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UFC 254 viewers guide: Khabib gets the challenger he wants in ‘high-level’ Gaethje



One of my favorite things anyone has said in the buildup to the UFC 254 main event this weekend came from Khabib Nurmagomedov as he was discussing being on “Fight Island.”

Nurmagomedov (28-0, 12-0 in the UFC) will be looking to unify his lightweight championship against interim belt holder Justin Gaethje (22-2, 5-2 UFC) on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates — in an event that will happen in the afternoon, U.S. time (pay-per-view main card at 2 p.m. ET). In a recent interview with ESPN, the champ basically outlined all the reasons why he shouldn’t be there. Those included COVID-19 testing, weight cutting, interviews, and pressure. Frankly, a lot of stuff he could do without.

“Why I come here?” Nurmagomedov said. “Everything that’s happened the last four months, everything going on with COVID, why I need this fight? I already one of the greatest, one of the best fighters of all time. I have money. I have name. I have business. I have family, kids. I have everything. Why I need fight?

“I have only one thing why I’m here. I really want to compete with high-level fighters in the world. Justin Gaethje, right now, interim champion, lot of people talk he can beat me. OK, that’s why I come here, even after what happened last four months.”

Yes, Nurmagomedov is the undefeated champion, the one looking to move to 29-0 this weekend and then, potentially, 30-0 before retirement. Everyone loses in MMA — that’s what we always say. It’s virtually impossible to walk away from the highest level with a perfect record. But Nurmagomedov is challenging that assertion, and that makes every one of his fights significant.

In a very big way, though, this fight at UFC 254 feels massive also because of Gaethje. Who would have ever thought, at the beginning of 2020, we could move on from a canceled fight between Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson and never look back? We had waited five years for that Ferguson fight, which was booked five times, and it never happened. But we’re OK with it, because of what Gaethje did to Ferguson back in May.

Bad blood might not have drawn Nurmagomedov back to the Octagon in 2020, after the death of his father. Money would not have drawn Nurmagomedov back to the Octagon. Justin Gaethje did, because Nurmagomedov perceives Justin Gaethje as a real threat.

And by the way, don’t forget Gaethje nixed the idea of fighting Conor McGregor this summer, because a title fight against Nurmagomedov was far more important to him. How about that? Just about every fighter in the world would love to face McGregor, except the two who are fighting this weekend, Nurmagomedov and Gaethje.

In a sport that is driven by storylines, rivalries and often the “money fight,” this main event feels almost wholesome in a way. Not to mention, refreshing.

By the numbers

0: Gaethje fights in the UFC that have ended in any result other than a KO/TKO. He has knocked out five opponents and been KO’d by the other two. The five knockouts leave Gaethje just two behind the active leader among lightweights, Edson Barboza (a Gaethje KO victim, by the way). Gaethje has had seven UFC bouts, Barboza 24.

57: Takedowns in the lightweight division by Nurmagomedov, the most among active UFC 155-pounders. And the champ does something with those takedowns. He has landed 308 ground strikes during his UFC career, the most ever by a lightweight.

12: UFC victories for the unbeaten Nurmagomedov. A win Saturday would put him in a tie with Jon Jones, Demetrious Johnson and Max Holloway for the second most all time, behind Anderson Silva (16).

7.74: Significant strikes landed per minute by Gaethje, the most in UFC history. And the challenger is accurate, too, landing 59.2% of his attempts, best ever for a lightweight. That accuracy is important against a forward-moving takedown machine like Nurmagomedov. A swing and miss could result in Gaethje being taken to the canvas and smothered for the rest of the round, if not worse.

17: Seconds that Gaethje has spent in bottom position during his seven UFC fights (two takedowns). That is just 0.4% of his total fight time, giving him the third-smallest percentage of bottom position time in lightweight history. Gaethje’s takedown defense and ability to scramble back to his feet are going to be tested early and often Saturday.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats

The most important number of all for MMA fans:
UFC 254’s unusual morning start time — don’t miss it

11: Morning kickoff (ET) for early prelims on ESPN+, with more prelims at noon on ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and ESPN+, followed by the six-fight main card at 2 p.m. on pay-per-view (which fans can purchase via ESPN+).

