A new year is upon us, and after a four-week break, the UFC returns tonight at UFC Vegas 84. But, the matchups atop the card aren’t new at all. Both the main event and the co-main event are rematches between contenders who have title aspirations in the near future.
The first time Magomed Ankalaev and Johnny Walker met the fight was halted prematurely after an illegal knee by Ankalaev dazed Walker who was then ruled unable to fight by the cageside physician. There was some controversy due to the language barrier, and both men seemed to want the fight to continue moments later, even with event personnel in the cage keeping them apart.
The co-main event pits flyweight contenders Manel Kape and Matheus Nicolau against one another after the pair previously met and Nicolau claimed a split-decision victory. This time around, each man will look to cement himself in the conversation as a possible title challenger against incumbent Alexandre Pantoja.
UFC Fight Night: Ankalaev vs. Walker II takes place inside the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. The event airs live in its entirety on ESPN+ starting at 4 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
The first bout between Magomed Ankalaev and Johnny Walker ended controversially; do the fighters and fans get a definitive answer this time around?
Kuhl: The first fight between Johnny Walker and Magomed Ankalaev ended due to a completely bullshit call by the ref. Walker was fine, there is an obvious language barrier, and he was ready to go. His eyes looked fine, he was lucid, and there was a reason the two guys were still trying to fight, even with a half dozen staff standing in between them.
As far as my assessment of the fight, Walker appeared to have taken a shot to the liver that hurt him, but as Ankalaev was coming for blood, Walker threw a flying knee, so he may have been playing possum. Ankalaev was able to score the takedown due to sloppy striking by Walker, but no real damage was being done prior to Ankalev’s illegal knee to Walker’s head, when his knee was still down. Up until all of the commotion, Walker could have been winning the fight, and he was clearly the bigger, rangier opponent.
Right now, for the rematch, Ankalaev is a heavy favorite at -560 with the bookies. To me, that’s a trap bet. Walker has the size advantage, and he clearly showed more effective striking in their first bout. When Ankalaev did get him down, he wasn’t really advancing position, and Walker showed great defense, even landing some shots of his own. I am not as confident as the bookies are in Ankalaev.
This fight, like all fights, will start standing again. Walker exposed the fact that his long kickboxing style is more effective than Ankalaev’s close-quarters boxing style, and I see him exploiting that right out of the gate. I think Walker has what it takes to finish Ankalaev, but he needs to get it done early. Going into deep waters with Ankalaev will certainly end in defeat, but I have Walker clipping Ankalaev with one of those flying knees or spinning backfists, getting him hurt and the ground and pounding his way to a TKO victory in the first or second round.
Petela: Walker certainly is the rangier fighter, and he uses his length much better now than he did when he first joined the UFC. He’s been improving steadily since faltering early after joining John Kavanagh and SBG Ireland.
However, I think this is too big of a leap forward in competition. Magomed Ankalaev is too smart to get involved in a protracted kickboxing match with Walker. The best thing for Walker would have been to let the first fight continue while tempers were flaring, and he could have drawn Ankalaev into a slugfest, Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em Robots style.
This time around, with a few months to cool his jets, Ankalaev will stay committed to his game plan and will work to get the fight to the mat as soon as possible. Certainly, he could get caught with a big shot closing the distance, but I think he will be patient enough to wait for the proper opening. He may not have a ton of early success improving position or landing blows the first time he gets Walker down, but trying to defend seemingly endless takedown attempts will drain Walker. Ankalaev is better suited to a grinding affair, with a lot of time spent in the clinch. The longer this fight goes on, the more difficult it will be for Walker to get back up, and, by the time the scorecards are read, it will be a clear decision victory for Ankalaev.
Manel Kape has won four straight fights since dropping a split decision to Matheus Nicolau; can “Starboy” score a win and even the series at 1-1?
Petela: It is wild to think that not too long ago the UFC was considering dropping the flyweight division. It has morphed into one of the most talented and most exciting weight classes in the organization, and this showdown is a perfect example of that.
At flyweight, in order to compete with the best in the division fighters need to be incredibly well-rounded and not have any glaring deficiencies for his opponent to exploit. That’s the case here, as both of these men have ever-improving skills that should make this rematch just as closely contested but even more exciting than the first match-up.
