The UFC completed yet another multi-week run with a Saturday blockbuster in its Fight Island playpen, topping a 12-bout card with an undisputed lightweight championship fight between dominant incumbent titleholder Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim claimant Justin Gaethje.
A main event-worthy match between Robert Whittaker and Jared Cannonier was in the co-main slot this time around, providing the winner a path to a shot at the middleweight belt.
The action got going with early prelims at 11 a.m. ET and ran all the way through the main event finish just before 5 p.m., with ESPN+ broadcasters Jon Anik, Daniel Cormier, and Megan Olivi manning the mics.
The B/R combat sports team was there from end to end to record the results and decide upon the biggest winners and losers, winding up with a list of 10 for your perusal and discussion.
Head on down to the comments section to let us know how we did.
Khabib Nurmagomedov did everything he promised he'd do during Fight Week.
He attacked Justin Gaethje. He got him to the floor. And he finished him in dominant fashion.
But then he did something no one saw coming: He retired.
The unbeaten Russian boosted his record to 29-0 then pulled a shocker by saying his career was over, fulfilling a promise he made to his mother after his father died in July to never again compete without him.
This was my last fight," he said. "My last fight."
The exit by a reigning UFC champion on live TV was the second of 2020, following bantamweight kingpin Henry Cejudo's surprise announcement after a second-round defeat of Dominick Cruz in May.
Nurmagomedov knelt in the center of the cage and sobbed after the end of Saturday's fight, which came when he locked in a triangle choke and put Gaethje to sleep at 1:34 of the second round.
He spoke to Anik moments later and made his exit speech, during which he asked that the UFC install him in its rankings as the world's No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter ahead of Jon Jones.
"I'm 13-0 in the UFC and 29-0 in my pro MMA career," he said. "I think I deserve one more thing. Put me on No. 1 pound-for-pound in the world. I deserve it."
Not even Gaethje would argue that point in the aftermath of their six-plus minutes of interaction, during which the challenger landed several leg kicks and a few clean punches but was never able to stop the champion's perpetual forward movement. Gaethje was taken down in the final 30 seconds of the first round and emerged unscathed when the buzzer sounded, but he wasn't so lucky after the break.
He connected with a hard kick to the side of Nurmagomedov's left leg, but the Russian turned it into an advantage by successfully getting another takedown and quickly transitioning from a would-be armbar to the triangle choke. Gaethje tried to escape by pulling backward and lifting his tormentor a few inches off the floor, but he was unsuccessful in loosening the grip and began tapping to signal surrender.
Referee Jason Herzog didn't see the signal, however, and the choke stayed on until Gaethje was unconscious.
Gaethje joined Nurmagomedov in the center of the mat to console him during the subsequent emotional moments, and the champion acknowledged him in his remarks, poignantly advising his foe to "be close with your parents. You never know what's going to happen tomorrow."
Cormier, a longtime teammate and friend of the champion, was surprised by the exit.
"It breaks my heart," he said. "I thought we had at least one more."
No disrespect to Robert Whittaker, but this wasn't what Israel Adesanya wanted.
The incumbent middleweight champ won his belt from the Australian a year ago, has defended twice since, and made no secret of the fact that he hoped for a fresh new challenge after Saturday night.
In fact, he mentioned No. 2 contender Jared Cannonier by name after beating Paulo Costa last month, suggesting Cannonier was on the cusp of a title shot if he did away with ex-champ Whittaker.
The 29-year-old former titleholder landed the most impactful and memorable shots of a tactical three-rounder, scoring a thudding knockdown in the third to secure a close unanimous-decision victory.
Whittaker earned the victory by a trio of 29-28 scores.
"I feel good. I'm very happy it's all over," Whittaker said. "I got the result I wanted. Work's done. Time to go home. I'm going straight home and putting up the Christmas tree."
Whittaker was on the receiving end of punishing leg kicks in the opening five minutes, but he rallied in the second round with left jabs following by jarring right hands. He continued that flow in the third, landing a left-right combination followed by a head kick that sent Cannonier wobbling drunkenly before falling face-first to the mat.
