When top-10 heavyweights Curtis Blaydes and Shamil Abdurakhimov step into the Octagon in Abu Dhabi at UFC 242 both men will be looking to add clarity to a division distinctly lacking in it at present.
Fourth-ranked Blaydes will be looking to put himself in the title picture, while Abdurakhimov – currently in tenth spot, can slot himself into some much more interesting conversations by picking up a win.
With a Daniel Cormier v Stipe Miocic title match on the horizon much can change in a division that has lost its mojo somewhat in recent time – but here are the main talking points.
Can Razor cut through the competition?
A win for Blaydes doesn’t put him straight into the title frame, but he would potentially be one win away a shot at the gold.
With Francis Ngannou now poised to fight the winner of Cormier v Miocic it would make sense for a victorious Blaydes to take on the loser.
This is complicated if Miocic reclaims the title as you would question Cormier’s appetite to continue at the age of 40 – unless it’s rubber match with Stipe, but that keeps the title picture locked down for some time to come.
In this scenario, Blaydes taking on Junior Dos Santos, Ngannou’s latest victim seems likely to decide who forms an orderly queue behind Ngannou.
Shamil on the surge
Working on the back of a three-fight win streak, the Dagestani will be buoyed by some vociferous support in Abu Dhabi thanks to the backing afforded to his countryman, and headliner, Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Following a debut defeat in the UFC, Abdurakhimov has won five of six fights since including victories over veteran Andrei Arlovski and Marcin Tybura in his last couple of outings.
A win over Blaydes would project ‘Abrek’ comfortably into the top 10.
A smart fight from here would be to try to avenge his loss to Derrick Lewis from 2016. Lewis is now ranked in the top-five but has dropped his last two to Cormier and Dos Santos.
Between now and then
Before the UFC rolls into Abu Dhabi on September 7, there are a couple of key dates for the heavyweight division.
The obvious one is Cormier v Miocic 2 on August 17, with Cleveland-native Miocic fighting for the first time in 12 months and seeking to claim the gold he lost to the now former two-weight champ DC last July.
However more pertinent to Blaydes and Abdurakhimov may be UFC on ESPN 4 on July 20.
Here the experienced, and currently ninth-ranked Alexey Oleynik will take on Walt Harris, himself looking to break into the top-10.
Russian 42-year-old Oleynik lost last time out to Alastair Overeem, but enjoyed an impressive outing prior to that beating Mark Hunt via first round submission. A win here could see him go after Blaydes in the future – looking to avenge a 2017 loss to the American.
The Muslim fighter was speaking in London during a promotional event for his UFC 242 main event in Abu Dhabi as the 30-year-old prepares to defend his lightweight belt against interim champ Dustin Poirier on September 7.
Nurmagomedov returns to the Octagon for the first time since submitting McGregor via a fourth-round neck crank at UFC 229 last October.
The post-fight melee saw the Dagestan-native fined and suspended but he will be free to fight again from next month.
And the unbeaten Nurmagomedov plans to take out Poirier before completing unfinished business with lightweight contender Tony Ferguson, and then tempt the legendary Georges St-Pierre out of retirement.
“The last three years he only have one victory in amateur boxing, how [does] he deserve rematch?” Nurmagomedov said about McGregor. “He tapped. He begged me ‘please, don’t kill me’ and he talks about rematch. Tony Ferguson on the line. People who have win streak are on the line but not the guy who don’t win nothing the last three years.
“I have a lot of work without him. Right now, I’m focused on September 7.”
He added: “Honestly, I don’t know if he [GSP] will come back. If I wanna make my legacy big, I have to beat Ferguson and GSP, then I can become pound-for-pound number one.”
The winner of the UFC 242 main event is expected to face Ferguson after he stretched his unbeaten streak to 12 thanks to a victory over Donald Cerrone at UFC 238 last weekend.
Nurmagomedov has been scheduled to take on Ferguson numerous times with the contest collapsing for various reasons from both sides.
