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UFC 254 real or not: Justin Gaethje will take Khabib Nurmagomedov’s title, then call out Conor McGregor

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The wait will soon be over for UFC fans eagerly anticipating the battle between interim lightweight champion Justin Gaethje and world titleholder Khabib Nurmagomedov. The popular fighters are set to meet Saturday at UFC 254 on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi.

Gaethje will rely on power strikes and athleticism in attempting to hand Nurmagomedov (28-0) his first loss. Gaethje also must be ready to slow the relentless pressure that Nurmagomedov brings with wrestling, takedowns and the ability to dominate his opponents by pushing them to the side of the cage and controlling the action.

And what if Gaethje wins? Could there be a callout of a certain popular former champion?

The co-main event also is high on intrigue. Former middleweight champ Robert Whittaker will face Jared Cannonier, with the winner possibly earning a middleweight title shot against champion Israel Adesanya.

Will Cannonier, who is ranked fifth in ESPN’s divisional rankings, keep rising with his fourth straight win, or will Whittaker solidify his spot as the division’s No. 1 contender?

ESPN MMA experts Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim break down what’s real and not real heading into UFC 254.

Real or not: Justin Gaethje will bring to an end one of the most dominant runs in MMA history on Saturday

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Justin Gaethje has earned a fight night bonus each time he entered the Octagon. Check out the best moments that have him fighting for the interim lightweight title. Order UFC 249 here on ESPN+ espn.com/ppv.

Raimondi: There’s no tougher matchup for Nurmagomedov in the UFC lightweight division than Gaethje. That distinction was once reserved for Tony Ferguson, but Gaethje’s dismantling of Ferguson at UFC 249 in May was eye-opening. This is not the same Gaethje who lost to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier earlier in his UFC run. His evolution has been incredible under coach Trevor Wittman. The reckless, free-wheeling Gaethje is gone. He’s just as aggressive as he has ever been, but Gaethje is now technical and tactical to go along with it. Gaethje uses his aggression as part of his strategy now, rather than it being a potential albatross. He doesn’t put himself in harm’s way nearly as much. Gaethje is truly one of the most dangerous and violent strikers in MMA.

The longer Gaethje remains on his feet against Nurmagomedov, the better. In a pure stand-up battle, Gaethje wins. But that is a tall task. Nurmagomedov is arguably the best MMA wrestler ever. No one imposes his will on a fight better than the UFC lightweight champion. Everyone knows he will wrestle and no one is able to stop it. Gaethje was a Division I All-American wrestler and has exceptional takedown defense. It’s just difficult to foresee anyone containing Nurmagomedov’s wrestling and grappling at this point. In a five-round fight, Nurmagomedov is going to get his foe down eventually. And when he does, he usually either does damage or works for a submission.

One of the big questions is how will Nurmagomedov’s wrestling affect Gaethje’s striking? Will the threat of the takedown take away some of Gaethje’s effectiveness in kickboxing? It’s a possibility — just ask Conor McGregor, whom Nurmagomedov dropped with an overhand right when they fought at UFC 229 in 2018. While Gaethje has the skill set to make it competitive and possibly even win, picking against Nurmagomedov is a fool’s errand. He’s one of the best of all time, he’s still in his prime and because we can predict the future only by taking into account history, Nurmagomedov has to be the pick.

Real or not: Gaethje won’t stop Nurmagomedov from pressing him up against the cage, and that will prove decisive

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Unlocking Victory breaks down how effective Khabib Nurmagomedov is going for takedowns against the cage and how Justin Gaethje can counter.

Wagenheim: The cage is Nurmagomedov’s friend. When he has an opponent trapped against the fence, the fight is going to the canvas, no doubt about it, and that is where the beatdown commences. So fending off Khabib is just a matter of staying in the center of the Octagon? It’s not that simple. Nurmagomedov will attempt a takedown in open space, and if his opponent successfully defends, Khabib will just keep going at him. The champ’s chain wrestling attack keeps the other fighter on the defensive, and guess where the fight eventually ends up: against the cage.

Nurmagomedov has not been held without multiple takedowns in a fight since 2013. So it’s not going out on a limb to project that he’s going to get Gaethje to the canvas a time or two. But do you know what else Khabib has not had since 2013? A first-round finish. That suggests that Gaethje will have more than one chance to fight where he’s most dangerous — in the stand-up — because that’s where each round begins.

How does Gaethje keep the fight standing long enough for him to inflict the damage he’s known for? Well, considering that none of Nurmagomedov’s previous 28 opponents have had an answer to that, I’ll offer not an answer but a riddle: When is defending a takedown not defending a takedown?

It’s when your offensive output is so unrelenting that Khabib is kept on the defensive himself and cannot get his wrestling attack into rhythm.

Do you remember how McGregor’s coach, John Kavanagh, assessed his man’s 2018 fight with Nurmagomedov? He said they spent so much time in training camp sharpening McGregor’s defensive wrestling that on fight night, his famously accurate and lethal stand-up attack was not on point. “We focused on defense too much,” said Kavanagh.

Gaethje cannot focus on staying out of danger. He must go into the fight with the mindset of putting Nurmagomedov in danger. If that’s his mental approach, he has a chance of walking out with the belt. If not, no shot.

Real or not: If Gaethje wins, he’ll call out McGregor. If Nurmagomedov wins, there will be no callout

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Georges St-Pierre talks about a possible comeback to the UFC, and his potential interest in a fight vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Okamoto: See, this is what makes the news that McGregor will fight Poirier on Jan. 23, so odd to me. Or at least, the timing of the news. Why is McGregor so bullish about fighting Poirier, when the lightweight championship is right around the corner? And I’ll say this, it wouldn’t shock me if the UFC (or McGregor) drags its feet on the paperwork of the Poirier rematch, just to see what happens on Saturday. Because, yes, if Gaethje wins, he’s calling out McGregor. And I believe McGregor would want it.

If Nurmagomedov wins, things are far less clear. No, I don’t think there will be a “callout” per se. But I do think if Nurmagomedov wins, he will be asked about a fight with Georges St-Pierre, and he’ll answer honestly that, yes, that’s a fight he wants. Whether or not it happens, who knows? But it will get brought up.

Real or not: Robert Whittaker will remind people why he’s one of the top two middleweights in the world

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Darren Till and Robert Whittaker take turns dropping each other to the mat early in their main event matchup.

Helwani: This is very real. I think people are somewhat sleeping on Whittaker going into Saturday’s fight because they want a fresh matchup for the champion, Adesanya. If Cannonier beats Whittaker, seems like a no-brainer to book Adesanya vs. Cannonier next for the middleweight title. However, if Whittaker wins, things get a little complicated because Adesanya just beat Whittaker in very convincing fashion a little over a year ago, and I don’t think there is a great demand at the moment to see that rematch anytime soon.

So, as a result, I feel like the public is somewhat subconsciously ignoring Whittaker going into this fight. But lest we forget that Whittaker looked great against Darren Till in July and that Cannonier hasn’t fought in about 13 months. Those two factors favor Whittaker. Also, this is by far the biggest fight of Cannonier’s career, while Whittaker has been here before. In addition, this will be the toughest fight of Cannonier’s career, and if he wins, he will have earned a title shot, no doubt. But I don’t think a “W” comes easy, and I think Whittaker is on a mission to prove he’s still very much the man at 185.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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