Two championships will be on the line when the world’s pre-eminent mixed martial arts promotion returns to Abu Dhabi for UFC 267 on Saturday night, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The epic main card at the Etihad Arena is special on two more fronts as it kicks off a run of consecutive pay-per-views over the next two weeks and is a rare six-fight super show.
Evergreen Glover Teixeira has an opportunity to write a fairy-tale ending to his storied career when he challenges light heavyweight king Jan Blachowicz for his crown in the main event. The other title fight promises to be a violent rollercoaster as Petr Yan and Cory Sandhagen square off for the interim bantamweight belt.
The rest of the main card also features nothing but elite fighters. The always game Dan Hooker goes head-to-head with Islam Makhachev at lightweight, heavyweight contenders Alexander Volkov and Marcin Tybura trade leather, welterweights Li Jingliang and Khamzat Chimaev collide and light heavyweights Magomed Ankalaev and Volkan Oezdemir face off.
With heavy favourites across the board, the value lies in prop bets. We give you insight into the most likely scenarios and reveal our best underdog picks.
MAIN CARD (from 8 PM Saturday SA time):
Jan Blachowicz (1.32) v Glover Teixeira (2.40) (Light Heavyweight Championship)
It took becoming the first man to beat middleweight king Israel Adesanya for Blachowicz (27-8) to finally get the respect he deserves, both from fans and on the betting front. Seeking to become just the fifth fighter in UFC history to hold two titles simultaneously, 185-pound (84kg) champion Adesanya challenged Blachowicz for the 205-pound (93kg) belt in March.
With a perfect 20-0 record, “The Last Stylebender” was the favourite going into the super fight but was turned back by brick house Blachowicz, whose takedowns in the championship rounds helped him retain by unanimous decision. It was the fifth straight time that Blachowicz overcame the underdog tag and he’s now finally the favourite going into his second title defence.
Known for his “legendary Polish power”, the 38-year-old has starched eight adversaries, three of those knockouts coming in his current five-fight win streak including the demolition job he did on Dominick Reyes to capture the title vacated by Jon Jones last September.
He has the type of scary one-punch knockout power that could see him emulate Anthony Johnson’s vicious KO of Teixeira back in 2016 if he connects flush. His nine submission victories highlight what a well-rounded fighter the champion is, but he’ll look to keep it standing, where he’ll have a two-inch reach advantage to go along with his greater firepower.
Teixeira (32-7) is good everywhere as well and is a finisher of note, boasting 27 stoppages, 18 by knockout and nine by submission. The last came in his most recent fight when he tapped out Thiago Santos last November, and it’s on the ground where the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt has the edge over Blachowicz.
From the moment he entered the UFC back in 2012, Teixeira was touted as a future champion. Like all before him, he was unable to dethrone Jones when he got his shot in 2014 and now seven years later, at the age of 42, he finally has his second crack at a UFC championship.
The ageless wonder’s defied all logic over the last two years to put together a truly remarkable five-fight win streak against young hungry lions. He has the conditioning to go the full five rounds if need be and it would be one of the most special title wins in UFC history if Teixeira were to get it done.
However, given how dangerous and sharp Blachowicz’s been, and the tactical maturity he showed against Adesanya, the champion should play spoiler once again. A combination of tenseness and toughness will probably extend the fight past two-and-a-half rounds before the accumulative damage takes its toll on Teixeira.
Petr Yan (1.42) v Cory Sandhagen (2.90) (Interim Bantamweight Championship)
The co-main event marks a golden opportunity for Sandhagen (14-3) to swoop in and change the complexion of the bantamweight division. Yan (15-2) was originally set to face Aljamain Sterling in a rematch for the 135-pound (61kg) gold, which he lost to “The Funkmaster” via disqualification after landing an illegal knee in March. However, Sterling was forced to pull out due to neck issues and so, Sandhagen jumped at the opportunity to take on the former champion, with the added bonus of it being for the interim belt.
It’s unheard of for a fighter coming off a loss to receive a title shot but in this case, it makes sense. Sandhagen dropped a razor-thin split decision to TJ Dillashaw in a five-round epic in July that many thought he won. The hard-fought win came at a cost for the former two-time bantamweight champion as he had to undergo knee surgery afterwards, which brings us to this humdinger of a co-headliner.
His loss to the returning Dillashaw was only the third of Sandhagen’s career. A confident and complete fighter, he’s technically top-class and full of flair, which makes him an incredibly tough and punishing puzzle to solve. Nine of his 14 wins are by stoppage, six of those by knockout, and none a more jaw-dropping example of his unpredictability than his flying knee finish of former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar in February.
Yan doesn’t have a flashy bone in his body. He’s a ruthless and relentless tank of evil intentions, who walks opponents down and batters them with brutal boxing. “No Mercy” is one of the hardest hitters in the division and pushes a tireless and terrifying pace, a combination that’s seen him both murk and melt opponents, as his seven knockout victories attest.
As one of the taller and rangier fighters in the division, 5’11” Sandhagen’s four inches taller and will have a three-inch reach advantage, which will pose Yan problems, but the Russian’s used to being the smaller man. He’s been bulletproof so far; no one has managed to rock him or put him in a vulnerable position, not even Sterling. Yan was in firm control of their clash right up to his moment of madness that cost him his title and 10-fight win streak.
It’s worth remembering that whenever a fighter steps up on short notice, they do so knowing their opponent has a significant head start. Yan has been in a fire-moulding fight camp for several weeks whereas Sandhagen had been training with far less intensity and no particular game plan prior to Sterling’s withdrawal.
