The time is ripe for Magomed Ankalaev to make his mark in the Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight division. Long seen as a potential title contender at 205 pounds, Ankalaev is set to rematch Johnny Walker at UFC Fight Night 234 this Saturday.
The fight will take place at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. The first encounter between the two ended in a controversial no contest due to an illegal knee thrown by Ankalaev. The rematch holds significant implications for both fighters.
Ankalaev, 31, enters the cage with a 17-1-1 record. A decorated sambo practitioner, he has several UFC victories under his belt. However, a disappointing draw in December 2022 with Jan Blachowicz and the subsequent no contest against Walker has left his career trajectory somewhat uncertain.
On the other hand, Walker has already made a name for himself as one of the company’s true action heroes. He has five knockout or technical knockout wins out of his seven UFC victories, two of which were achieved in less than a minute. The Ankalaev-Walker rematch and its potential impact on the light heavyweight division is one of the key storylines to watch at UFC 296.
The first UFC show of 2024 will also feature another rematch. Matheus Nicolau will attempt to move to 2-0 in his head-to-head series against fellow flyweight contender Manel Kape. The Brazilian won a three-round split decision from Kape at UFC Fight Night 187 in March 2021, a verdict that sparked considerable post-fight debate.
Nicolau enters the fight having won six of his past seven bouts. However, he is coming off his first loss in almost five years. Kape, meanwhile, is riding a four-fight winning streak. The question is, will a title contender at 125 pounds emerge from Nicolau-Kape 2?
The narrative of inactivity versus prolificity will also be a key part of UFC 296. Gabriel Benitez will return from a 518-day layoff to meet the ageless Jim Miller in a three-round lightweight showcase. Benitez has not set foot inside the Octagon since August 2022, while Miller continues to defy Father Time with four wins in his last five fights.
Andrei Arlovski’s remarkable career now spans nearly a quarter century, and questions are being raised about how much fuel he has left in the tank. The soon-to-be 45-year-old former heavyweight champion is set to face Waldo Cortes-Acosta in the featured prelim. Arlovski is coming off consecutive losses, while Cortes-Acosta owns a 3-1 record inside the Octagon.
Finally, Farid Basharat will aim to quiet his doubters in his bantamweight altercation with Taylor Lapilus. The undefeated Xtreme Couture rep has posted back-to-back victories since joining the UFC roster. In Lapilus, he faces perhaps his most difficult test to date. The Frenchman has captured titles in three different organizations and enters the fight on a six-fight winning streak. Will this be where Basharat finally meets his match?