After a slow start to the new year for martial arts, things are picking up in a big way.
An absolute must-see featherweight title fight tops the list as defending champion Alexander Volkanovski looks to shake off a recent knockout loss at 155lbs when he welcomes the dangerous Ilia Topuria in what could be the Australian champion’s toughest title defense yet .
The supporting main card fights offer no shortage of star power, as former champions Robert Whittaker and Henry Cejudo return in separate bouts with future title considerations on the line.
As we get closer to this weekend’s action, let’s take a closer look at the major storylines ahead of the card.
1. Ilia Topuria seems to be on the verge of a breakthrough
At 27, with as much power and technique as swagger, Topuria enters his first UFC title fight with an undefeated record (14-0) and a trail of terror left in his wake across six appearances in the Octagon. Even better for the promotion: Topuria simply radiates star power. In fact, he’s so confident he’ll finish the biggest featherweight in UFC history on Saturday that he’s already updated his social media accounts to read: “Undefeated 15-0. UFC World Champion.” Born in Germany but of Georgian descent, Topuria has called Spain home since the age of 15 and has immersed himself in that country’s celebrity culture, working with some of the biggest football stars from yet another passionate country that is the UFC would like to take over. about. And the good news for Topuria is that he has used his last three fights over the past two years to showcase his versatile skillset. Topuria split Jai Herbert in half with punches in a knockout victory, beating Bryce Mitchell so badly on the ground en route to a submission that he left his opponent openly considering retirement in the aftermath and then doing five tough rounds to boost his cardio demonstrating by Josh beating Emmett.
2. The legendary government of Alexander Volkanovsky has never felt more vulnerable
Let’s be honest: this is new territory for ‘Alexander the Great’. Despite being 18-0 in his career at 145 pounds, Volkanovski retains the title of betting favorite and will defend his featherweight title for the sixth time on Saturday by the slimmest of margins in this virtual pick ’em. Not only has Volkanovski lost two of his last three fights (albeit against pound-for-pound king and lightweight champion Islam Makhachev), their October rematch ended via a knockout loss with a head kick. Volkanovski’s gamble to accept the fight on less than two weeks’ notice backfired in a big way. Although he will have a full camp this time as he returns to his favorite division, Volkanovski’s age (35) seems to be the only thing people are talking about. Should Volkanovski win, it would be one fewer title defense than Jose Aldo’s UFC featherweight record. But a loss would raise a whole new set of questions for one of the greatest fighters in the promotion’s history.
3. Will Robert Whittaker ever fight for the UFC middleweight title again?
Entering the former 185-pound champion’s co-main event bout against the hard-hitting Paulo Costa is an interesting question to ponder, which brings with it more hope for the winner to re-enter the title picture. Whittaker is still just 33 and has claimed ahead of UFC 298 that he still feels in his prime. But this October will mark five years since Whittaker wore UFC gold and he enters the Costa fight having lost two of his last three, including a humiliating second-round TKO loss to recently crowned champion Dricus du Plessis last July. The biggest problem for Whittaker in that fight was that he was not competitive at all and was overwhelmed by both the power and size of his less skilled opponent, which is not much different from the contrast in style he will face against Costa. With former champion Israel Adesanya – who is 2-0 against Whittaker in title fights – no longer at the top of the division, beating Costa could help Whittaker make a big fight. But like Volkanovski, it could prove disastrous for his future plans if Whittaker were to drop his third fight from his last four, especially as the division continues to replenish itself with a new crop of top fighters like DDP, Sean Strickland, Khamzat Chimaev and Bo Nickal . .
4. Merab Dvalishvili-Henry Cejudo could be its own main event
Talk about a can’t-miss fight in the sport’s deepest and most talented division. In a fight likely to produce the next 135-pound title challenger, the uncrowned Dvalishvili champion, who no longer has teammate and close friend Aljamain Sterling delaying his title dreams, takes on the 37-year-old Cejudo legend who has one more attempt at to prove that he still has it at the highest level. Although Cejudo came up just short in a split-decision title loss to Sterling last May, the fight came directly from a three-year layoff and the cage rust showed as Cejduo got off to a slow start. To correct the mistakes that cost the former two-division champion a shot at glory, Cejudo has replaced his coaching staff for this fight and will need every edge he can get against the superhuman engine that Dvalishvili brings. However the fight goes, the matchup is fantastic. Dvalishvili will have to prove that should former Olympic gold medalist Cejudo consistently shut down his spamming attempts, he can handle himself just as well with his hands. If his last two fights are any indication, as Dvalishvili extended his win streak to nine with victories over former champions Jose Aldo and Petr Yan, it’s highly likely he’ll get a shot at the winner of the UFC 299 rematch between champion Sean O ‘Malley and Marlon Vera. But even in his final years, few can gameplan at the same level as Cejudo, who should benefit cardio-wise from this being only a three-round fight.
5. Mackenzie Dern could have no chance with another high-profile loss
Fresh off a disastrous TKO loss to former champion Jessica Andrade in November, Dern has never faced a bigger set of questions about her future at age 30 than when she entered on Saturday. Her implosion against Andrade showed all the technical mistakes Dern continues to make despite the experience of twelve trips to the Octagon. Yet it was her drop of former coach Jason Parillo prior to the fight that made the most headlines, as Dern visibly deteriorated in a disastrous performance that dropped her to just 3-3 since 2021. If there’s any indication, one might assume Dern is headed for a win when she faces Amanda Lemos. But the fact that Dern took on short notice against a dangerous fighter fresh off a title loss doesn’t help restore confidence. While it’s still too early to call this a “win or go home” for Dern, we’re getting closer to a “now or never” scenario.