Since a last-second submission defeat vs. Paul Craig on his UFC debut four years ago this month, Dagestani light-heavyweight contender Magomed Ankalaev (16-1, 9 KOs) has justified the high hopes for his progression with six consecutive victories. Now, he faces former title challenger Thiago Santos tonight, targeting another scalp in his first main event opportunity.
UFC Vegas 50: Santos-Ankalaev – is this Marreta’s final chance?
Inspired by what former foe Glover Teixeira achieved last October, Thiago Santos believes his compatriot’s success bodes well on a personal level as far as motivation is concerned.
“I feel so happy, so happy for him. He’s a good guy, proved to everyone that it’s possible – 42-years-old and became champion, so it’s possible for everyone.
Really, it’s a big example for me. I’m not young, 38 so have four years to do that, to work. I believe so much that I can become champion too.”
Santos believes that despite being a pre-fight underdog, Teixeira could prove successful in an unveniable first 205lb title defence at UFC 275 on June 11 against Jiri Prochazka, provided he utilises his grappling, finds the distance and takes the explosive Czech down to the ground.
Given how close he got to beating Teixeira in Nov. 2020 before losing via submission, a rematch down the line isn’t exactly impossible. Either way, time is of the essence after suffering consecutive defeats in matchups billed as title eliminators in an uneven 205lb division right now.
“If I win this fight, it’s going to put me so close to the next title fight. Maybe one more, or maybe I go straight to the title shot, you never know.”
Santos, who limped to an uninspiring decision defeat by the risk-averse Aleksandar Rakic (#3) this time last year at UFC 259, has earned impressive TKO victories over two of the division’s top five: Jan Blachowicz (#1) in Feb. 2019, as well as Anthony Smith (#4) twelve months prior.
Ankalaev hasn’t faced the same competition yet and we’ll find out this weekend whether he’s truly battle-tested enough to belong among the division’s top guns calling for a title opportunity.
“I’m so close to the title, nothing is bothering me. I’m just focused on the fight, the title and moving forward. It depends on how I win the fight, how I beat Thiago. A very tough opponent, a high-level striker, same as me.
I’m ready to entertain the fans, ready for his style, techniques. I’m hopeful I will get the title shot after.”
Initial controversy aside, successive first-round finishes against Ion Cutelaba, eight months apart, helped expose him to a new level of attention among fans and critics alike in 2020.
Decision victories against Nikita Krylov and most recently former title challenger Volkan Oezdemir, both ranked at the time, has only exacerbated the expectation on his shoulders.
So, is tonight going to be his night? Or will Santos, a clear underdog, play spoiler?
UFC Vegas 50 card, is as follows
Main card – Sunday, midnight BST
Light-heavyweight: Thiago Santos (#5) vs. Magomed Ankalaev (#6)
Bantamweight: Marlon Moraes (#10) vs. Song Yadong (#14)
Featherweight: Sodiq Yusuff (#12) vs. Alex Caceres
Light-heavy: Khalil Rountree Jr. vs Karl Roberson
Lightweight: Drew Dober vs. Terrance McKinney
Middleweight: Alex Pereira vs. Bruno Silva
Prelims – Saturday, 9pm BST
Welterweight: Matthew Semelsberger vs. AJ Fletcher
Women’s flyweight: JJ Aldrich vs. Gillian Robertson
Bantamweight: Trevin Jones vs. Javid Basharat
Featherweight: Damon Jackson vs. Kamuela Kirk
Women’s flyweight: Sabina Mazo vs. Miranda Maverick
Middleweight: Dalcha Lungiambula vs. Cody Brundage
Bantamweight: Guido Cannetti vs. Kris Moutinho
Light-heavyweight: Tafon Nchukwi vs. Azamat Murzakanov
Picture source: Getty Images — quotes via mmajunkie