What you need to know for the UFC fight of the year

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Here’s what you need to know right now from the world of sports:

The UFC fight of the year is on Saturday

Tomorrow on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, undefeated UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov defends his belt (and his perfect record) vs. Justin Gaethje, who many consider Khabib’s toughest opponent yet. This is one of those bouts that even casual fans of mixed martial arts can get into, so let’s catch up on the many interesting storylines that make this the most anticipated MMA match of 2020:

Nurmagomedov is one of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport — but he might not be around much longer.

He’s 28-0 as a pro. That’s an astonishing record in MMA, where the fights are more volatile and opponents generally more evenly matched than they are in boxing.

Khabib (as he’s more commonly known) is only 32, but he’s devoted nearly his entire life to fighting and has started to seem worn down by the pressure of protecting his perfect record. He’s indicated he might retire when he hits 30-0, so this could be one of his last times in the octagon.

Khabib has a big and passionate fanbase.

First off, he’s extremely well-respected inside the sport. He’s a fighter’s fighter — a no-frills guy who’s super-dedicated to his craft and has mastered a very difficult sport. Facing him in the octagon — especially when he gets you down on the ground or, even worse, pinned against the fence (his specialty) — has been described as pure misery.

Khabib’s popularity is extra-high in his corner of the world. He’s from Dagestan, which is a republic of Russia, and he’s also one of the most beloved Muslim athletes on earth (probably just behind soccer star Mo Salah). Khabib’s huge following in the Middle East and Russia is why Saturday’s card starts at 2 p.m. ET, with the main event probably around 4:30 or 5 p.m. ET. Typically, UFC cards take place on Saturday night ET to cater to U.S. fans.

This might be the biggest challenge of Khabib’s career.

Current betting odds imply he has about a 75 per cent chance of winning this fight. But many MMA observers think Gaethje is not only the best opponent he’s ever faced, but also that the underdog has a real shot at dealing the champ his first loss.

Gaethje is a 31-year-old American who’s known for his aggressive and powerful stand-up game (that means punching and kicking, mostly). That’s resulted in a lot of knockouts, making him one of the more entertaining fighters to watch. Gaethje was also a star wrestler in college, which at least gives him a fighting chance against Khabib’s near-unbeatable grappling skills should Gaethje be unable to stay on his feet and/or in the middle of the octagon.

Cole Shelton, who writes for CBC Sports and also covers mixed martial arts, is one of the experts who believes Gaethje has the skills to make an upset possible. “Gaethje has the best wrestling background Nurmagomedov has faced,” he says. “He also has legit one-punch knockout power, so if he can keep it standing he has a good chance of winning the fight.” Cole isn’t alone. He polled 10 active pro MMA fighters, and six of them picked Gaethje to win.

Khabib is also battling forces from outside the cage.

This is his first fight since his father died over the summer after contracting COVID-19. Their bond ran deeper than the typical father/son relationship. Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov trained Khabib from the time he was a kid, and they were extremely close. So Khabib is heading into perhaps the hardest fight of his life without the most important person in his life.

There’s an intriguing Canadian angle.

If Khabib wins this fight and then indeed decides that his 30th will be his last, it makes sense that he’d want to go out with a bang. The obvious opponent in that case might appear to be Conor McGregor, whose flair for showmanship (and trash talk) turned him into the biggest draw in the sport. Khabib would make a lot of money and get a lot of attention for that fight. But he seems more motivated by challenges than fame or fortune, and he dominated McGregor when they met two years ago (though McGregor became the only fighter to win a round vs. Khabib). He’s also vowed never to give McGregor that kind of platform again after the mouthy Irishman said some things in the lead-up to the fight that Khabib felt crossed the line.

So the speculation now is that Khabib could be eyeing a farewell fight against Georges St-Pierre. The St-Isidore, Que., native is considered one of the all-time greats, and Khabib idolized him growing up. GSP is 39 now and last fought three years ago, but he could be lured out of retirement to face Khabib in what would be one of the biggest UFC bouts ever. St-Pierre spent most of his career at welterweight (170-pound limit) and Nurmagomedov is a lightweight (155 pounds), but he’s offered to meet GSP at a catchweight of 160.

“If [Khabib] wins on Saturday, GSP coming out of retirement to fight him in 2021 is a very real scenario,” says Shelton. For more insight on Khabib vs. Gaethje and the rest of the UFC 254 card, follow Cole on Twitter.

Ready to rumble. (Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Quickly…

The NHL officially cancelled its All-Star Game and the Winter Classic. Not that anyone really believed these had a chance of happening, but the league officially pulled the plug yesterday on its New Year’s Day outdoor game and its late-January all-star weekend until at least 2022. The Winter Classic was supposed to happen at the Minnesota Twins’ baseball stadium with the Wild facing the St. Louis Blues, and the all-star festivities at the Florida Panthers’ arena near Miami. Read more about the cancellation of both events here.

A Canadian won gold in the first big judo meet since the pandemic started. Jessica Klimkait beat France’s Helene Receveaux by ippon (the equivalent of a knockout in boxing) in the final of the women’s 57-kilogram division at a Grand Slam event in Budapest. This is the third Grand Slam title for the 23-year-old Klimkait, who came in ranked second in the world behind fellow Canadian and 2019 world champion Christa Deguchi. She also earned qualifying points toward the Tokyo Olympics. The next Slam is in Tokyo in December, and there’s another major event in Qatar in January.

Someone broke the Canadian cycling hour record. An Ironman triathlete from Windsor, Ont., named Lionel Sanders did it today by riding 51.304 kilometres in 60 minutes at the indoor velodrome in Milton, Ont. That’s 205 laps. The old national record was 48.587 km, set in in 2017 on the same track. The world record, held by a Belgian, is 55.089 km. Read more about Sanders’ record-setting ride here.

And finally…

Happy 27th anniversary to this:

Besides giving the Toronto Blue Jays back-to-back World Series titles — and the only ever won on Canadian soil — Joe Carter’s walkoff homer in Game 6 in 1993 inspired arguably the best sports play-by-play call ever. No matter how many times you’ve heard it, it’s always worth hearing the late, great Tom Cheek one more time.

This weekend on CBC Sports

Grand Prix of Figure Skating – Skate America: With skaters restricted to just the one event in their home country this season and Skate Canada International cancelled altogether, this is your only chance to watch a Canadian compete on the Grand Prix circuit this year. Keegan Messing, who lives and trains in Alaska, is the only one in Las Vegas, where he’ll go up against two-time world champion Nathan Chen of the U.S. in the men’s event. CBC Sports is live streaming the short and free programs in all four competitions at Skate America in their entirety, and you can watch them here starting Friday at 7 p.m. ET. Read more about the many pandemic-related challenges facing the figure skating season here.

International Swimming League: The second set of matches in the renegade circuit’s second season features the debut of the Toronto Titans expansion team. They’ll hit the water for the first time on Sunday, and you can live stream every race in the four-day meet (there’s a two-hour session each day) starting Saturday at 6 a.m. ET here. You can also watch on the CBC TV network as part of the Road to the Olympic Games show on Saturday (check local listing for times).

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