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UFC 254 Main Card Picks: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje Predictions, Preview, Betting Odds, DraftKings MMA DFS Picks

Timothy Finnegan breaks down the UFC 254 main event fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje, providing a prediction along with bets to consider on DraftKings Sportsbook and a DraftKings DFS play.

It’s rare to see a fighter in mixed martial arts go undefeated for their entire career. There’s just too many different ways to lose. The tiny 4-ounce gloves allow punches to sneak through much more easily than larger boxing gloves do, and the mixture of punching, kicking, wrestling, kneeing, joint locking and choking gives fighters so many different methods to win. Fighters are bound to run into someone who can catch them on an off night. If you fight at the highest level of this sport for a long time, there’s a good chance you eventually lose. Almost all of the all-time greats in MMA have losses, even the ones who had the most indestructible auras of invincibility at their peaks.

Khabib Nurmagomedov is one of the rare MMA fighters who has a legitimate chance to end his career undefeated. The 32-year-old Nurmagomedov is a perfect 28-0 in his professional career, including 12-0 in the UFC. Nurmagomedov has arguably the best top game the sport has ever seen at the lighter weight classes and is constantly imposing his will on opponents with takedowns and top control.

At UFC 254 on Saturday, Nurmagomedov will face Justin Gaethje in a highly-anticipated lightweight unification title bout. It is important to note that UFC 254 has an unusually early start time, with the main card set to get underway at 2:00 p.m. ET, about eight hours earlier than the usual start time of 10:00 p.m. ET for UFC pay-per-view main cards. The reason for the earlier start time is to make the event more viewer-friendly for European fans due to Nurmagomedov’s presence in Europe, and particularly in his home country of Russia, which is seven hours past the Eastern Time Zone in the capital city of Moscow.

DraftKings is hosting a big UFC 254 fantasy MMA tournament that pays out $500K in guaranteed prizes, including $100K to first place. The fantasy MMA contest locks at 11:00 a.m. ET on Saturday morning with the start of the prelims. Set your DraftKings fantasy MMA lineups here: MMA $500K 254 Special [$100K to 1st].

DraftKings Sportsbook will also be featuring bets that can be placed throughout the day for the duration of UFC 254. See all the available bets at the DraftKings Sportsbook UFC page or by downloading the DraftKings Sportsbook app.

Below, we will break down the main event title fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje and examine some of the offerings for the fight by DraftKings Sportsbook. In addition, we will take a look at the DraftKings daily fantasy MMA slate and make a pick for the $500K 254 Special [$100K to 1st] contest.


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DraftKings Sportsbook odds for Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje

Moneyline

Total Rounds

To Go the Distance

For the full list of available bets, download the DraftKings Sportsbook app or check out the DraftKings Sportsbook UFC page.


Breakdown

Khabib Nurmagomedov enters this fight as the heavy favorite on DraftKings Sportsbook. Nurmagomedov is a fierce Russian grappler who constantly imposes his will on opponents with his smothering chain wrestling and top game. Nurmagomedov has secured the 10th most takedowns among all qualified fighters in UFC history, and because his takedown game and control is so relentless, he spends a lot of time in the top position on the ground. Nurmagomedov ranks in the top 10 among all active UFC fighters in top position time and control time. Nurmagomedov’s style is to drag his opponents into the deep end with takedowns, control them on the ground with pressure and then drown them with advances, strikes and submissions.

Because Nurmagomedov spends so much time controlling his opponents in the top position on the ground, he rarely absorbs strikes, ranking seventh best among all active UFC fighters in strikes absorbed per minute. There is a saying that “the best defense is a strong offense”, and that statement applies to Nurmagomedov, because it’s not so much a great defensive game that causes him to not get hit very often, but rather that he puts his opponents in positions that make it difficult for them to attack him. It’s hard to launch striking volume at Nurmagomedov when fighters are fighting for their lives on the ground or hesitant to chain together striking combinations on the feet out of fear of being taken down.

Justin Gaethje is known for being one of the most violent fighters in the sport. Gaethje has a history of pouring out a ton of striking volume, landing roughly eight significant strikes per minute, the best rate among all qualified UFC fighters since the UFC began tracking the statistic. Gaethje is fast, athletic and has a powerful left hook that serves as an excellent counterpunch. Gaethje also has strong low kicks that he uses to soften up his opponent’s base. None of Gaethje’s seven UFC fights have gone the distance, and he has finished all of his four most recent opponents with punches. While Gaethje has been reckless in the past, he showcased a more measured and smarter approach in his most recent fight against Tony Ferguson in May, which is a good sign heading into this fight.

Gaethje has an advanced wrestling background and was an All-American Division 1 wrestler in college. Gaethje does not use his wrestling offensively, as he has attempted just one takedown in seven UFC fights, but his wrestling is very notable defensively. Due to Gaethje’s wrestling skill and experience, he has quality takedown defense, elite scrambling and barely spends any time on his back. Gaethje’s bottom position time—a stat that measures how long a fighter is on his back for—ranks eighth lowest among all qualified fighters in UFC history since the statistic began being tracked and ranks third lowest among all qualified fighters in the history of the lightweight division. Among active UFC fighters, Gaethje’s bottom position time ranks fourth lowest overall and second lowest in the lightweight division.

