The light heavyweight division is in a unique moment in its storied history.
After spending the better part of a decade under the alternate reigns of Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier, the 205ers in the top-10 hopped on an ongoing carousel waiting for the next great champion to emerge. Since Jones vacated the belt in 2020, the light heavyweight champion has successfully defended the belt just once in three fights, and that came when Jan Blachowicz kept middleweight champion Israel Adesanya from double-champ status.
That’s all to say: the top of the division remains wide open even as Jiri Prochazka begins his reign as the divisional king, which means Magomed Ankalaev is in prime position to stake his claim as the best in the world as he approaches a matchup with Anthony Smith at UFC 277: Peña vs Nunes 2.
For now, Ankalaev sees the cloudiness that plagues the title picture, and he’s hoping another win, which would make nine in a row, distinguishes himself from the pack.
“It's a little tangled up there because a lot of the guys that are up in top five, they're all riding victories at the moment,” Ankalaev told UFC.com. “It's a little hard to say for now. But very soon the answer will come and there's going to be another person who's going to rule that division.”
Had it not been for a last-second tap out loss to Paul Craig in his promotional debut, Ankalaev would have an unblemished record. However, an 8-1 record with four finishes, as well as wins over Thiago Santos, Volkan Oezdemir and Nikita Krylov, is plenty to build his reputation amongst his peers.
Ankalaev took a major step in bolstering his resume with a unanimous decision victory over Santos in his first UFC main event at UFC Fight Night: Santos vs Ankalaev. To defeat a former title challenger in the manner he did legitimized Ankalaev as a real problem for the division’s elite, and it also gave Ankalaev the confidence he needed to continue his chase toward the belt.
“I started feeling much better about being in a five-round war because I'm not so nervous about the fight anymore. I'm not concentrating on it anymore. I just come out there I show my skills, I fight, and I'm ready. I'm prepared for the fight.”
Rise Of Magomed Ankalaev
Rise Of Magomed Ankalaev
The fight in question is a matchup with veteran former title challenger Anthony “Lionheart” Smith, who is on a three-fight win streak himself with finishes over Devin Clark, Jimmy Crute and Ryan Spann.
Smith is a fighter’s fighter who has made it plain he believes he deserves a fight that gets him closer to the title after defending his spot in the rankings for a while, and he acknowledged Ankalaev as an understandable matchup for the time being.
For Ankalaev, the fight is the biggest of his career. Facing a fellow top-5er, a definitive win over Smith could position him for a No. 1 contender fight in the near future. At first, Ankalaev plays down the magnitude of the situation but, eventually, he relents to the reality that this fight is the biggest spotlight of his UFC career to date.
“This is a big deal,” he said. “It's important for me to be in this fight to go through it on such a big pay-per-view card, so I'm very motivated about this fight. I'm 100 percent prepared, and I can't wait for the fight itself.”
Although he fights with devastating power and a marauding aura, Ankalaev is rather unassuming outside of the Octagon, despite his 6-foot-3 stature.
Instead of leaning into a gimmick or talking wild online or on the microphone, he opts to keep his head down and instead allow his performances to speak for themselves and, so far, the opportunities have continued to come his way.
“I think that I do my talking with my fists,” Ankalaev said. “I do my talking with my fights and those people that talk too much end up having to fight me anyways, so I think I speak mostly with my fights.”
His biggest message can get sent on July 30 but, even then, he’s a little shy about making a big claim about what he wants. Ankalaev is going to let the people decide for themselves while he focuses on another epic performance.
It’s admirable considering the path many fighters take – to bust onto the scene as loudly and as spectacularly as possible. For those for whom it works, it works, but Ankalaev is a testament to sticking to the business of fighting, and beating Smith puts him in the position he has wanted all along: title contention.
“Everything is a bit tangled up there and I think my win is going to be the message itself,” Ankalev said. “Right now, I'm not sure what's going to happen because likely there's going to be a rematch there on the top, but the fact is, with the win here, I think that's enough statement to say that I deserve the next title shot. “
UFC 277: Peña vs Nunes, took place on Saturday, July 30, 2022 live from the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards, and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!