Two very different championship stories are about to play out in Abu Dhabi.
In the UFC 267 main event, Jan Blachowicz goes for a second straight defense of his light heavyweight title against one of MMA’s beloved elder statesmen, Glover Teixeira. The hardcores have been clamoring for Teixeira to get another shot at UFC gold, and once Blachowicz beat middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, the stage was set for the affable veterans to face off.
With Jon Jones squarely out of the picture and Blachowicz having put together a résumé at 205 pounds that has cemented his legacy no matter what happens going forward, Blachowicz can further add to it with a win over one of the division’s stalwarts. On Teixeira’s side, the Brazilian acknowledges that this is his last chance to ascend to the top of the mountain and should he be the victor on Saturday, it will be the culmination of one of the most unlikely championship runs in MMA history.
The co-main event promises to be less conclusive as we find ourselves with two fighters eager to stake a claim on the title of best bantamweight in the world while the UFC’s reigning champion is sidelined with a neck injury. Former champion Petr Yan certainly has a strong case, with many pundits believing he was on his way to successfully defending his title against Aljamain Sterling before losing by disqualification when he threw an illegal strike in the fourth round at UFC 259.
However, should Yan lose to Cory Sandhagen (stepping in on short notice for Sterling, hence an interim title now being up for grabs), it could only further muddy the waters as Sandhagen has a recent first-round submission loss to Sterling. Sandhagen rebounded with finishes of perennial contenders Frankie Edgar and Marlon Moraes, then lost a close split decision to T.J. Dillashaw, so defeating Yan could convince fans that Sandhagen is the man to beat at bantamweight whenever Sterling returns to action.
In other main card action, Dan Hooker steps in on short notice to fight lightweight ace Islam Makhachev, Alexander Volkov looks to put an end to Marcin Tybura’s five-fight win streak at heavyweight, Li Jingliang welcomes Khamzat Chimaev back to the cage in a welterweight bout, and fast-rising light heavyweight contender Magomed Ankalaev takes on one-time UFC title challenger Volkan Oezdemir.
What: UFC 267
Where: Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi
MMA Fighting Global Ranking shown in parentheses
Jan Blachowicz (1) vs. Glover Teixeira (2)
This one almost has a heavyweight feel to it, doesn’t it?
You get the sense that whichever fighter lands first is going to leave Abu Dhabi as the UFC’s light heavyweight champion. It’s certainly possible that Jan Blachowicz and Glover Teixeira treat us to a five-round war of attrition, but I’m thinking this doesn’t make it past the third.
Neither man is known for their explosiveness at this stage of their careers, but I’ll go with the safe pick and say that Blachowicz beats Teixeira to the punch and retains. I give Blachowicz the edge in striking, and when it comes to grappling, he has more than enough tricks up his sleeve to survive a focused ground attack from Teixeira. Blachowicz should be able to avoid submissions and conserve his energy in the grappling exchanges until he can get the fight standing again.
It’s so difficult to say who will survive once the leather starts flying, and make no mistake, there are going to be several thrilling moments in this one where both fighters are a hair away from having their lights shut off. So I’m going with Blachowicz out of respect for the champ — and to make up for my past skepticism. (I picked Blachowicz to lose to Israel Adesanya, Dominick Reyes, and Corey Anderson. Yikes!).
Blachowicz by third-round knockout.
Petr Yan (T1) vs. Cory Sandhagen (4)
Full disclosure: I’m one of the four MMA Fighting panelists that voted for Aljamain Sterling as the No. 1 bantamweight in our Global Rankings. That doesn’t mean that I think Petr Yan isn’t worthy of being called the best 135er on the planet, and it definitely doesn’t mean I’m picking against him in this fight.
Props to Cory Sandhagen for stepping up here and snatching an opportunity, but Yan should be able to figure out his rangy, unorthodox striking style. This will be a masterclass in feints and range-finding from both men, with some fun spinning sh*t thrown in for good measure. As cliche as it sounds, this is a “don’t blink” matchup if there ever was one.
Sandhagen’s long limbs could also prove handy in the ground game if it goes there, but Yan shut down Sterling’s grappling in their fight, so he can do the same in this matchup. That means this will be determined on the feet, and simply put, Yan might be the best striker in a loaded bantamweight division.
We could have a classic on our hands here, one that Yan will take on the cards.
Islam Makhachev (6) vs. Dan Hooker (9)
As far as street cred goes, this is already a 10-8 round for Dan Hooker over pretty much everybody else on the planet.