Cannonier fought off submission attempts and gamely got to his feet with 90 seconds remaining, then landed a few powerful punches of his own. But he was unable to get the finish and prevent Whittaker from securing his second victory of 2020 after he'd fought just once in 2018 and once in 2019.
Whittaker never mentioned Adesanya's name in his post-fight interview, which suggests that a rematch may not necessarily be imminent.
"Jon Jones and Israel Adesanya have been on each other's radars," Anik said. "Meanwhile, anyone else in the middleweight division is going to have to deal with Robert Whittaker."
We're not sure what Alexander Volkov wished for, but it couldn't have been much more than he got.
The mammoth Russian spent his 32nd birthday contending with equally imposing Walt Harris, but his wish came through in the form of a straight right kick that abruptly ended matters in Round 2.
The top-10 heavyweights were neck and neck, exchanging strikes and feints through the initial five minutes before Volkov came forward with a straight right kick that landed square on Harris' belly and instantly dropped him gasping to his knees.
Volkov came in with a quick half-dozen strikes that ended matters at 1:15 of Round 2.
"I feel very good. I feel like I'm going back to a winning streak and I'm ready for a new challenge," he said. "He was a good ranked opponent. This means I'm staying in the top 10 for a long time and I can go for that belt. I've worked on landing that body shot and then coming back to punch.
"[Give me] any guy with a big name. [Alistair] Overeem. [Junior] Dos Santos. [Jairzinho] Rozenstruik. Anybody who can take me on a belt run."
Cormier was particularly impressed with the finishing shot.
"Everything shuts off when you get hit with a strike like that," he said. "That was beautiful."
Phillip Hawes was worth the wait.
The 31-year-old middleweight was denied a UFC contract following an appearance on the Dana White Tuesday Night Contender Series show three years ago, but he didn't quit the pursuit.
He capitalized on a second opportunity with a win on the same show last month, then debuted in spectacular fashion against fellow newbie Jacob Malkoun on Saturday, dropping him with his first volley of strikes on the way to an impressive 18-second triumph.
"I feel great. I feel awesome," he said. "If I land, someone's going to sleep. So I've just got to land."
He wobbled Malkoun badly and drove him back to the cage with the first right hand he threw, then followed with a right-left-right combination that sent the Australian woozily to the floor.
Hawes pounced with a right-handed chop to his opponent's head and was pushed away as referee Herzog intervened, giving the winner the second-fastest middleweight debut finish in UFC history.
"Phil Hawes just made the most impressive UFC debut that you can make," Cormier said.
Malkoun lost for the first time in five career fights, while Hawes improved to 9-2 since turning pro in 2014.
"I'm healthy. I head back home next week," Hawes said. "When's the UFC going back to Vegas? Let's do it."
Liliya Shakirova didn't expect much from Lauren Murphy.
Her American opponent was slower and not as dynamically skilled, Shakirova claimed, and a victory over her would instantly propel the Uzbekistan native into UFC stardom in her Octagon debut.
As it turned out, Murphy wasn't quite so ready to concede.
The fifth-ranked flyweight contender turned down her foe's offer for a pre-fight handshake, then spent the next eight-plus minutes proving her worth before ultimately getting a second-round stoppage in the scheduled three-rounder at 125 pounds.
"I feel amazing. This has been one of the best weeks of my life," she said. "To get my first submission win in the jiu-jitsu capital of the world, it tops everything. I'm one of the most well-rounded fighters, not only in this division but in the whole UFC."
Murphy pursued her mobile opponent in the first five minutes before getting the fight to the fence in the second. She secured a body lock about midway through the round and threw Shakirova to the floor, then got behind her as her opponent turned to her knees.
She locked her right arm around Shakirova's neck and put her left hand behind her head, pushing the neck into the choking arm and prompting a rescue at 3:31 of the second.
Murphy rolled away with a big smile, then shared her future plans with Cormier.
"I've proven I'm the true No. 1 contender in this division," she said. "The next time I step into this cage, it will be to fight for a UFC belt. The next time I step out of it, I will be wearing it."
