Downgraded from main event to co-main event, the story still remains the same at light-heavyweight this weekend when perennial contenders Anthony Smith  and Johnny Walker  collide. Can the former title challenger return to form after sustaining a freak injury last July, or is now finally Johnny’s time to shine?
Walker feels he’s in midst of a career-high
Johnny Walker’s UFC career has been a rollercoaster ride. Saturday features the latest
One of many successful Contender Series graduates over the past half-decade, he was armed with a trio of performance bonuses after first-round finishes against Khalil Rountree Jr, Justin Ledet and Misha Cirkunov, but has stagnated since.
Consecutive defeats by Corey Anderson and Nikita Krylov, then former title challenger Thiago Santos and new champion Jamahal Hill – sandwiched between a first-round KO win over Ryan Spann – saw his stock significantly deteriorate.
Many questioned whether he’d be any more than a fan-friendly gatekeeper at 205lbs especially given how quickly his fights often end, whether he wins or loses.
Now riding a two-fight win streak – submitting Ion Cutelaba in September, then countering Paul Craig cold on home soil at UFC 283 four months ago, the 31-year-old is aware that his next Octagon appearance will represent his biggest.
Champion: Jamahal Hill
1: Jiri Prochazka – vacated title with serious shoulder injury
2: Magomed Ankalev – controversial draw during title fight vs. Blachowicz in December, anxious to return
3: Jan Blachowicz – above, hinted at middleweight move
4: Aleksandar Rakic – sidelined with torn ACL
5: Anthony Smith – recently recovered from broken foot
6: Nikita Krylov – won three straight after losses to Ankalaev, Craig
7: Johnny Walker – on first two-fight win streak since 2019
It’s unlikely, but the Brazilian hasn’t been shy in longing for a chance to avenge his first-round defeat by Hill, who seized his opportunity on short-notice, beating compatriot Glover Teixeira and winning vacant gold on the same PPV bill in January.
During Wednesday’s media day, he said:
“Beating him up, whatever it takes, it’s going to show that I finish the guy that’s No. 5 in the rankings and that I’m ready for the title shot. 100%, I’m ready, but I’m going to keep training everyday, develop my skills. You can get better every time you train, every camp, but depending on the performance that I’m going to put on, it’s going to tell me and everybody else if I’m ready or not.”
Post-UFC 288 news
Welterweight Gilbert Burns  avoids shoulder surgery, but must now rest
LHW contender Kennedy Nzechukwu staying ready, wants a quick turnaround
Volkanovski on Sterling SD5 Cejudo: Get a bigger win, then call me out!
Smith by contrast isn’t overlooking his upcoming opponent, but is backing himself to emerge victorious – provided he doesn’t make any fundamental mistakes, against a guy in Walker who has developed a reputation for having self-destructive tendencies.
“It’s pretty cliche, but he’s got one way to win – I can win wherever. Johnny is a unique athlete as far as his physicality.
If you give enough rope, he’ll hang himself, walk or run onto something. He’s one of those guys, if you just let him drive himself, he’ll run into something.”
As evidenced by the 205lb rankings above, the division remains in a bit of flux at the moment. Prochazka’s long-term injury and a forgettable title fight for the vacant strap has only muddied the waters further – Smith knows he can take advantage.
35 in July, Lionheart can’t afford to lose now. Chalk the Ankalaev defeat to injury sure, but if he has any aspirations for another title run, he must win this weekend.
UFC Charlotte card, is as follows
Heavyweight headliner: Jairzinho Rozenstruik  vs. Jailton Almeida 
Light-heavyweight: Anthony Smith  vs. Johnny Walker 
Welterweight: Daniel Rodriguez  vs. Ian Garry
Light-heavy: Carlos Ulberg vs. Ihor Potieria
Welterweight: Alex Morono vs. Tim Means
Welterweight: Matt Brown vs. Court McGee
Heavyweight: Karl Williams vs. Chase Sherman
Bantamweight: Cody Stamann vs. Douglas Silva de Andrade
Lightweight: Natan Levy vs. Pete Rodriguez
Women’s Flyweight: Kim Ji-yeon vs. Mandy Bohm
Welterweight: Bryan Battle vs. Gabriel Green
Women’s Bantamweight: Jessica-Rose Clark vs. Tainara Lisboa
Picture source: Getty Images, quotes via mmajunkie