This article is part of our FanDuel MMA series.
UFC 254 features quite a few competitive fights, along with some that may be non-competitive in either direction. We try to work through the uncertainty with our picks here, including a post-hype heavyweight who has shown new signs of life, and an underdog taking on the most dominant fighter in the sport. As always, fighters in this article will be listed in order from most to least desirable among the given choices.
One final note before we begin: here's a refresher on the scoring. If you're looking for general strategy tips, I wrote a FanDuel 101 article prior to UFC Brasilia on March 14, though there have been a few minor scoring changes since then that I've noted below.
Moves Scoring (MVP 1.5X)
Significant Strikes (SS): +0.9 PTS
Takedown (TD): +9 PTS
Takedown Defense (TDEF): +4.5 PTS
Submission Attempt (SA): +7.5 PTS
Knockdown (KD): +18 PTS
Moves Scoring (Standard)
Significant Strikes (SS): +0.6 PTS
Takedown (TD): +6 PTS
Takedown Defense (TDEF): 3
Submission Attempt (SA): 5 PTS
Knockdown (KD): +12 PTS
Fight Conclusion Bonuses (MVP 1.5X)
1st Round Win (1stW): +150 PTS
2nd Round Win (2ndW): +112.5 PTS
3rd Round Win (3rdW): +75 PTS
4th Round Win (4thW): +52.5 PTS
5th Round Win (5thW): +37.5 PTS
Decision Win (DecW): +30 PTS
Fight Conclusion Bonuses (Standard)
1st Round Win (1stW): +100 PTS
2nd Round Win (2ndW): +75 PTS
3rd Round Win (3rdW): +50 PTS
4th Round Win (4thW): +35 PTS
5th Round Win (5thW): +25 PTS
Decision Win (DecW): +20 PTS
Without further ado, let's get to it.
Oh, Captain, my Captain
Best play: Justin Gaethje ($18)
This is another card in which the winner of the main event likely ends up on the optimal lineup, and I've had a hell of a time deciding who walks away with the lightweight title. I ultimately settled on Justin Gaethje, primarily due to Khabib Nurmagomedov's struggles getting takedowns in space, and my belief that he will not be able to consistently pressure Justin against the cage. Fighters tend to underrate the speed and strength of Khabib, which makes him more than capable of surprising "The Highlight," but I just can't give him a win if I think he will have to stand up for the better part of 25 minutes. Reluctantly, I'm betting that Justin gets the fight he wants here, which would result in a tremendous number of strikes landed and potentially a knockout.
If memory serves, this is the second attempt to rebook Magomed Ankalaev against Ion Cutelaba after the controversial ending to their first bout in February. I don't have much new to add from my earlier review, so I'll note again that regardless of your opinion of how the first bout should have ended, it seems clear that Ankalaev hurt his opponent with at least one of those strikes in the first round. I expect him to do a similar thing here, as Ankalaev is far too technical of a boxer and has too many tools to be scared off by the pressuring brawl that Cutelaba tries to force on his opponents. He is also the better grappler of the two, which essentially means that he will be able to control this fight wherever it goes. Cutelaba's best chance here is as a big puncher, but we've never even really seen Ankalaev hurt in the Octagon. All this leads me to believe that we will get a definitive conclusion this time around.
Walt Harris is big, athletic, and powerful. All of these attributes make him a live dog against Alexander Volkov, but he's still far too willing to cede ground to his opponent in the Octagon, which I expect will get him in trouble against a seasoned striker like Volkov. I particularly look for the kicks of the Russian fighter to be trouble for Harris, as he loves to go to the legs before looking for the home run up top. "The Big Ticket" was rocked and ultimately finished after a head kick from Alistair Overeem in his last fight, which adds to my confidence that one of Volkov's offerings will find its intended target.
Miranda Maverick versus Liana Jojua promises to be a scrambly submission fest, complete with takedowns, reversals, and occasional ground-and-pound. Jojua is more than proficient on the mat, so we can't count her out entirely, but Maverick is the far more physical of the two fighters, which should help her impose her will when this fight reaches its primary destination. It also strikes me that when someone has the majority of their wins by armbar, it's generally a sign that they haven't been fighting the best competition. Maverick has never been subbed in her career despite making her living in grappling exchanges, which gives me confidence that she won't simply get caught in a guard submission like Diana Belbita.