With that said, this has Fight of the Night written all over it and I’m expecting back-and-forth fireworks that bleed into the championships rounds. With more dog in his core and dynamite in his hands, I see Yan picking up a late TKO.
Alternative Bet: This is a much closer fight than the line suggests. With his range and unpredictable style, Sandhagen has every chance of causing an upset and is the best underdog option of the main card at 2.90.
Islam Makhachev (1.15) v Dan Hooker (5.60) (Lightweight)
A pivotal bout between the fifth and sixth-ranked contenders in the lightweight division. You have a menacing mauler in Makhachev (20-1) and a striking savant in Hooker (21-10). The latter’s a fighter’s fighter, who days after overcoming major travel issues and beating Nasrat Haqparast last month, agreed to face the most feared rising star at 155 pounds (70kg) as a short-notice replacement for Rafael dos Anjos.
“The Hangman” is a rangy and rugged gunslinger with seven knockouts on his record, while he also has three submission wins. The key to this fight is how effectively he’s able to use his four-and-half-inch reach advantage. He has an array of skills on the feet – fast hands, good elbows, kicks and knees – and will have to land the perfect technique at the perfect time to stop the freight train coming his way. That’s the only way Makhachev has ever been beaten.
Like his close friend Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was the division’s dominant ruler until he retired last year, Makhachev is a grappling juggernaut. His game plan in every fight is to grab hold of his opponent, get him to the mat and either pummel, stretch or choke him into submission. It’s an open secret because it’s one thing to know what to expect but another altogether to stop it.
Brute strength, world-class sambo and superhuman-like wrestling are what make Makhachev such a dominant force. After being ducked by many of the division’s elite, he finally has a big-name opponent and I’m expecting him to make a statement.
He’s won nine fights by submission, including his last two, but Hooker’s incredibly tough, so I don’t see him wilting under the barrage Makhachev’s bound to bring. Instead, I see the Dagestani winning a dominant decision.
Alternative Bet: As commanding as Makhachev has been, the line is downright disrespectful. At 5.60, Hooker, who’s proven himself as one of the best and most lethal lightweights in the world, is well worth a sprinkle.
Alexander Volkov (1.32) v Marcin Tybura (3.40) (Heavyweight)
The anticipation will be through the roof when these top-10 heavyweights bring the heat in a high-stakes slugfest. Fifth-ranked Volkov (33-9) is looking to bounce back after being outpointed by Ciryl Gane, who went on to win the interim heavyweight title, while Tybura (22-6) is on a five-fight win streak that’s rocketed him up to ninth in the rankings.
In Volkov, you have a decorated, elite-level striker. He’s a former M-1 and Bellator champion and a towering terror at 6’7″ with a ridiculous 80-inch reach. “Drago” doesn’t have one-punch knockout power but his technique, combinations and output have earned him 22 knockouts.
“Tybur” is the more well-rounded warrior. He’s won nine of his fights by knockout, including his last two against Greg Hardy and Walt Harris, and has six submission wins to his name as well. Even if it doesn’t lead to takedowns, he’ll be well-served to go to his solid grappling to smother and wear on Volkov.
His last two wins highlighted that he has dangerous holes in his defence as he was rocked in both before he rallied to victory. A seasoned sniper-like Volkov will find those openings and won’t let him off the hook to either knock him out or prevail on points.
Li Jingliang (5.25) v Khamzat Chimaev (1.16) (Welterweight)
Undefeated Chimaev makes his much-anticipated return and faces his toughest test yet. The breakout star of 2020’s momentum was halted by Covid and after a high-profile bout with Leon Edwards fell through, he gets an opportunity to prove he’s the real deal against the 11th-ranked Jingliang (18-6).
Chimaev is a pure predator. None of his eight victims survived the full 15 minutes. He consumes his counterparts with grizzly-like strength, pinning them to the mat and unleashing brutal ground-and-pound like a jackhammer. If that’s not enough, he possesses one-punch knockout power. Just ask veteran Gerald Meerschaert, who he obliterated in 17 seconds to secure the most recent of his five knockout wins.
Jingliang is a finisher in his own right. Six of his last eight wins are by knockout, including his last appearance inside the Octagon against Santiago Ponzinibbio in January. “The Leech” has fast and powerful hands but his takedown defence is a major red flag.
The Neil Magny fight comes to mind, where he was dominated on the ground. With his Dagestani connection, Chimaev is a different calibre of wrestler and it’ll only be a matter of time before he either bludgeons or submits Jingliang on the ground.
Magomed Ankalaev (1.32) v Volkan Oezdemir (3.45) (Light Heavyweight)
Top-10 light heavyweight contenders kick off the main card and I don’t see this one going the distance either. Their careers have been going in opposite directions and it’s only because they find themselves in seventh and eighth in the rankings that they’ve been brought together.
Another Dagestani destroyer, Ankalaev (15-1) is the higher-ranked of the two and has won six straight. Nine of his 15 wins are by knockout and his only loss came against submission specialist Paul Craig in the dying moments of a fight he was dominating.
Oezdemir (17-5) is a step up for Ankalaev but at the same time, he’s well past his prime. He’s gone 2-4 since he fought for the title in 2018 and hasn’t won a fight in almost two years. His nickname “No Time” tells you everything you need to know about his fighting style and mentality.
He has a dozen knockouts and was stopped in all but one of his losses, including being brutally knocked out by Jiri Prochazka in his last fight. If things go south on the feet, he doesn’t have the submission skills to pull off a Hail Mary like Paul. Ankalaev has the edge in every department and is a vastly superior wrestler who will add to Oezdemir’s woes.
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