“He deserves a title shot in my opinion but when the UFC asked him to fight Max Holloway, he don’t take this fight,” Nurmagomedov said about Ferguson. “The problem right now is because of him. I don’t know why he don’t take this fight but he take regular fight with “Cowboy” [Donald Cerrone]. I don’t understand this.
“I don’t want to underestimate my opponent in Dustin. He’s a tough challenge for me. Right now I don’t want to think about other opponents. I have to focus on my opponent.”
The card marks the second time the promotion has brought a pay-per-view event to Abu Dhabi after hosting UFC 112 back in 2010.
The UFC did return to the Emirates in 2014 for a smaller Fight Night card, but September promises to be the biggest MMA event ever held in the region.
“It’s going to be a very big and very good show for everybody who’s going to fight in Abu Dhabi,” Nurmagomedov explained.
“My father can come to Abu Dhabi; he can’t get a visa for America so he’s going to be in my corner for the first time in UFC.
“In Abu Dhabi a lot of friends from Russia can come… so it’s going to be a good show: for me, my family, my team and I’ve very excited for this. I can’t wait.”
UFC 242 will signpost the beginning of a five-year partnership agreed in April with the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi).
That deal earmarks championship fights taking place in the capital until 2024 with Nurmagomedov and Poirier headlining the card which takes place at The Arena on Yas Island.
Poirier, who attained interim status after impressively defeating featherweight champ Holloway at UFC 236 in April, believes the landmark event will be the scene of an upset.
Asked what it will take to defeat the unbeaten Russian he said: “Experience, self-belief, my mindset, I’m focused on making history.
“I don’t need to find huge holes [in his game], the guy’s good, he’s the world champ, but I’m going to make things happen and bring him to places he’s never been to.
“I’ve learned I can count on myself. Adversity introduces a man to himself, I’m well acquainted and I’m ready to rock.”
Tickets went on sale for UFC 242 last Friday and can be purchased at ticketmaster.com
In the world of mixed martial arts there are few techniques as brutal, but spectacularly beautiful, than the head kick.
A strike that can end a fight in an instant, we saw it in all its destructive force this weekend at UFC 238 when women’s flyweight world champion Valentina Shevchenko landed a lights-out shot on number one contender Jessica Eye.
Over the years there have been some incredible examples in the UFC – here we take a look at five of the very best.
Edson Barboza v Terry Etim – UFC 142, January 2012
The head kick that all others are still judged by. When Brazilian Barboza took on Britain’s Etim in Rio few could have predicted the earth-shattering outcome. A stunning spinning wheel kick caught Etim right on the jaw, immediately stiffening the Liverpool man, who was unconscious before hitting the canvas.
Gabriel Gonzaga v Mirko Filipovic – UFC 70, April 2007
Mirko Cro-cop came into the UFC with a fierce reputation in the fight game. ‘Right foot hospital, left foot cemetery’ was a quote that told you all you need to know about his kicking prowess. On this night in Manchester, however, the world stood in stunned silence as Brazilian Gonzaga unleashed a night-ending bolt from the blue in the very first round.
Holly Holm v Ronda Rousey – UFC 193, November 2015
The kick that changed the face of women’s MMA. Both went into the fight unbeaten, Rousey having eviscerated all before her. Few gave the ‘Preacher’s Daughter’ much chance but she dominated from the outset finishing things with a swift kick to the face of a stumbling Rousey – the follow up punches on the ground were redundant.
Lyoto Machida v Randy Couture – UFC 129, April 2011
In terms of technique, few hold a candle to this strike from Machida. While most knockout will come from spinning techniques, this front kick was a thing of pure beauty. The speed and timing to connect with the chin of Hall of Fame legend Couture was incredible. This was closely-run in this list by a similar effort from Anderson Silva against Vitor Belfort.
Aleksandar Rakic v Jimi Manuwa – UFC Fight Night 153, June 2019
A recent addition to the list from earlier this month. On a four-fight win streak in the UFC, Rakic was looking towards the light-heavyweight top-10, while Manuwa was coming off three reverses. A swift swing of the Austrian’s left leg continued his momentum in devastating fashion, and sent the Brit into retirement.