give Ankalaev the edge on the feet in a prolonged kickboxing match, as I am far more confident in his ability to defend himself.

Ultimately there is really no reason to believe this fight will end any differently than the first – other than the poor stoppage – and that makes Ankalaev an easy pick.

THE PICK: Ankalaev
 

OTHER FIGHTS

Middleweight
Jacob Malkoun (4-0-0) v. Phil Hawes (8-2-0)
DK Salaries: Malkoun ($7,100), Hawes ($9,100)
Vegas Odds: Malkoun (+220), Hawes (-260)
Odds to Finish: -245
THE PICK: Hawes

Heavyweight
Stefan Struve (33-12-0) v. Tai Tuivasa (10-3-0)
DK Salaries: Struve ($8,300), Tuivasa ($7,900)
Vegas Odds: Struve (-120), Tuivasa (+100)
Odds to Finish: -270
THE PICK: Tuivasa

Catchweight (140 pounds)
Nathaniel Wood (17-4-0) v. Casey Kenney (15-2-1)
DK Salaries: Wood ($7,500), Kenney ($8,700)
Vegas Odds: Wood (+160), Kenney (-185)
Odds to Finish: +155
THE PICK: Kenney

Welterweight
Alex Oliveira (22-8-1, 2NC) v. Shavkat Rakhmonov (12-0-0)
DK Salaries: Oliveira ($8,500), Rakhmonov ($7,700)
Vegas Odds: Oliveira (-155), Rakhmonov (+135)
Odds to Finish: +115
THE PICK: Rakhmonov

Light Heavyweight
Da Un Jung (13-2-0) v. Sam Alvey (33-14-0, 1NC)
DK Salaries: Jung ($9,400), Alvey ($6,800)
Vegas Odds: Jung (-345), Alvey (+285)
Odds to Finish: -350
THE PICK: Jung

Women's Flyweight
Liliana Jojua (8-3-0) v. Miranda Maverick (9-2-0)
DK Salaries: Jojua ($6,900), Maverick ($9,300)
Vegas Odds: Jojua (+300), Maverick (-360)
Odds to Finish: -145
THE PICK: Maverick

Lightweight
Joel Alvarez (17-2-0) v. Alexander Yakovlev (24-9-1)
DK Salaries: Alvarez ($9,000), Yakovlev ($7,200)
Vegas Odds: Alvarez (-200), Yakovlev (+170)
Odds to Finish: -185
THE PICK: Alvarez

The author(s) of this article may play in daily fantasy contests including – but not limited to – games that they have provided recommendations or advice on in this article. In the course of playing in these games using their personal accounts, it's possible that they will use players in their lineups or other strategies that differ from the recommendations they have provided above. The recommendations in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of RotoWire. Jon Litterine plays in daily fantasy contests using the following accounts: DraftKings: JLitterine.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jon Litterine
Jon Litterine is RotoWire's lead MMA Writer and MMA Editor. He has covered numerous MMA events live. He's also RW's NHL Prospect Analyst. Jon has been writing for RotoWire since 2005. He is a graduate of U Mass-Lowell.
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