While all eyes will be on the championship main event between Jan Blachowicz and Glover Teixeira at UFC 267, the next challenger in the light heavyweight ranks could emerge a couple fights earlier on the card when Magomed Ankalaev steps into the Octagon to face former title challenger Volkan Oezdemir.
Unbeaten in six straight since losing his promotional debut to Paul Craig at the very last second more than four years ago, the 29-year-old from Dagestan is 15-1 overall, but has been on a slow climb in the 205-pound weight division, his ascent delayed by a lingering rivalry with Ion Cutelaba that occupied the whole of his 2020 campaign.
After settling things with the Moldovan powerhouse on UFC Fight Island last October, Ankalaev pushed his winning streak to six with a smart, tactical victory over Nikita Krylov earlier this year, sending him into Saturday night’s bout with Oezdemir on the longest active winning streak in the division and puzzled as to why so few potential opponents are mentioning his name.
“It’s hard to say why they don’t call my name, because I have a winning streak in the division,” Ankalaev said on Wednesday morning via translator. “And then I see other guys have two, three fights and they’re already fighting for the title. This is what I wonder about.
“The road is a little bit long, but in one way, it’s good,” added the dynamic talent. “As you mentioned, I’m getting better with every fight, becoming a better fighter, but it’s important that we don’t (wait too long) because time is flying and I’m getting older.”
While he still has plenty of prime years left to compete, Ankalaev’s confusion about no one seemingly wanting to face him and others leapfrogging him in the pecking order is understandable, but also easily explained, at least in terms of the first piece.
Standing six-foot-three and having shown an incredibly diverse skill set, the once-beaten rising star profiles as a nightmare matchup for anyone in the division — someone equally capable of grinding out a victory using his wrestling as he is to land a front kick to the face that ends the fight, as Ankalaev did to Dalcha Lungiambula earlier in his UFC run.
As a dangerous foe with less of a name than some of the other fighters stationed near him in the rankings, calling out Ankalaev is a high-risk, low-reward proposition for anyone looking to make their way up the divisional ladder in the light heavyweight division, which is why so few of his contemporaries have been asking to face him.
“With every fight, I feel less pressure, and I’m getting more and more confident, so there is a positive side to this,” Ankalaev said of his slow-and-steady climb up the rankings, unknowingly highlighting another piece of what makes him such an avoidable figure for those with similar ambitions.
“Right now, I’m at the point where I feel very confident and have all the skills required. I’m in the peak of my career, and I know that when I get the opportunity to fight for the title, you will see that I will win.”
The positive for the streaking standout fighting out of Makhachkala, who stands at No. 7 in the light heavyweight rankings, is that a victory over Oezdemir has been the key to breaking into title contention for the last couple of years.
Oezdemir burst onto the scene with three victories in six months in 2017, edging out Ovince Saint Preux on short notice before blasting his way through matchups against Misha Cirkunov and Jimi Manuwa in a combined 70 seconds to earn a chance to fight for championship gold.
He fell short in his bid to wrest the title away from Daniel Cormier at the start of 2018, and in his five fights since their UFC 220 encounter, the three fighters that have bested the Swiss veteran — Anthony Smith, Dominick Reyes, and Jiri Prochazka — have all graduated to being title contenders, with Smith and Reyes each vying for the belt in their very next fight.
While fighters like Prochazka and Aleksandar Rakic are currently positioned ahead of Ankalaev in the rankings and can make a compelling case for meriting a date with the winner of Saturday night’s championship main event, the emerging fighter from Dagestan believes his performance this weekend will make the UFC think twice about who is next in line to challenge for the light heavyweight title.
“If the outcome — not just the outcome, but the fight itself - is good, I’m going to have a highlight victory,” began Ankalaev, correcting himself mid-sentence. “And then I think ‘Uncle Dana’ will have to think about giving me a title shot.”
So how exactly does he see himself dispatching Oezdemir and impressing the UFC President?
“I have a plan, but I cannot share it here, now, with you,” he said with a grin. “But if everything goes according to plan, the fight is going to be very exciting, and I should get the title opportunity.”
Don’t miss the ESPN+ special presentation of UFC 267: Blachowicz vs Teixeira on Saturday October 30th, 2021. Please note special broadcast times — prelims begin at 10:30am ET/7:30am PT, with the two-title fight main card starting at 2pm ET/11am PT.
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