LOS ANGELES: UFC is back in Abu Dhabi, and this time it’s with a double-header of title fights in front of a capacity crowd at Etihad Arena for the very first time.
The newly launched venue hosted UFC 257 in January, with Dustin Poirier win over Conor McGregor in the second part of their trilogy of fights topping the bill.
Only 2,000 people were in the audience that night. On Saturday night, 18,000 people are expected to see Jan Blachowicz of Poland defend his Light Heavyweight title defense against Glover Texiera of Brazil at UFC 267.
Blachowicz is coming off an upset victory over the formerly undefeated Israel Adesanya at UFC 259 in March, and the big-punching Pole had been in sensational form before that with knockouts in three of his previous four fights.
Adesanya, however, presented a unique striking challenge for the 38-year-old Blachowicz, who seemed hesitant to throw and was biting on Adesanya's faints. Although his striking prowess was not on full display that night, he exhibited an ability to adapt and find a path to victory.
Meanwhile, Teixeira is coming off a huge win over Thiago Santos having been hurt early on, which is becoming something of a habit for the Brazilian. Although the 41-year-old Texiera often gets hurt early and comes on later, Blachowiz is not someone you want to hit you clean. Texiera's grappling is amongst the best in the division, with his vicious ground and pound opening his opponents up for submissions.
Prior to that, the first of the night’s two title bouts pits Cory Sandhagen of the US against Petr Yan of Russia for the interim Bantamweight title, a fight that was put together at short notice after Aljamain Sterling was not medically cleared due to a neck injury sustained in his fight against the latter.
Both Yan and Sandhagen will be looking to make up for controversial losses in their last fights.
Yan was picking Sterling apart and looked to be breezing to a dominant decision victory until an illegal knee saw him disqualified in round four. He has looked phenomenal in his last three fights against Urijah Faber, Jose Aldo and Sterling, with none having an answer for his Muay Thai style.
While Yan has looked impressive, the argument can be made that Sandhagen has looked even better. Excluding a slip-up against Sterling at UFC 250 last year, and a contentious split decision against TJ Dillashaw in July, Sandhagen has looked like a world-beater.
His spin kick in the TKO win over Marlon Moraes in Abu Dhabi last October was spectacular, only to be topped months later by his flying knee against Frankie Edgar.
The 29-year-old American lives and dies by his unorthodox and loose style of fighting. In his last fight against Dillashaw, Sandhagen showed susceptibility to opening his back up to his opponents when throwing his spinning attacks. Dillashaw was able to exploit this and control clinch positions for minutes on end.
Yan displayed a similar ability to gain control of the back against Sterling when he threw spinning strikes. Both fighters will face challenges they have not faced before, and the winner would, in the eyes of many, be the best Bantamweight in the world. Sandhagen is the one with most to lose, as a defeat against Yan would put him at 0-3 against the three highest-ranked Bantamweight fighters, while Yan would likely be placed into another number 1 contender fight due to the way he lost the belt.
In the biggest of the non-title fights, the Kiwi Dan Hooker, after his decision victory of the German Nasrat Haqparast at UFC 266 in September, is stepping in on one month's notice to face Islam Makhachev - the most avoided fighter in the promotion and the heir to Khabib Nurmagomedov.
In his last bout, Hooker exhibited wrestling and control on the ground, skills that will be tested to the limit against Makhachev in their Lightweight matchup. The 31-year-old’s knees are another tool that will be employed to prevent the eventual takedown.
Since his loss in his UFC debut, Makhachev has looked almost unbeatable, with his wrestling exuding strength, speed, and tenacity.
His grappling was put to test in his first main event against Thiago Moises, who presented a submission threat Makhachev hadn't faced up until that point. He passed the test with flying colors, dominating the Brazilians from start to finish to win with a fourth round submission.
This bout has major title implications for the winner, while the loser will likely have to take a high-risk, low-reward fight with Rafael Fiziev or Gregor Gillespie.
Alexander Volkov takes on Marcin Tybura in Heavyweight bout that was added late to the main card, and before that is one of the most anticipated fights of the night which sees the return of Khamzat Chimaev against the "Leech" Li Jingliang in the Welterweight division.
The Russian-born Swede is coming off a year’s layoff due to lingering effects of COVID-19 that ruled him out of multiple bouts with Leon Edwards.
Chimaev burst onto the scene last year, winning two fights within 10 days at Fight Island 1 in Abu Dhabi. In those bouts, the 27-year-old displayed powerful wrestling and smooth grappling that rendered his opponents powerless to his never-ending barrage of ground strikes and submission attempts.
In his most recent appearance in the Octagon, he flattened Gerald Meerschaert in only 10 seconds with a single right hand. Although Chimaev seemed open to fighting at both Welterweight and middleweight, declining main event bouts with Luke Rockhold show he is more interested in fighting at welterweight.
Up against him will be Jingliang, who knocked Santiago Ponzinibbio out in the first round last January. The Leech utilizes a unique striking style, employing an abundance of hooks from unorthodox angles, although the 33-year-old from China showed a susceptibility to be controlled in his bout against Neil Magny in 2020.
This fight will come down to who controls where it takes place, with Chimaev being more comfortable on the ground while Jingliang preferring a striking affair. The winner of the bout is sure to see a steep challenge in their next fight, with fighters like Wonderboy, Belal Muhammad and Geoff Neal, without signed fights, waiting for their chance.
The main card opens with an intriguing matchup between ranked Light Heavyweights Magomed Ankalaev of Russia and Volkan Oezdemir of Switzerland.
The 22 -year-old Oezdemir’s defeat to Jiri Prochazka at UFC 251 in Abu Dhabi has aged well, with Czech fighter solidifying himself as the next man in line for a title shot.
Short bouts have become synonymous with Oezdemir fights, with the Swiss fighter's kill or be killed style leading to swift finishes. But in Ankaleav, he will up against man many believe to be the future champion of the division. Ankaleav has been perfect in his career outside of a last-second submission defeat to Paul Craig back in 2018.
Ankaleav possesses masterful striking and employs a variety of techniques. While his power and striking are impressive, Ankalaev has also displayed sound wrestling in his last victory against Nikita Krylov in February.
This bout has significant implications for the trajectory of both fighters' careers, as a win for Ankalaev puts him in the title picture, while a win for Oezdemir keeps him relevant at the peak of the division. A loss for either fighter increases their distance to the title substantially in the shark-infested waters of the light heavyweight division.