Robert Whittaker (Jeff Vulgamore/Combat Press)

UFC Fight Night: Whittaker vs. Aliskerov Preview and Predictions

On Saturday, Jun, 22, the UFC makes its first stop in Saudi Arabia, when UFC Fight Night: Whittaker vs. Aliskerov lands at the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh. The headliner was originally supposed to be former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker taking on eleventh-ranked Khamzat Chimaev, but Chimaev had to pull out on short notice due to an illness. Filing his spot will be Ikram Aliskerov, who will only be making his third UFC appearance.

Since Whittaker first lost his title to Israel Adesanya in Oct. 2019, he has gone 5-2, with his only two losses coming in his rematch with Adesanya and in a title-contender bout against now-champion Dricus du Plessis. He bounced back from the latter loss with a dominant performance over Paulo Costa last February. Currently sitting at No. 3, a win would get him close to another title shot. However, his new opponent is no slouch.

Aliskerov is a pupil of Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, and he is currently sitting at 15-1 as a pro with his sole loss being a first-round knockout at the hands of the aforementioned Chimaev under the BRAVE CF banner five years ago. He came into the UFC through the Contender Series, and has since gone 2-0 in the promotion with first-round knockouts of Phil Hawes and Warlley Alves. A win over Whittaker on short notice would catapult him directly to the top five in the middleweight rankings.


The co-main event features a battle of the big men, as fifth-ranked Alexander Volkov takes on third-ranked Sergei Pavolvich in a heavyweight affair. Pavlovich was on a six-fight winning streak before getting knocked out in his last fight by Tom Aspinall for the interim strap. Volkov is currently on a three-fight winning streak, which includes two knockouts, followed by a submission of Tai Tuivasa in his last outing. Both men are pining for a title shot in a division whose title has gone stagnant with Jon Jones yet to be booked for a title defense.

UFC Fight Night: Whittaker vs. Aliskerov airs live in its entirety on ESPN+ with the preliminary card also airing on ESPN at 12 p.m. ET, and the main card airing on ABC at 3 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Robert Whittaker was supposed to face Khamzat Chimaev, but, instead, will see Ikram Aliskerov across the cage; how does the former champion handle the change in opponent?

Kuhl: Robert Whittaker is the betting favorite against Ikram Aliskerov. He’s a former champion, and, in the last 10 years, he has gone 14-3 at the highest level of the division. He lost twice to former champion Israel Adesanya, and his last loss was to now-current champion Dricus du Plessis. Whittaker is always within one or two fights of another title shot, and after he outclassed Paulo Costa, he has momentum toward the top. He’s well-rounded, has a black belt in everything, was a freestyle wrestler, and his striking is fantastic. And, this is where I start to waiver.

Aliskerov is a gritty, Daestani, combat sambo world champion, and he trained under Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, former UFC lightweight champion Khabib’s father. This guy is physical as hell, he’s two years younger than Whittaker, and he is hungry. Obviously, with his background, he has very effective wrestling, scoring an average of three takedowns per UFC bout, but that was even higher prior to scoring a kimura against Mario Sousa less than two years ago. He has had two fights in the UFC, both knockouts, when he finished Phil Hawes and Warlley Alves before the midpoint of Round 1. I do not see this going well for Whittaker.

Styles make fights, and this is a bad stylistic match-up for Whittaker. Yes, he was training for Khmazat Chimaev, so he was expecting a good wrestler anyway, but Aliskerov is one of those guys who someone in Whittaker’s position might have just turned down. I see Aliskerov coming in hot, Whittaker doing his normal hard-pressing, technically proficient striking, but Aliskerov being just a step ahead, throwing a bit more volume. Whittaker will get frustrated, make a bad decision moving forward, and get taken down to be finished by kimura, Aliskerov’s arm lock of choice.

Petela: It is not a good thing that both Dan and I are picking the underdog in this one. If we are both wrong it makes us look like buffoons, and, if we are both right, I don’t have anything to hold over his head about how much better I am at picking fights.

Alas, I think taking this fight will turn out to be a huge mistake for Robert Whittaker. Not enough people know how good Ikram Aliskerov is for this fight to be worth taking on short notice. Khamzat Chimaev at least has name recognition, and a win would catapult him back into title contention. Beating Aliskerov doesn’t really do anything, other than keep him active, but a loss would be devastating. He is a fighter’s fighter, and he deserves all the respect in the world for taking this fight, but, yikes, will it look bad in hindsight.

It is going to be nearly impossible for Whittaker, at this stage in his career, to go 25 minutes without making a fight-ending mistake. Whether he closes the distance unwisely and without the proper defensive tactics, or if he is late getting his hips back on an Aliskerov takedown attempt, it only takes one mistake for the fight to change drastically. I’m thinking that, in the fourth round, Whittaker darts in out of frustration from his lack of offensive success and eats a counter shot on the chin that puts him on skates. From there a takedown will come all too easily for Aliskerov, and he will beat Whittaker’s head like a drum until the fight is waved off by the referee. Huge win for Aliskerov but an even bigger loss for Whittaker.

