ONE Championship light heavyweight and interim heavyweight champion Anatoly Malykhin faces ONE heavyweight champion Arjun Bhullar this Friday, Jun. 23, at ONE Friday Fights 22 in a title-unification bout. Malykhin is heavily favored to defeat Bhullar and become the undisputed heavyweight champion. With some oddsmakers, Malykhin is as much as a -1000 favorite. These one-sided odds are unprecedented at the world championship level in modern day men’s MMA.
One of the major reasons why Malykhin is tipped to win this bout is Bhullar’s inactivity in the last two years. The 37-year-old has not competed since Apr. 2021, when he captured the title by defeating Brandon Vera. The initial reason for Bhullar’s layoff was a contract dispute with ONE Championship. Once this was resolved, he was scheduled to face Malykhin in a title-unification bout in Sep. 2022 at ONE 161. Bhullar pulled out of this contest, after he suffered an arm injury in training, which subsequently required him to have surgery.
The fight was then rescheduled for Mar. 2023 at ONE Fight Night 8, but it was removed from the event due to a shift in broadcaster commitments. It was then rescheduled for Jul. 2023 at ONE Fight Night 12, but was moved for unknown reasons to ONE Friday Fights 22.
In the period that Bhullar has been away from the cage, Malykhin has significantly enhanced his reputation by becoming the interim heavyweight and undisputed light heavyweight champion. Will Malykhin be able to live up to expectations on Friday?
Malykhin’s win over Reinier de Ridder to capture the light heavyweight crown was not only the signature victory of his career, but a major statement of intent. De Ridder went into that contest as the ONE middleweight and light heavyweight champion, with a perfect professional record of 16 victories and no losses. The Russian proceeded to overwhelm de Ridder with his power on the feet and secured the knockout in the closing stages of the first round.
One aspect of Malykhin’s performance, which could be a good precursor for the Bhullar fight, was his strong takedown defense. The 35-year-old completely neutralized the wrestling of the submission specialist de Ridder. Bhullar is an accomplished wrestler and will almost certainly attempt to implement a wrestling-heavy game plan against Malykhin. Bhullar has won two NAIA Championships and a gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the 2012 Commonwealth Games. Malykhin has a freestyle wrestling background himself, but he seldom attempts takedowns. Instead, he uses his wrestling defensively in order to keep fights standing.
Malykhin is expected to have the advantage on the feet against Bhullar, but he must still be wary of the 37-year-old’s power. The Canadian-Indian fighter was able to hurt Brandon Vera before taking him down and ending the bout with ground-and-pound strikes. Malykhin’s superior finishing threat seems to be another factor that has determined the one-sided, pre-fight odds. The 35-year-old is undefeated and has finished all 12 of professional contests. This is in stark contrast to Bhullar who only has four stoppages in 11 fights, which is a low finish rate for a heavyweight. If Malykhin is able to keep the contest on the feet, he is expected to make the most of his superior striking and land big shots. However, Bhullar has proven to be an awkward opponent in the past. He utilizes constant stance switches and uses feints to disguise his strikes. Bhullar showed in his fight against Mauro Cerilli that he has the capability to secure victories even when his wrestling is thwarted.
If Malykhin fails to finish Bhullar early, his conditioning will be tested to the limit. The 35-year-old has never gone past the second round in his professional career. Bhullar, on the other hand, is accustomed to fighting the distance, with six decision wins in three-round bouts, and he also has a win over 25 minutes. Malykhin’s style revolves around securing the knockout, with not much in the way of conserving energy. He has enjoyed tremendous success employing this strategy, but he must be aware that Bhullar is a durable opponent, and he has never been knocked out in his career. If Malykhin does not get the early knockout he is looking for, he could fatigue rapidly, and this is where Bhullar could take control of the contest.
An aspect of the fight that has perhaps been overlooked by analysts is the potential weight disparity between the two athletes. Malykhin dropped down in weight to light heavyweight – 225 pounds for ONE – in his last outing against de Ridder. Bhullar has wrestled as heavy as 285 pounds, and, although he has become lighter in his MMA career, he almost certainly would not be able to drop down a division and make weight like Malykhin. Malykhin will have gone from facing a man who has spent most of his career at middleweight to facing a real heavyweight in Bhullar. The Russian bulldozed de Ridder with his power and physicality in a manner which he may not be able to replicate against the more imposing Bhullar.
Malykhin will be facing an opponent who is viewed by many within the MMA community as not being a credible threat to him. Bhullar will undoubtedly be fueled by this, as well as by Malykhin’s own trash-talk over the last two years. The interim champion will have to carry the burden of having to back-up his own words in addition to the overwhelming expectations that have been placed on him by others. While winning and unifying the ONE heavyweight title will be the goal, a failure to finish Bhullar could still be viewed as a backwards step, such are the contrasting standings of both men in the MMA community. This fight has been nearly two years in the making, and the longer Bhullar has been away from the cage, the more agitated Malykhin has become. It will be imperative that he controls his emotions on fight night. If Malykhin fails to do this, he will be on the receiving end of one of the biggest upsets in the history of MMA world title bouts.
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