UFC 298: Whittaker v Costa
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Robert Whittaker went from one menacing middleweight looking to take his spot to another.

Nothing is ever easy for “The Reaper,” who faces Ikram Aliskerov in the main event of UFC Saudi Arabia on Saturday. Whittaker was originally scheduled to fight Khamzat Chimaev in a bout with clear title implications, but with Chimaev forced to withdraw due to an illness, Whittaker now faces a lesser known opponent with little guarantee that a win propels him to the top of the contender ladder.

Making the situation even trickier for Whittaker is that Aliskerov could be just as dangerous as the undefeated Chimaev. The Russian sports a 15-1 record including first-round finishes in his first two UFC fights and his lone loss came to Chimaev back in 2019. If Aliskerov makes short work of Whittaker, don’t be surprised if he earns a championship opportunity soon.

In other main card action, heavyweight contenders Sergei Pavlovich and Alexander Volkov face off in the co-main event, Kelvin Gastelum and Daniel Rodriguez meet in a screwy middleweight matchup, popular middleweight Shara Magomedov fights short-notice debutant Antonio Trocoli, and Johnny Walker and Volkan Oezdemir collide in a battle of light heavyweight veterans.

What: UFC Saudi Arabia

Where: Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

When: Saturday, June 22. The six-fight preliminary card begins at 12 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+, followed by a five-fight main card at 3 p.m. ET also on ABC and ESPN+.

(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings and Pound-for-Pound Rankings)

Robert Whittaker (4) vs. Ikram Aliskerov

How are we all feeling about Robert Whittaker these days?

I think Whittaker has made a strong statement that he’s too skilled and too tough for 90 percent of the middleweight division to handle, as evidenced by how he outclassed the likes of Paulo Costa, Marvin Vettori, and Jared Cannonier, despite his in-cage mileage adding up. The Dricus du Plessis loss was eye-opening, but was it really indicative of Whittaker’s limitations or was that just a poor style matchup for him?

Ikram Aliskerov is only a slight underdog according to DraftKings Sportsbook, which tells you just how highly the oddsmakers think of Aliskerov despite him having a tenth of the UFC experience that Whittaker has and the fact that he’s taking this fight on short notice. Heading into the biggest fight of his career, I’m guessing Aliskerov would have liked more time to prepare for Whittaker specifically.

Still, I can’t help but feel that the fates are working against Whittaker here. First, missing out on the chance to beat the undefeated Chimaev—a feat that would have all but guaranteed him a shot to regain the middleweight belt—and then being forced to take on an opponent who has far more to gain from their matchup than he does. Aliskerov isn’t as one-dimensional as the likes of Costa or Vettori either. Not only is he a great wrestler, as you’d expect from his Dagestani background, he has a potent mixture of patience and power on the feet.

Aliskerov only needs a sliver of an opening to land a hard shot and even the sturdy Whittaker can only take so many of those. I see Aliskerov shaking off a slow start before pouring on the pressure and finding a finish in Round 2 or 3.

Pick: Aliskerov

Sergei Pavlovich (3) vs. Alexander Volkov (7)

I expect Sergei Pavlovich and Alexander Volkov to follow a similar rhythm to my Whittaker-Aliskerov prediction, but with the end arriving much faster.

You know what Pavlovich is here to do. He’s going to come forward with his hands primed, walk you down, and once he’s within range he’s swinging for the fences. More often than not he’s the hammer, not the nail, and prior to the loss to Tom Aspinall he’d racked up six straight first-round finishes. In fact, Pavlovich hasn’t seen a second round in seven years.

Volkov is no stranger to defusing heavy hitters, ranging from Tai Tuivasa to Jairzinho Rozenstruik to Alistair Overeem. He uses his reach so well that even though he’s actually giving up a few inches to Pavlovich, he should still have the advantage when they’re working from mid-range. It’s just that he probably can’t keep Pavlovich at that range for long.

It’s the underrated quickness of Pavlovich that’s really going to give Volkov problems. After landing a few good long-distance shots early on, he’s going to find himself with his back to the fence and Pavlovich bearing down on him. Then it’s wham, bam, and you know the rest.