Russian light heavyweight Magomed Ankalaev left the Octagon in February having to explain his abruptly halted victory over Ion Cutelaba more than reveling in it.
This time around, it wasn't a problem.
The hulking 28-year-old put an exclamation point on the rematch with the fiery Moldovan, dropping him with a right-left combination and following up for a legitimate stoppage at 4:19 of Round 1.
"Everyone's opinion was that it was stopped prematurely last time," he said. "So it was interesting to run it again and prove that I could beat him, and I did."
Ankalaev, whose first fight with Cutelaba lasted just 38 seconds, bided his time in the second bout while moving around the cage and waiting for an opening to counter his aggressive foe.
The opportunity arrived after about four minutes, when he looped a right hand and followed with a straight left that dropped Cutelaba flat on his back. Ankalaev quickly pounced and delivered seven consecutive strikes to the prone fighter, prompting the intervention of referee Anders Ohlsson.
"There is no question anymore as to who is the better fighter between Magomed Ankalaev and Ion Cutelaba," Cormier said. "The rivalry is over."
The official end came at 4:19.
"I wanted to make a statement with my performance," Ankalaev said. "I knew that he's slower than me. I waited for my moment and caught him."
If you fancied one fighter, you liked the result. If you favored the other, not so much.
Regardless, there's no debate the bout between Nathaniel Wood and Casey Kenney was a winner.
The three-round catchweight affair featured 135 landed strikes to the head and 35 to the body, not to mention 71 leg kicks and a pair of takedowns in just 15 minutes.
Kenney escaped with a narrow but unanimous decision, taking two cards with 29-28 margins and a third with a 30-27 count.
Bleacher Report went with the majority and had it 29-28 for the winner.
"I'm not trying to bring it to the judges, but I knew if it did go to them I knew it'd be close so I had to go hard until it was over," said Kenney, who scored his third UFC win of 2020 and second in October, coming just 21 days after a three-rounder over Alateng Heili. "It was good. I knew Nathaniel was going to bring it. I like to have exciting fights."
The two 20-somethings came out with a frenetic first five minutes that featured prolonged exchanges early on before Kenney took control with a series of sharp, jarring left-hand counter shots. Wood, who'd split two previous UFC bouts this year, rallied to take over the second round with a concentrated kicking attack on a tiring Kenney's legs.
The American bounced back in the third, though, scoring a pair of takedowns and surging in the final stand-up exchange until the final buzzer.
"I'll fight again next weekend," said Kenney, a newly minted Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who went home to the U.S. and returned to the Fight Island venue within three weeks between fights.
"This is what I love to do."
Maybe it was birthday indigestion or first-time jitters.
But once Shavkat Rakhmonov found his comfort zone, it didn't take him long to make an impression.
The unbeaten Kazakh made his UFC debut a day after turning 26 and got to business in quick fashion, following up some well-placed strikes with a guillotine choke submission of veteran Alex Oliveira in a scheduled three-rounder at welterweight.
"I'm very thrilled and proud to raise the Kazakhstan flag," he said. "It's the best present I could ask for."
Rakhmonov looked stiff and slow in the opening moments as Oliveira, who'd arrived with 11 UFC wins, moved in and out and peppered him with quick, darting punches.
But a counter right hand changed the dynamic about two minutes in, driving Oliveira back to the fence, where a punishing follow-up knee landed to the midsection.
The two never moved out of close quarters in the aftermath, and Rakhmonov eventually responded to an attempted level change by wrapping his left arm around Oliveira's neck in a guillotine choke. He dropped to his back to lock in the hold and drew the TapouT with 20 seconds of the round remaining.
"I felt I got the guillotine. It's one of my best moves," Rakhmonov said. "I knew if I found that it was there, I was going to go for it."
The win was his 13th in a row since turning pro in 2014 but the successful newbie was measured when it came to future plans at 170 pounds.
"I'm going to go home and take a rest," he said. "Kazakhs say 'don't rush,' so I want to get closer to the title step by step."
Miranda Maverick made her UFC debut shortly before noon on the East Coast, but it won't be long before she's fighting much later on pay-per-view shows.
