Elite light heavyweights Magomed Ankalaev and Johnny Walker light the fuse as they headline the first UFC event of 2024 in an explosive rematch in Las Vegas on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The co-main event of UFC Vegas 84 at the APEX features familiar foes as well as top-10 flyweights Matheus Nicolau and Manel Kape run it back, while Octagon veteran Jim Miller battles Gabriel Benitez in the featured bout at lightweight.
Plus, Ricky Simon squares off against Mario Bautista at bantamweight and Phil Hawes meets Brunno Ferreira at middleweight.
MAIN CARD (from 2 AM Sunday SA time):
Magomed Ankalaev (1.18) v Johnny Walker (5.10) (Light Heavyweight)
The weekend’s main eventers have two objectives in mind – to resolve unfinished business and earn a title shot for later this year.
The pair of lethal light heavyweight contenders faced off last October with the fight ending in a no-contest after Ankalaev landed an illegal knee and the cage-side doctor controversially ruled Walker unable to continue three minutes into the contest. Thus, we have the rematch, and the stakes are high as the duel could determine the division’s next No. 1 contender.
Third-ranked Ankalaev (18-1-1-1NC) is aiming to make a statement after his previous fight before the no-contest left a bitter taste in fans’ and, more importantly, UFC boss Dana White’s mouth. Fighting former champion Jan Blachowicz for the vacant title at UFC 282, the bout was a dire duel that ended in a draw.
White was so frustrated and disappointed by both combatants that he booked Glover Teixeira versus Jamahal Hill for the title instead of a rematch, with the latter crowned champion by decision. However, Hill was forced to relinquish the belt because of injury, which saw Jiri Prochazka and Alex Pereira vie for the gold in November, with Pereira prevailing.
With his Dagestani roots, Ankalaev has solid grappling, but his striking is his bread and butter. He has nine wins by knockout while his only defeat came in his UFC debut against Paul Craig back in 2018, a fight he was a second away from winning before being caught in a Hail Mary submission.
Seventh-ranked Walker (21-7-1NC) is a tall and rangy striker whose aggression will force Ankalaev to engage. Touted as a future champion when he initially made waves, Walker had a cooling down period but has turned things around tremendously, going from four losses in five fights to stringing together a three-fight win streak.
Aligning with John Kavanagh, Conor McGregor’s coach, has made a world of difference as he’s now more dangerous than ever, using his extraordinarily long limbs more wisely and working behind a spear-like jab.
With that in mind and, given Walker has a 90% finish rate (16 knockouts and three submissions) and can end the fight with a single blow, the Brazilian’s a live underdog.
Having said that, I see Ankalaev using Walker’s aggression against him and landing the crisper, more precise strikes to stop him in his tracks.
Matheus Nicolau (3.20) v Manel Kape (1.37) (Featherweight)
The co-headliners’ rematch is almost three years in the making. The pair squared off in March 2021 in a highly competitive clash that saw Nicolau (19-3-1) get the nod by split decision.
The fifth-ranked Brazilian was closing in on a title shot before having a six-fight win streak halted by Brandon Royval in his last fight, whereas sixth-ranked Kape (19-6) hasn’t lost since his first meeting with Nicolau.
His purple patch includes back-to-back first-round knockouts of Ode Osbourne and Zhalgas Zhumagulov and decision wins over David Dvorak and Felipe dos Santos.
The Angolan ace is the more aggressive and dangerous man as 16 of his 19 wins are by finish (11 knockouts and five submissions). Nicolau, meanwhile, has 10 stoppage wins evenly split between knockouts and submissions.
“Starboy” would’ve taken a lot from of the loss to Nicolau the first time around and will know minor adjustments will allow him to turn the tables. The former Rizin champion’s on a roll and with a higher output, he’ll get the job done.
Jim Miller (1.76) v Gabriel Benitez (2.10) (Lightweight)
The featured bout sees Miller (36-17) enter as the favourite after it opened as a 1.90-1.90 pick ‘em. The evergreen veteran’s current run is nothing short of sensational with the 40-year-old winning four of his last five fights, all of them by stoppage.
“A-10”, who holds the record for most bouts and wins in UFC history, is as crafty and well-rounded as they come (seven knockouts and 19 submissions) and is coming off a 23-second knockout of Jesse Butler last June.
Benitez (23-10) is a battle-tested veteran in his own right. The 35-year-old won his last fight by TKO against Charlie Ontiveros last August but has lost four of his last six scraps.
“Moggly” is a well-balanced fighter in terms of skills (nine knockouts and 10 submissions) but he leaves openings on the feet and has a suspect chin, which has seen him get knocked out in three of his last six fights.
At the end of the day, Miller has the savviness and technique to exploit his Mexican foe’s weaknesses and keep his hot streak going.
Ricky Simon (1.54) v Mario Bautista (2.54) (Bantamweight)
Thirteenth-ranked Simon (20-4) faces the incoming threat of top 15 hopeful Bautista (13-2) in a bantamweight battle.
Simon is 8-3 inside the Octagon and won five straight prior to his main event loss to Song Yadong last April. A grappler with ever-improving hands, he’s a world-class workhorse who wears opponents down with nonstop pressure.
Bautista (13-2) is on a five-fight win streak, three of which he won by submission, to close in on a place in the rankings. It must be said, though, that he hasn’t faced the strongest competition and this is a serious step up for him.
Simon is on a different level, and he’ll show that by out-grinding Bautista with his high-energy and chain wrestling.
Phil Hawes (2.10) v Brunno Ferreira (1.76) (Middleweight)
Don’t blink when these two aggressive middleweights open the main card. Both men are best known for their hard-hitting striking and have no fear on the feet, so expect a slugfest with a violent, sudden finish.
Hawes (12-5), who has eight KOs to his name, was knocked out in his last two fights and has lost three of his last four.
“No Hype” is explosive and has a wrestling advantage, but as mentioned, this promises to be a stand-up battle.
Ferreira (10-1), who boasts seven KOs, is coming off the first loss of his career. “The Hulk” has much more upside than his struggling opponent and has a power advantage that should prove decisive in a short scrap.