Sergei Pavlovich came up short in his interim title bid against Tom Aspinall; can he rebound and defeat longtime contender Alexander Volkov?

Petela: This fight is of utmost importance for both of these Russian heavyweights. The heavyweight division is in a weird position with Jon Jones still on the shelf and not yet booked to fight former champion Stipe Miocic. Tom Aspinall, who is the last man to defeat both of this weekend’s co-headliners, is set to rematch Curtis Blaydes with the interim title on the line in July, so a title shot isn’t out of the realm of possibility before the end of the year for the winner.

Alexander Volkov has won three fights since being submitted by Aspinall and has looked world-class in each one of those wins. When he is at his best, he has a chance to beat anyone on the planet. However, he is going to come up short this weekend against his countryman. Volkov is the more accomplished submission artist, having won four times via submission, but the likelihood that this fight turns into a grappling match is low. These two both prefer to stand and strike, which is not going to be a good thing for Volkov. He is rangier, but he is going to get bullied by Pavlovich in the clinch and his power will be zapped by the more physical fighter.

This fight doesn’t go more than three rounds. After wearing down Volkov for 10-plus minutes, Pavlovich is going to land a big punch in boxing range that puts Volkov down and a few follow up shots the referee will be forced to step in and halt the bout. TKO win for Pavlovich and he will be calling for a rematch with Aspinall in his post-fight interview.

Kuhl: To echo the sentiment, it pains me to be in agreement with my colleague. But, I completely agree with his assessment. Both Sergei Pavlovich and Alexander Volkov have serious stopping power, and both men are hunting heads, not submissions. Pavlovich is the higher volume striker, and out of the 20 pro fights he has had, two of which were losses, he has knocked out 75% of his opponents. Expect the pendulum to swing back in his direction when he knocks out Volkov.

What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?

Kuhl: Muin Gafurov. Between Contender Series and two official UFC bouts, he is 0-3 in the promotion. A loss to perennial bantamweight gatekeeper Kyung Ho Kang will almost certainly send him back to LFA.

Petela: Kelvin Gastelum. The guy who gave Israel Adesanya a run for his money with the interim middleweight title on the line has not shown up in the Octagon since that fight. Since that fight, he has lost five of his last seven fights. Back at welterweight, the division where he was first a contender, he needs a win in the worst way. He has a winnable fight against Daniel Rodriguez, who is a good fighter, but not elite. If he comes up short, it could be the end of his time with the UFC.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Petela: Rinat Fakhretdinov vs. Nicolas Dalby. Both of these guys are on hot streaks, with Dalby having won four in a row and Fakhretdinov riding a seventeen fight winning streak. It will take a monster showing from Dalby to stop the freight train that is Fakhretdinov and it will be fun to watch and see if “Danish Dynamite” can pull it off in Saudi Arabia.

Kuhl: Kyung Ho Kang vs. Muin Gafurov. Gafurov has not won in the Octagon, and his back is against the wall. Kang is a divisional gatekeeper who is looking to keep his spot on the roster and pick up a win after losing his last outing in November. When these guys lock horns, there will be a lot on the line, so expect them to go hard for as long as it lasts.

Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?

Kuhl: Ikram Aliskerov is going to shock the world with a submission of Robert Whittaker, his first in 13 years, and the Dagestani sambo champ is going home with a little extra padding in the pockets.

Petela: There is not a ton of rationale behind this choice, other than Johnny Walker gets hit a lot, but I’m going with Volkan Oezdemir. The two light heavyweights are going to throw down in a wild affair and I expect it to be Oezdemir who lands the big blow first and gets a knockout victory.

Pair this card with…

Petela: It is summer and this is a daytime fight card so that calls for a case of High Noon seltzers. Watch this one outside in the sunshine and sip on a few High Noons as you watch this matinee affair. Pace yourself though, throw a water or two in there, the fights will be fun from start to finish.

Kuhl: Air conditioning. Summer is heating up, so are the temps, and this event is in the desert. So, get that unit cranked down to about 69 degrees, because this card is going to be hot.

Fight Kuhl’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card ABC, 3 p.m. ET)
MW: Robert Whittaker vs. Ikram Aliskerov Aliskerov Aliskerov
HW: Sergei Pavlovich vs. Alexander Volkov Pavlovich Pavlovich
WW: Kelvin Gastelum vs. Daniel Rodriguez Gastelum Gastelum
FW: Muhammad Naimov vs. Felipe Lima Naimov Naimov
LHW: Johnny Walker vs. Volkan Oezdemir Walker Oezdemir
Preliminary Card (ESPN+/ESPN2, 12 p.m. ET)
MW: Shara Magomedov vs. Joilton Lutterbach Magomedov Magomedov
LW: Nasrat Haqparast vs. Jared Gordon Haqparast Gordon
WW: Rinat Fakhretdinov vs. Nicolas Dalby Fakhretdinov Fakhretdinov
BW: Muin Gafarov vs. Kyung Ho Kang Kang Gafarov
LHW: Magomed Gadzhiyasulov vs. Brendson Ribeiro Gadzhiyasulov Ribeiro
BW: Long Xiao vs. Chang Ho Lee Lee Lee