Hooker isn’t just stepping in on short notice to fight Islam Makhachev, he’s doing so a month after a win over Nasrat Haqparast that was preceded by Hooker having to somehow make weight despite not even knowing if he’d be allowed in the U.S. until days before fight night. And let’s not forget that most lightweights probably aren’t in a hurry to sign on to challenge Makhachev and his eight-fight win streak.
Most lightweights aren’t Hooker.
He has a tall task ahead of him with Makhachev, the heir apparent to the Khabib Nurmagomedov dynasty who appears destined to compete for a UFC title in the near future. Makhachev’s wrestling has made him nearly unbeatable, and while Hooker is his toughest challenge yet, there isn’t anything in Hooker’s profile that suggests he’ll be the man to slow Makhachev’s roll.
Hooker will undoubtedly win in the standup if this fight stays there, but Makhachev’s takedown game is elite and it’s more likely that Hooker has a frustrating 15 minutes ahead of him. Even though Hooker has good wrestling defense, Makhachev — like Nurmagomedov — is capable of making experienced fighters look like it’s their first day on the mats.
The only real question is if Hooker can go the distance with Makhachev. Tough as he is, I predict Hooker is forced to tap out late in the second or early in the third.
Alexander Volkov (6) vs. Marcin Tybura (8)
For all the Marcin Maniacs out there (you know who you are), I’m sorry to say that this is probably where Marcin Tybura’s magical run ends. On the other hand, giving my record when predicting fights, this pick might be music to your ears.
I have Volkov winning a unanimous decision over the stout Tybura, who quietly put together a 4-0 2020 campaign before adding onto that streak with a knockout of Walt Harris earlier this year. However, unlike Volkov, Tybura hasn’t faced a truly elite heavyweight in the past couple of years while Volkov has fought Ciryl Gane, Alistair Overeem, and Curtis Blaydes in his recent fights. That’s the kind of competition that sharpens the proverbial iron.
Volkov knows how to use his reach well and he’ll keep Tybura on the outside for as long as he can. It’s in close that this one gets interesting, as Tybura has taken his ground offense to another level. Yes, he’s been finishing fighters lacking in ground defense like Harris and Greg Hardy, but those kinds of performances can only boost his confidence.
Overall, these two are evenly matched, so I’m inclined to favor the striker over the grappler here if only because I trust Volkov not to get stuck on his back despite Tybura’s best efforts.
Khamzat Chimaev vs. Li Jingliang
Excellent work by the matchmakers here as Khamzat Chimaev gets a stiff, but not insurmountable test in Li Jingliang.
It’s odd that Li is such a massive underdog here considering that he’s coming off the most impressive win of his career, a first-round knockout of Santiago Ponzinibbio. It’s a testament to how much hype Chimaev built for himself last year with his legendary two-wins-in-10-days run on Fight Island which he followed with a 17-second knockout of Gerald Meerschaert. The talent he’s shown — and the promise of what’s to come — has loomed large over both the middleweight and welterweight division.
Welterweight appears to be Chimaev’s division of choice, and if he’s serious about making a run and picking off contenders one by one, it starts with Li. “The Leech” has heavy hands and good durability, so if Li turns this into a firefight it could go poorly for Chimaev, even with Chimaev having finished all of his opponents thus far.
Look for Chimaev to test the waters early on the feet, and if it doesn’t go his way, shoot for a blast double and get Li on his back. Li’s ground defense will be challenged as he could struggle to keep the aggressive Chimaev off of him. In my eyes, Chimaev still has a lot of work to do to justify the hype, but I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen so far so I’ll go with the flow and pick Chimaev by first-round submission.
Magomed Ankalaev (12) vs. Volkan Oezdemir (13)
Don’t look now, but here comes Magomed Ankalaev.
As most fans probably know, Saturday’s headliners are tied for the second-best winning streak at light heavyweight with five straight wins each. Who’s ahead of them, you might ask? None other than Ankalaev, who has handled his past six opponents and likely would be 7-0 in the UFC were it not for Paul Craig working his last-second magic in Ankalaev’s UFC debut.
Ankalaev is a powerful, precise striker, and he should have the edge against Oezdemir if he can control the range and avoid getting into any grinding clinch exchanges. Oezdemir is a fast finisher who has also shown he can win ugly, and if any of Ankalaev’s poor defensive habits reemerge, we could see Oezdemir score an upset knockout here.
But Ankalaev has shown himself to be in a different class lately. I’m confident he’s ironed out the kinks in his game and will find Oezdemir’s chin before he makes any fatal errors. Does this mean Ankalaev belongs in the class of the very best at 205 pounds? Unclear, but he should get the W this weekend.