A pair of high-profile fallouts had UFC 294 on shaky legs, but Saturday’s card stuck the landing big time. UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski and former welterweight champ Kamaru Usman stepped up and saved an Abu Dhabi card loaded with talent.
UFC 294 is headlined by Volkanovski taking on UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev following an injury to Charles Oliveira. The main event is as good as professional mixed martial arts gets but it’s far from the only fight worth watching. Fan-favorite Khamzat Chimaev could secure himself a middleweight title shot with a win over Usman, another late addition to the card.
Magomed Ankalaev, Johnny Walker, Ikram Aliskerov, Said Nurmagomedov, Muhammad Mokaev and Javid Basharat are all fighters deserving of your attention come Saturday.
It’s a big night in Abu Dhabi so let’s take a close look at three fights worth watching beyond the marquee.
Khamzat Chimaev vs. Kamaru Usman
How quickly things change. The prospect of Usman defending his UFC welterweight title against Chimaev was tantalizing a couple of years ago. Suddenly, Usman and Chimaev will fight one division up on 10 days’ notice with a middleweight title shot at stake. Rarely does a replacement fight measure up to the original but some would consider Chimev vs. Usman an upgrade from Chimaev’s original opponent Paulo Costa. Chimaev has rag-dolled just about every opponent he’s fought, but his wrestling has never been tested like this. Usman holds the record for best takedown defense in UFC history, an immaculate 97.3% across 17 UFC fights. The intrigue is high and the stakes are real.
Magomed Ankalaev vs. Johnny Walker
Ankalaev’s performances against upper-tier light heavyweights have not been the most fun to watch. That being said, he should arguably be a UFC light heavyweight champion. Ankalaev and Jan Blachowicz fought to a split draw at UFC 282 with the vacant title at stake, even though 92% of media scorecards sided with Ankalaev. UFC president Dana White was so miffed at the fight’s lack of action that both men were ousted from the title scene. Ankalaev can build a new case for himself against the best version of Walker UFC fans have seen in a while. The Brazilian still has something to prove as a legitimate title contender, but he’s on his first winning streak in four years.
Ikram Aliskerov vs. Warlley Alves
The final spot on this list was a toss-up between main card fighters Ikram Aliskerov and Said Nurmagomedov. Ultimately, the unknowns surrounding Aliskerov are too interesting to ignore. Aliskerov was originally scheduled to fight Costa and Nassourdine Imavov. Those fights are big escalations for a fighter not currently ranked in the UFC’s official rankings. Aliskerov made his UFC debut in May with a scary knockout of Phil Hawes. It was vicious and dynamic albeit wild and unrefined. Aliskerov is undefeated excluding a loss to Chimaev on the regional scene. The Costa fight would have been a lot of fun, but a slower escalation of difficulty is likely in his best interest.
Honorable mentions: Said Nurmagomedov vs. Muin Gafurov, Tim Elliott vs. Muhammad Mokaev, Javid Basharat vs. Victor Henry