Undefeated Russian Nurmagomedov (28-0) last competed 12 months ago – also in Abu Dhabi – successfully defending his belt against then-interim champion Dustin Poirier. And tonight, he again defends the strap against an interim champion, with knockout artist and wrestling specialist Gaethje (22-2) having secured that status with a dominant victory over Tony Ferguson in his last contest earlier this year.
This weekend’s main event likely presents the toughest test of Nurmagomedov’s career, and it marks ‘The Eagle’s first bout since the passing of his father and head coach Abdulmanap in July.
The co-main event, meanwhile, sees former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker (21-5) take on the heavy-handed Jared Cannonier (13-4) in what is almost certainly a number one contender’s bout, with the winner expected to next face Israel Adesanya – the man who took the title from Australian Whittaker a year ago.
Here’s everything you need to know about UFC 254:
When is it?
In a rare treat for UK fans, the main card will get under way at 7pm BST tonight. The main event between Khabib and Gaethje is expected to start at around 9.30pm BST.
That follows the prelims, which start at 5pm BST, and the early preliminary card, which begins at 3.30pm BST.
How can I watch it?
UK fans can watch the main card on BT Sport Box Office HD, as well as the broadcaster’s site and app, for a fee of £19.95. The prelims will air to BT Sport subscribers for free.
In the US, the main card will air on ESPN+, which – along with ESPN – will show the prelims. Both channels will also air the early prelims, as will UFC’s Fight Pass.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Justin Gaethje
Adam Hamdani: I just have to back Khabib, I'm not really sure how you can bet against him. He has been so dominant in his UFC career, as well as the entirety of his time as an MMA fighter. He is my P4P No1. In both of Gaethje's losses he has been stopped, and I can see Khabib's ground work being too much for him here. Khabib via submission, round 3
Alex Pattle: Gaethje is Khabib's toughest opponent yet, and I fully believe he can beat Khabib. With his wrestling skills, Gaethje might just be able to keep the fight standing. If he can, this is actually Gaethje's fight to lose. I normally play it safe, but I'm going to say it: Justin Gaethje is going to beat Khabib Nurmagomedov this weekend. Gaethje via decision
Jack Rathborn: I’m rolling with the upset too, with 13 months since his last fight, I think Gaethje’s victory (and the manner no less, with his emphatic display earning him Performance of the Night against Tony Ferguson) this year will provide him with momentum to execute his game plan here and shock the Russian. Gaethje by TKO/KO.
Robert Whittaker vs Jared Cannonier
AH: Cannonier has incredible power and since finding his feet at middleweight has been on quite the win streak, but Whittaker's experience at the highest level might prove too much in this one. Whittaker via decision
AP: There's no doubt in my mind that Whittaker is the more well-rounded mixed martial artist, but Cannonier's power give him every chance of undermining that fact completely. In a three-round fight, with less time in which to get caught, Whittaker should be able to use his versatility and experience to outpoint Cannonier. Whittaker via decision
Alexander Volkov vs Walt Harris
AH: The winner of this one will find themselves back in the mix at heavyweight – a pretty jam-packed mix, but back in the mix nonetheless. When Harris loses, it doesn't often go to a decision, and I can see Volkov stopping him late here. Volkov via TKO, round 3
AP: I think Volkov has more tools, including the ability to keep this fight at a favourable range for him. I expect a technical showing from the Russian and a decision win. Volkov via decision
Jacob Malkoun vs Phil Hawes
AP: Hawes via TKO, round 2
Lauren Murphy vs Liliya Shakirova
AP: Murphy via decision
Magomed Ankalaev vs Ion Cutelaba
AP: Ankalaev via decision
Who is fighting?
Khabib Nurmagomedov (C) vs Justin Gaethje (IC) – lightweight
Robert Whittaker vs Jared Cannonier – middleweight
Alexander Volkov vs Walt Harris – heavyweight
Jacob Malkoun vs Phil Hawes – middleweight
Lauren Murphy vs Liliya Shakirova – women’s flyweight
Magomed Ankalaev vs Ion Cutelaba – light heavyweight
Stefan Struve vs Tai Tuivasa – heavyweight
Nathaniel Wood vs Casey Kenney – catchweight (140lbs)
Alex Oliveira vs Shavkat Rakhmonov – welterweight
Jung Da Un vs Sam Alvey – light heavyweight
Umar Nurmagomedov vs Sergey Morozov – bantamweight
Liana Jojua vs Miranda Maverick – women’s flyweight
Joel Alvarez vs Alexander Yakovlev – lightweight