Pavlovich by first-round knockout.

Pick: Pavlovich

Kelvin Gastelum vs. Daniel Rodriguez

Get it together, Kelvin Gastelum.

These days, any analysis of a Gastelum fight requires a mention of his struggle with cutting weight. Even supporters of the veteran have to be frustrated with his failure to manage the scale at this point and wondering how these problems affect him on fight night. Respectfully, there could be any number of factors that interfered with Gastelum’s preparation and we certainly wish him the best, but if you require ideal circumstances to cut down to a required weight, that weight class probably isn’t for you.

With that grievance out of the way, I’m going against my better judgement here and picking Gastelum to score a close decision win over Daniel Rodriguez. Style-wise they’re a good match, but Gastelum’s ability to push the pace for 15 minutes is his best asset. It’s entirely possible that Rodriguez jabs and counters Gastelum into oblivion, too, there’s not a lot separating the fighters here.

Gastelum’s activity gets him the nod as we take a trip to splitty city.

Pick: Gastelum

Shara Magomedov vs. Antonio Trocoli

First, let’s share the relief that Antonio Trocoli must be feeling now that he’s this close to making his UFC dream become a reality. Trocoli has suffered numerous starts and stops in his journey since having a Contender Series win overturned due to a positive test for the banned substance nandrolone. This is the third or fourth time that he’s been booked to make his debut, I’ve actually lost count at this point. He even missed out on the chance to get smashed by Aliskerov last Saturday!

But he’s here now and once again finds himself in a matchup where he’s a heavy underdog, this time against highly vaunted striker Shara Magomedov. The hype around “Shara Bullet” is substantial, stemming from his dynamic striking style, quirky persona, and that signature right eye (the result of a years-old injury). Magomedov faced a stiff test in his UFC debut, winning a decision against a pesky Bruno Silva, so we’ll see if Trocoli proves to be a more entertaining style matchup.

Trocoli has some grappling, but at a ginormous 6-foot-5, his main strategy is to use his 82-inch reach to befuddle his opponents on the feet. As you’d expect, that size comes with some disadvantages, noticeably in the speed department. The springy Magomedov won’t take long to figure out Trocoli’s firing rate and when he realizes that Trocoli can’t match him strike-for-strike, he’ll look for the finish.

This big tree is about to fall down.

Pick: Magomedov

Johnny Walker (8) vs. Volkan Oezdemir (15)

The main card opener pits two of the light heavyweight division’s most unpredictable fighters against one another. Johnny Walker looked like he was turning a corner after a rocky start to his time with SBG Ireland, only to fall to the superior Magomed Ankalaev; Volkan Oezdemir keeps winning just enough to keep up-and-comers from taking his spot, but he’s otherwise lost a step as he approaches 30 pro bouts.

The good news is that none of that matters since these two are expected to hit each other really hard, possibly so hard that one doesn’t get back up. Walker is no stranger to thrilling knockout strikes and Oezdemir flashed signs of being a lightning-fast finisher when he first started with the UFC.

Should Oezdemir go to his wrestling to target one of of Walker’s supposed weaknesses? It could work, but at the same time Oezdemir may want to trust himself to find Walker’s chin as many others have in the past. If goofball Walker shows up, a few hard shots from Oezdemir could straighten him out in a hurry.

On the other hand, Walker’s sometimes unorthodox approach to offense could have Oezdemir’s team scrambling for solutions. Yes, Walker has become a more conventional fighter, but he still shows flashes of the wild man that endeared him to fans in the first place.

Give me Oezdemir by decision.

Pick: Oezdemir


Nasrat Haqparast def. Jared Gordon

Muhammad Naimov def. Felipe Lima

Rinat Fakhretdinov def. Nicolas Dalby

Muin Gafurov def. Kyung Ho Kang

Magomed Gadzhiyasulov def. Brendson Ribeiro

Chang Ho Lee def. Xiao Long

Author: Staff

Please go to MMAFighting.com to read full article.

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