(CBSSports.com) – Khabib Nurmagomedov is known for his humility, but the lightweight champion concedes that his perch among the top mixed martial artists in the world is one he doesn’t intend to surrender anytime soon. The undefeated Russian looks to cement his legacy when takes on top contender Justin Gaethje on Saturday in the main event of UFC 254. The main UFC 254 fight card from Fight Island in Abu Dhabi is set for 2 p.m. ET. Nurmagomedov told the media this week that he appreciates being considered among the sport’s all-time greats and can improve his resume by beating Gaethje, whom many observers believe will be his toughest challenge yet.
Nurmagomedov is a -330 favorite (risk $330 to win $100), while Gaethje is a +270 underdog (risk $100 to win $270) in the latest UFC 254 odds from William Hill. In the co-main event, Jared Cannonier (-120) faces Robert Whittaker (+100) in a battle of ranked middleweight contenders. Before making any UFC 254 picks, make sure you see what SportsLine MMA analyst Kyle Marley has to say, considering the epic run he’s on.
Over the past 20 months, $100 bettors who have followed Marley’s picks are up more than $20,000. The accomplished MMA analyst has been on a rock-solid run in 2020 as he has connected on 22 of his last 28 main-event selections, a stretch that included a streak of five straight underdogs.
At UFC Fight Night last week, Marley correctly called a dominant performance for Jessica Andrade (-145) over Katlyn Chookagian (+125) in the women’s flyweight co-main event. He told SportsLine members that the skill gap between the fighters was much wider than the price suggested, and was proven correct when a late first-round flurry resulted in a stoppage win for Andrade. Anyone who has consistently followed Marley is way up.
Now, with UFC 254 fast approaching, Marley has carefully studied every matchup on the card, identified the best value in the UFC odds and released his MMA picks for every fight. Those selections are only available here.
Khabib vs. Gaethje preview
The MMA analyst knows the main event represents a major turning point in the careers of both fighters. Nurmagomedov (28-0) has made no secret of his desire to retire as an undefeated champion. He also plans on doing so fairly soon and has spoken of taking perhaps one more fight after Saturday’s Khabib vs. Gaethje main event, with the goal of walking away from MMA a perfect 30-0.
In order to do so, he must first get past a rugged opponent in Gaethje (22-2), who has ascended from a fan-favorite novelty to one of the most skilled fighters in the promotion.
Nurmagomedov was originally scheduled to fight longtime rival Ferguson in April, a bout that has now been scheduled and canceled five times for an assortment of reasons. This time, the coronavirus pandemic restricted travel and the champion was unable to leave Russia in order to make the fight.
The UFC eventually booked Ferguson and Gaethje for an interim belt, with the winner getting the first shot at Nurmagomedov. The power-punching Gaethje dominated from the outset and eventually stopped the resilient Ferguson, who saw a 12-fight win streak come to an end.
Gaethje’s power and relentless style had MMA fans anticipating his move to the UFC from the World Series of Fighting, where he was a champion. But he started off 1-2 in the promotion and it appeared his lack of diverse skills would be an issue against top-tier competition.
However, the 31-year-old Arizona native dedicated himself to improving everything from his conditioning to defense and footwork, and it paid off. He has stopped four straight opponents, with the win over Ferguson being the flashpoint on his resume. You can see Marley’s coveted Nurmagomedov vs, Gaethje picks here.
Top UFC 254 predictions
We’ll share one of Marley’s UFC 254 predictions here: He is backing Joel Alvarez (-150) to get his hand raised against Alexander Yakovlev (+130) in a meeting of lightweight prospects.
The 36-year-old Yakovlev (24-9-1) has struggled to gain consistent traction in the UFC, posting a 3-5 mark in eight appearances against mostly top-flight competition. His resume includes a loss against current welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and another against UFC icon Demian Maia. His last appearance resulted in a decision loss against prospect Roosevelt Roberts in November of last year.
Alvarez (17-2), 27, is seeking his third consecutive UFC victory following a loss in his debut. His last outing resulted in a submission of veteran Joseph Duffy midway through the first round of their July clash.
“Yakovlev might have more power, but Alvarez looks like the better striker who should throw more volume,” Marley told SportsLine.