After making its first visit to Russia last fall with an event in Moscow, the UFC has wasted little time returning to the MMA hotbed for a second time, arriving at Yubileyny Sports Palace in Saint Petersburg this Saturday with a 12-fight card headlined by heavyweight veterans Alistair Overeem and Alexey Oleinik.
While Overeem was originally scheduled to face off with Alexander Volkov, “Drago” was forced out of the contest and replaced by Oleinik, the 41-year-old with 57 career wins who will be looking to extend his winning streak to three when he makes the walk to the cage for the 80th time this weekend.
Currently 6-2 in the UFC overall and 4-1 over his last four starts, Oleinik has emerged as one of the biggest surprise contenders in recent memory, regardless of division, and he could thrust himself into the thick of the heavyweight title conversation with a win over Overeem.
Following a pair of stoppage losses, “The Reem” hit the reset button by shifting his training to Denver, Colorado, where he joined the Elevation Fight Team alongside former adversary and current contender Curtis Blaydes. He promised a major bounce back performance in his last effort and made good on his promise by collecting a first-round stoppage win over Sergei Pavlovich in Beijing, China back in November.
Now, he looks to halt Oleinik’s unexpected ascent and put himself back in the mix with a second straight in on Saturday.
Before the heavyweights, who boast a combined record of 101-28-1 (with one no contest), hit the cage, a group of far less seasoned fighters hoping to one day be as revered and respected as this weekend’s headliners will enter the Octagon, hoping to deliver the type of performance that gets people talking and eagerly anticipating their next appearance.
Here’s a close look at three of those athletes.
This is the Saint Petersburg edition of On the Rise.
Generally speaking, newcomers who manage to land a co-main event assignment in their first foray into the Octagon tend to be established veterans with lengthy track records and a strong following.
Tsarukyan bucks that trend this weekend as the 22-year-old neophyte makes his promotional debut in the penultimate pairing on Saturday and he does so against a rising star in the lightweight ranks, no less.
The 13-1 Tsarukyan, who trains out of Tiger Muay Thai, squares off with Islam Makhachev, the long-time training partner of current champ Khabib Nurmagomedov whom many have envisioned as a future contender. It’s a tremendous opportunity for the lightweight new arrival, who carries a 12-fight winning streak that includes victories over former UFC competitors Felipe Olivieri, Junior Assuncao and Takenori Sato into his clash with Makhachev this weekend.
While this is a major step up in competition for Tsarukyan, the reward is worth the risk, as a win on Saturday would instantly establish him as one of the top young talents in the loaded 155-pound ranks and put him on the fast track to contention.
Usually when you see someone arrive in the UFC with a 16-0-1 record, you think, “Yeah, but who has he fought?”
In the case of Shtyrkov, the answer is, “A lot of well known guys, actually.”
“The Ural Hulk” arrives in Saint Petersburg for his debut assignment against Devin Clark after going 3-0-1 in 2018, a stretch which included stoppage wins over former UFC light heavyweights Thiago Silva and Fabio Maldonado. Over the course of his not-quite-four-year career, Shtyrkov has also shared the cage with Jeff Monson, Ricco Rodriguez, “Bigfoot” Silva, Rodney Wallace, Phil De Fries and Satoshi Ishii.
That is a laundry list of solid opponents to face on the regional circuit and Shtyrkov beat them all.
Clark is a terrific litmus test for the 30-year-old UFC debutant, as he’s logged six appearances in the Octagon already, registering a 3-3 record and entering this one looking to rebound from a stoppage loss to Aleksandar Rakic.
If Shtyrkov can maintain his undefeated record and add another impressive performance to his resume, he’ll immediately become an interesting addition to the light heavyweight ranks, where fresh faces and new names are always in demand.
While the first two men on this list are promotional newcomers, the third member of this troika is a returning competitor who has been sidelined for so long that he feels like a new addition all the same.
Mustafaev has made three previous trips into the Octagon, winning his first two fights by stoppage to push his record to 13-2 overall before running into Kevin Lee as “The Motown Phenom” was in the midst of his ascent up the lightweight rankings. That fight took place in November 2016 and Mustafaev hasn’t competed since.
He returns to this weekend to face another new arrival, Rafael Fiziev, in the opening bout of the evening and it will be extremely interesting to see what he has to offer.
Prior to his loss to Lee and lengthy hiatus, many viewed the now 30-year-old as an emerging talent to watch in the 155-pound weight class. While losing to a Top 10 fixture like Lee shouldn’t necessarily change that, spending more than two years out of action and returning when the division is arguably at its deepest and most competitive makes Saturday’s bout with Fiziev a crucial contest right out of the chute for the returning Mustafaev.
It will take much more than a win this weekend in Saint Petersburg for him to work his way back into the middle of the pack in the lightweight division, but given how his UFC career started and that he’s still only 30, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Mustafaev return to the win column and go on another solid run in 2019.