Kape has shown that he can finish a fight anywhere, with 11 knockouts and five submissions. He has recently shown a new ability to keep his high pace for the duration of a fight, notching decision victories in his last two outings. In his first fight with Nicolau, he came up short in a close fight.
Even with the better pacing, Kape would try to end this fight by knockout, where all three of Nicolau’s losses have come. The old adage, “If you try to win the fight by knockout, you will surely lose a decision,” wouldn’t ring true this weekend, and Kape would have likely picked his shots wisely trying to dispose of Nicolau, without burning himself out in the process. I expected this one to go the distance, with Kape coming out on top after landing the more substantive blows over 15 minutes, handing Nicolau his first ever loss by decision.
Unfortunately for fans and Nicolau, KApe came in three-and-a-half pounds overweight, and this fight was scrapped.
Kuhl: I’m in agreement with my colleague on how this one would have gone. It’s a real bummer the guy we would have picked to win is the one who grossly missed weight.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Kuhl: Nikolas Motta’s back is against the wall, as he faces 6-0 Aussie newcomer Tom Nolan. Both men came out of the Contender Series, but Motta has only gone 1-2-1 since officially joining the UFC roster, and his one no-contest could have ended in his third stoppage loss, as the referee called a choke by Trey Ogden a technical submission, but Motta wasn’t out – at least, not yet. Motta needs to be the 23-year-old Nolan, but he is a heavy underdog. Another loss will certainly earn him a pink slip.
Petela: Phil Hawes. A loss this weekend would make it three in a row and four Ls in his last five contests. He burst onto the scene with a TKO win in his Dana White’s Contender Series bout and then rattled off three wins before being knocked out by Chris Curtis. He was also knocked out in his two most recent fights so a loss to Bruno Ferreira would definitely put him on the chopping block.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: Matthew Semelsberger vs. Preston Parsons. This preliminary welterweight fight is going to be a banger. Maryland product Semelsberger has a high volume style and he can take a heck of a beating and still move forward. Parsons will try to get this one to the ground where he has finished nine fights by submission but I expect Semelsberger’s takedown defense to hold up and force this one into a stand and trade affair.
Kuhl: Andrei Arlovski can have boring fights, and he can have exciting ones. Against Wlado Cortes-Acosta, I expect an exciting fight with someone getting slept before the final bell.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Kuhl: Johnny Walker. I expect the heavy underdog to pull off another dazzling finish, which will earn him a performance bonus for being the first person to ever knock out MAgomed Ankalaev.
Petela: Farid Basharat. The undefeated prospect should have a tough fight against Taylor Lapilus this weekend and it is going to be a grappling fan’s dream come true. Both of these guys are significant submission threats and with Basharat getting the better of it he will earn some extra money in his pocket.
Pair this card with…
Petela: Jim Miller is on this card so that means it is a Budweiser night. The UFC’s Iron Man will be making his 43rd walk to the Octagon in his 55th professional fight. He holds the record for most appearances and wins in UFC history and the Sparta, NJ native is as American as it gets so pop open the top on a couple Bud heavies and enjoy as Miller looks to make it five wins in his last six outings.
Kuhl: I’d pair this fight with a New Year’s Resolution to follow-through on your resolutions and commitments. One of my biggest pet peeves is professionals not being professional and missing weight, which is exactly why Manel Kape had one of the more exciting match-ups scratched from the card.
Main Card (ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET)
LWW: Magomed Ankalaev vs. Johnny Walker
LW: Jim Miller vs. Gabriel Benitez
BW: Ricky Simon vs. Mario Bautista
MW: Phil Hawes vs. Bruno Ferreira
HW: Andrei Arlovski vs. Waldo Cortes-Acosta
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 4 p.m. ET)
WW: Matthew Semelsberger vs. Preston Parsons
BW: Marcus McGhee vs. Gaston Bolanos
BW: Farid Basharat vs. Taylor Lapilus
FW: Westin Wilson vs. Jean Silva
LW: Tom Nolan vs. Nikolas Motta
FlyW: Felipe Bunes vs. Joshua Van
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