Years of failing to live up to expectations have caused most to write off Stefan Struve, but the Dutch fighter has quietly been making improvements in his standup game, developing a jab to keep range, and mixing his targets well to hide his high kicks. The obvious concern against a fighter like Tai Tuivasa is he will crash the pocket with big strikes and get Struve out of there, but in order to do that, he will have to negotiate nine inches of height and reach disadvantage. We have seen smaller fighters do this to Struve in the past (think Marcos Rogerio de Lima), so a Tuivasa win is certainly not out of the question, but I just don't trust him to negotiate the distance well enough to land the big shot, which could leave him on an island against what looks to be an updated striking arsenal.
Best option: Da Un Jung ($22)
I expect Da Un Jung to knock Sam Alvey out at some point, but this price is a tough mark to hit in a three-round fight, so I'll make him the top play here instead. Alvey's lack of athleticism will make him the dog in most fights at light heavyweight, but this seems like a particularly bad matchup for him, as Jung is a sharp technical boxer with power in his hands. Alvey will likely do his best to slow the pace down and find his counter shots, but a three-inch reach disadvantage will only exacerbate the danger for him here. He simply isn't active or dangerous enough in any one phase of the fight to discourage Jung, which will likely lead to the finish.
As I pick Joel Alvarez, I still find myself wondering what kind of fighter he will be in the Octagon. To date, all we have really seen from the 27-year-old is a ferocious kicking game and slick guard jiu-jitsu. He also seems to have a problem when it comes to leaving his chin up in the air during striking exchanges. This should still be enough to beat Alexander Yakovlev just based on Yakovlev's incredibly low volume and general inactivity. It's possible Yakovlev will try to lean on his Russian Sambo and grapple with Alvarez, but we saw him have to bail to his back on multiple occasions to escape chokes from Roosevelt Roberts in his last fight, which doesn't exactly inspire confidence that he will be able to hang in prolonged grappling exchanges with Alvarez.
A two-time veteran of the Contender Series, Phil Hawes is an athletic wrestler with power, which leaves Jacob Malkoun on the wrong end of too many equations to reasonably pick him in a fight like this. That's not to say that Malkoun isn't interesting in general, as he looks like a volume/pressure fighter who can wrestle a bit himself, but this likely isn't the right matchup for him to get his feet wet. I expect Hawes to control this fight wherever it goes, but his wrestling will always be there if he starts to get overwhelmed by the strikes coming from Malkoun on the feet.
Best Option: Justin Gaethje ($18)
Nathaniel Wood's designation as a sizeable underdog is a bit confusing. Sure, Casey Kenney and his smothering boxing have looked great lately, but it seems like we are forgetting how well Wood does things like keep range, employ his kicking game, and select shots. If Kenney prefers to take this to the ground instead, he will be dealing with a slick BJJ player who has notched submissions in three of his four UFC wins. Put simply, Wood has more offensive tools than anyone Kenney has faced to date by a wide margin, and I think he will be able to deploy them effectively here.
The fight between newcomer Shavkat Rakhmonov and Alex Oliveira should be fun for as long as it lasts. There is some danger in this pick, as we saw "Cowboy" strike from range as effectively as he ever has in his win over Peter Sobotta, but Rakhmonov has the physicality to force clinch exchanges in a way that Sobotta couldn't, as well as the pressure striking game to fluster Oliveira on the feet. This should also help in once again draining the gas tank of "Cowboy" who has been able to keep his energy in recent fights.
Cynthia Calvillo may have fallen out of her fight with Lauren Murphy, but Murphy will have quite a fight on her hands from newcomer Liliya Shakirova, who appears to be a slick striker with a nice sense of range and defense. I have underestimated Murphy's style of simply coming forward and throwing hands before, but I think the quick hands of Shakirova will make the difference here, as she can cut off the cage and work a nice pressure game of her own.
Neither Fish nor Fowl
This section makes a triumphant return for a hard-to-call fight between Robert Whittaker ($15) and Jared Cannonier ($17). I think if this were a couple of years ago, I'd have an easier time just picking Whittaker outright, but what we have seen from the former champion lately is lots of diving into the pocket from long range with wild shots and less use of high kicks like the one that caused the finish in his bout with Ronaldo Souza. There is still a part of me that wants to take Whittaker's speed and agility to get this done, but Cannonier is too good of a counter puncher for me to trust this newer, sloppier version of "The Reaper."