Gaethje’s lightning quick scrambling and ability to stay off his back makes for an incredibly intriguing matchup with Nurmagomedov, because Nurmagomedov thrives on putting his opponents on their backs and drowning them from the top position on the ground. Nurmagomedov isn’t just elite at generating takedowns, he is among the best ever at keeping fighters on the ground when he does secure the takedown. This is could be the biggest key to the fight: Nurmagomedov’s elite top control vs. Gaethje’s elite scrambling. If Gaethje is able to quickly scramble out of bad positions and keep the fight standing, he will be in excellent position to pull off the upset.


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Prediction

The recipe to beat Nurmagomedov is a good old fashioned “sprawl-and-brawl” — stop Nurmagomedov’s takedowns, prevent Nurmagomedov from getting top position on the ground, and then take advantage of the least strongest part of Nurmagomedov’s game, which is his stand-up striking. This is much easier said than done, because Nurmagomedov has some of the most ferocious takedowns and best top control the sport has ever seen at the lighter weight classes. There are videos on the internet of a young Nurmagomedov wrestling a bear in Russia. Nurmagomedov is a different breed of grappler.

However, the exciting part of this matchup is that Gaethje has the tools and skills to execute a successful “sprawl-and-brawl” strategy against Nurmagomedov. This makes Gaethje a very live underdog and gives him a real shot to win this fight. Among all potential challengers to Nurmagomedov’s belt, Gaethje may be best built stylistically to beat Nurmagomedov due to his ability to defensively wrestle, scramble off his back and launch powerful strikes on the feet. After all, styles make fights, and Nurmagomedov likely won’t be able to rag doll Gaethje to the ground and control him there like he has done to so many of his other opponents, who lack the wrestling credentials and scrambling skill that Gaethje has.

If you were trying to build a fighter specifically designed to beat Nurmagomedov, Gaethje is probably the closest realistic fighter that currently exists. That doesn’t mean that Gaethje will end up beating Nurmagomedov, because Nurmagomedov is a monster, but if there’s a time to go after the value and bet on the underdog against Nurmagomedov, this is it. I think Gaethje has a better chance to win than the current betting odds indicate. There could be good value in the Justin Gaethje moneyline (+260), and Gaethje’s explosive hands and ability to finish fights with his punching makes Justin Gaethje by KO, TKO or DQ (+375) a bet to consider as well.

Prediction: Justin Gaethje to win

DraftKings Sportsbook odds for Justin Gaethje to win: +260

Place your UFC bets at the DraftKings Sportsbook UFC page or by downloading the DraftKings Sportsbook app.


DraftKings Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) Picks

DraftKings users can also get in on the UFC 254 action by entering the DraftKings UFC 254 fantasy MMA tournament, which pays out $500K in guaranteed prizes, including $100K to first place. Here’s a rundown of the scoring criteria:

Moves

  • A significant strike is worth 0.5 DraftKings fantasy points (DKFP). A significant strike is defined as any distance strike or clinch/ground strike that is considered a “power strike” by official scorers.
  • Advances on the ground are worth 3.0 DKFP. Advances include to half guard, to side control, to mount and to back control.
  • A takedown is worth 5.0 DKFP.
  • A reversal or sweep is worth 5.0 DKFP.
  • A knockdown is worth 10.0 DKFP. A knockdown is awarded to a fighter who knocks his/her opponent down due to debilitation for what the official scorers consider an appreciable amount of time.

Fight Conclusion Bonuses

DraftKings fantasy points (DKFP) are awarded based on how quickly a fighter is able to finish the fight.

  • 1st round win: 90 DKFP
  • 2nd round win: 70 DKFP
  • 3rd round win: 45 DKFP
  • 4th round win: 40 DKFP
  • 5th round win: 40 DKFP
  • Decision win: 30 DKFP

Gaethje is priced at an extremely affordable $7,000 for the fantasy MMA slate, the fourth cheapest price among all fighters on UFC 254. Nurmagomedov is much pricier at $9,200, fourth highest on the slate. Gaethje’s heavy striking volume and punching power gives him a lot of fantasy scoring upside. Gaethje has scored at least 100 DKFP in each of his last four fights, and while he does not record fantasy points through grappling, his high striking activity combined with his ability to record knockdowns and quick finishes makes him an appealing fantasy producer.

Unlike Gaethje, Nurmagomedov primarily generates his fantasy scoring through his grappling. Nurmagomedov racks up big takedown and advance volume to fuel his fantasy scoring and adds in significant strikes on the ground from top position. Nurmagomedov’s takedowns are so elite that he will likely threaten to get Gaethje down to the ground at some point, but Gaethje is the best scrambler Nurmagomedov has ever faced. Nurmagomedov could have a more difficult time recording his usual takedown and advance volume in this fight.

Because I think Gaethje matches up well against Nurmagomedov and has a real shot to win, playing him in fantasy MMA lineups at $7,000 could be a fruitful strategy as a salary relief play and allow fantasy owners to pay up for other studs, such as heavy favorites Da-Un Jung ($9,400) and Miranda Maverick ($9,300).

Set your DraftKings fantasy MMA lineups here: MMA $500K 254 Special [$100K to 1st].


Bets to consider on DraftKings Sportsbook

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All odds provided by DraftKings Sportsbook and all odds subject to change.


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I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is timfinn521) and may sometimes play on my personal account in the games that I offer advice on. Although I have expressed my personal view on the games and strategies above, they do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of DraftKings and I may also deploy different players and strategies than what I recommend above. I am not an employee of DraftKings and do not have access to any non-public information.

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