A look back

Five vs. five

Khabib Nurmagomedov’s most recent results
Win: Dustin Poirier (SUB3, Sept. 7, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Conor McGregor (SUB4, Oct. 6, 2018; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Al Iaquinta (UD, April 7, 2018; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Edson Barboza (UD, Dec. 30, 2017)
Win: Michael Johnson (SUB3, Nov. 12, 2016)

Justin Gaethje’s most recent results
Win: Tony Ferguson (TKO5, May 9, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Donald Cerrone (TKO1, Sept. 14, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Edson Barboza (KO1, March 30, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: James Vick (KO1, Aug. 25, 2018)
Loss: Dustin Poirier (TKO4, April 14, 2018; watch on ESPN+)

Dom & Gil’s film study

Gilbert Melendez on Nurmagomedov’s tight takedowns:



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

Dominick Cruz on Gaethje’s forward pressure:



On Unlocking Victory, Dominick Cruz breaks down how Justin Gaethje’s forward presssure open up opportunities to use his powerful right hand.

And the winner is …

If you go by the betting odds, oddsmakers do not see Gaethje as Nurmagomedov’s greatest challenge. The champ is a bigger favorite now than he was against Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor in his last two fights, and even Edson Barboza years ago. But to me, Gaethje poses the biggest threat to date. And I think part of that is due to timing. Gaethje seems to be at the absolute pinnacle of his career. I’m not sure he’ll ever be any better (or more confident) than he is right now. And as dominant as Nurmagomedov is, I can see a clear path to victory for Gaethje. He has the cardio, the finishing ability, the wrestling background. I will not be shocked if Gaethje wins this fight. I can’t bet against Nurmagomedov, though, it’s impossible to do. In his toughest fight to date, Nurmagomedov via decision.

Saturday’s fight card

PPV (via ESPN+), 2 p.m. ET
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 Cuțelaba | Light heavyweight
ESPN2/ESPN Deportes/ESPN+, 12 p.m. ET
Stefan Struve vs. Tai Tuivasa | Heavyweight
Nathaniel Wood vs. Casey Kenney | 140-pound catchweight
Alex Oliveira vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov | Welterweight
Da Un Jung vs. Sam Alvey | Light heavyweight
ESPN+, 11 a.m. ET
Liana Jojua vs. Miranda Maverick | Women’s flyweight
Joel Álvarez vs. Alexander Yakovlev | Lightweight
(c) = defending champion; (ic) = interim champ

How to watch the fights

Watch the prelims on ESPN2 or ESPN Deportes: Download the ESPN App | WatchESPN | TV

Don’t have ESPN2 or ESPN Deportes? Get instant access.

Don’t have ESPN+ for the prelims and PPV? Get it here.

Purchased the fight on your phone and want to stream on your TV? Find out how here.

There’s also FightCenter, which offers live updates for every UFC card.

Three more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information)

1. Jared Cannonier, who faces former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker in the co-main event, has an 84.6% finish rate (11 finishes in 13 wins). Nine of those finishes have been knockouts, including in his three most recent fights. Champion Israel Adesanya has already said he would like to next face Cannonier, No. 5 in the ESPN middleweight rankings, if he can get past the second-ranked Whittaker, whom Adesanya beat for the title last October.

2. Walt Harris has 13 knockouts in 13 career victories. That’s perfection. Perhaps related to that, he has the third-shortest average fight time among active UFC heavyweights (6 minutes, 41 seconds). His opponent, Alexander Volkov, is ESPN’s eighth-ranked heavyweight. Volkov has the third-highest significant strike differential in division history (2.35 landed for every one absorbed), according to UFC Stats.

3. Lauren Murphy, No. 6 in the ESPN women’s flyweight rankings, was scheduled to face fifth-ranked Cynthia Calvillo, but Calvillo dropped out because of a positive COVID-19 test. She was replaced by Liliya Shakirova, who will be making her UFC debut. Shakirova (8-1) is on a three-fight winning streak. Murphy has won four of five since moving down from bantamweight, where she was 1-3.

ESPN’s Jeff Wagenheim contributed to this fight preview.


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



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
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

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.”



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



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



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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