The charismatic 23-year-old breathed some violently fresh air into the flyweight division, battering Liana Jojua with a variety of strikes before splitting her nose with an elbow that led to a doctor's stoppage.
"I'm here to be the next big thing. I'm a young person coming into a division that needs someone new," Maverick said. "My striking's improved so much. It worked like clockwork. I went in there and did my job."
Maverick, who's pursuing a Ph.D. at Old Dominion University and brought part-time teaching assistant work with her to Fight Island, landed multiple elbows during stand-up exchanges throughout the first round.
She did so again in the final minute of the session, coming right down the middle and opening a jagged, bloody cut from which Jojua's team was unable to stop the flow after the round.
Referee Lukasz Bosacki consulted with the cage-side physician and officially stopped the fight, leaving Jojua to cry "no, please no" from her corner while Maverick screamed "where's Dana?" from the Octagon's opposite side.
"Honestly, I wanted to show more. I wanted to show the finishes I could do," Maverick said. "Give me next month. I'm ready. School can't be in my way. Imagine what I can do when I don't have other work."
The win bumped her to 10-2 as a pro, while Jojua dropped to 8-5 overall and 1-2 in the UFC.
"(Maverick) is really making an impression on the UFC," Daniel Cormier said on the broadcast. "If you're at 15 to 20 (in the flyweight division), you need to watch out for Miranda Maverick. You need to fear the Maverick."
The last thing Joel Alvarez wants to hear is a final buzzer.
So he does everything and anything possible to avoid it.
The 18-2 Spaniard stretched one of MMA's most remarkable streaks in Saturday's opener, getting a first-round submission from Russian veteran Alexander Yakovlev to maintain his run of never winning via a decision. The one time he has gone the distance in his career was in a unanimous decision loss to Damir Ismagulov at UFC Fight Night 145 in February 2019, his UFC debut.
"One more submission. One more on my record," said Alvarez, who won his third straight fight since losing to Ismagulov. "I'm an expert submission artist. One more for the books."
Alvarez has 16 wins by submission and two by KO/TKO.
Yakovlev, 36, came into his ninth UFC outing looking to improve a 3-5 record and immediately went on the attack, grabbing Alvarez's left leg for a takedown in the first minute. Alvarez quickly turned the aggression in his favor, however, cinching his left arm around his foe's neck for a guillotine choke.
Yakovlev gradually worked his way back and out of the choke but sacrificed his left arm in the process, leaving it available for Alvarez to pull into an armbar. Yakovlev again pulled backward in an attempt to escape, but that allowed Alvarez to extend the arm and lock in the submission.
The TapouT came exactly three minutes into the round.
"We train that submission a lot. He's got long arms like I do," Alvarez said. "The end was the result of that hard work. I'm going to take some time off and then we'll see what they put in front of me."
UFC 254 Full Card Results
Khabib Nurmagomedov def. Justin Gaethje (triangle choke), 1:34, Round 2
Robert Whittaker def. Jared Cannonier by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
Alexander Volkov def. Walt Harris by TKO (kick), 1:15, Round 2
Phillip Hawes def. Jacob Malkoun by KO, 0:18, Round 1
Lauren Murphy def. Liliya Shakirova by submission (rear-naked choke), 3:31, Round 2
Magomed Ankalaev def. Ion Cutelaba by KO, 4:19, Round 1
Tai Tuivasa def. Stefan Struve by KO (punches), 4:59, Round 1
Casey Kenney def. Nathaniel Wood by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 30-27)
Shavkat Rakhmonov def. Alex Oliveira by submission (guillotine choke), 4:40, Round 1
Da-un Jung drew with Sam Alvey (29-28, 28-29, 28-28)
Miranda Maverick def. Liana Jojua by TKO (cut, doctor's stoppage), 5:00, Round 1
Joel Alvarez def. Alexander Yakovlev by submission (armbar), 3:00, Round 1
Fight of the Night
Nathaniel Wood vs. Casey Kenney
Performances of the Night
Magomed Ankalaev, Khabib Nurmagomedov