Storylines to Watch at UFC Fight Night 234

If there was ever a time for Magomed Ankalaev to make a serious move in the Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight division, now might be it.

Long viewed as a title contender in waiting at 205 pounds, Anakalev will rematch Johnny Walker in the UFC Fight Night 234 headliner this Saturday at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. The two men saw their first encounter cut short by a controversial no contest—it was the result of an illegal knee thrown by Ankalaev—some three months ago. Much rides on the outcome of the sequel.

Ankalaev, 31, carries a 17-1-1 record into the cage. A decorated sambo practitioner, he boasts UFC victories over Ion Cutelaba (twice), Marcin Prachnio, Klidson Abreu, Dalcha Lungiambula, Nikita Krylov, Volkan Oezdemir, Thiago Santos and Anthony Smith. However, a disappointing December 2022 draw with Jan Blachowicz and the subsequent no contest against Walker has left him looking a bit like a ship without a rudder. Walker, meanwhile, has already established himself as one of the company’s true action heroes. Five of his seven UFC wins have come by knockout or technical knockout, two of them in less than a minute.

The Ankalaev-Walker rematch and its resulting fallout for the light heavyweight division is but one storyline to watch at UFC 296. Here are four more:

Flyweight Fracas

Another rematch bolsters the first UFC show of 2024 in the co-main event, as Matheus Nicolau attempts to move to 2-0 in his head-to-head series against surging fellow flyweight contender Manel Kape. The Brazilian took a three-round split decision from Kape at UFC Fight Night 187 in March 2021, the contentious verdict spurring plenty of post-fight debate. Nicolau steps back into the spotlight having won six of his past seven bouts. With that said, the 31-year-old Nova Uniao product finds himself on the rebound following his first setback in almost five years—a first-round knockout loss to Brandon Royval at UFC on ESPN 44 in April. On the other side of the equation, Kape rides into battle with the wind of a four-fight winning streak at his back. The former Rizin Fighting Federation champion last fought at UFC 293, where he outpointed Felipe dos Santos to a unanimous decision on Sept. 9. Could a title contender at 125 pounds emerge from Nicolau-Kape 2?

Tales of Inactivity, Prolificity

Ring rust figures to be key part of the narrative when “The Ultimate Fighter Latin America” Season 1 semifinalist Gabriel Benitez returns from a 518-day layoff to meet the ageless Jim Miller in a three-round lightweight showcase. Benitez has not set foot inside the Octagon since Aug. 13, 2022, when he buried Charlie Ontiveros with punches in the first round of their UFC on ESPN 41 pairing. He sports a 7-6 record across his 13 outings in the UFC. Miller, meanwhile, continues in his crusade to keep Father Time at bay. The 40-year-old former Cage Fury Fighting Championships titleholder has won four of his last five fights, his renaissance run highlighted by a 23-second knockout of Jesse Butler at UFC on ESPN 46 in June. Miller’s 42 appearances in the UFC rank first on the promotion’s all-time list. Who blinks first in a 155-pound clash featuring two men with plenty of questions to answer?

A Legend’s Light Grows Dim

Andrei Arlovski’s remarkable career now spans nearly a quarter century, and one can only wonder exactly how much fuel he has left in the tank. The soon-to-be 45-year-old former heavyweight champion has the confidence of UFC matchmakers for at least one more assignment, as he draws Waldo Cortes-Acosta in the featured prelim. Arlovski gets back to business following consecutive losses to Marcos Rogerio de Lima and Don’Tale Mayes. Another cause for concern: the Belarusian’s last 10 victories have all resulted in decisions, as he has not recorded a finish since he wiped out Travis Browne with punches at UFC 187 in 2015. On the opposite side of the ledger, Cortes-Acosta owns a 3-1 record inside the Octagon. The Dana White’s Contender Series graduate last competed on Aug. 26, when he blew away Lukasz Brzeski with punches a little more than three minutes into their UFC Fight Night 225 scrap. Might this be the last hurrah for Arlovski?

Burden of Proof

Farid Basharat quiets his doubters with every hurdle he clears in the UFC. The undefeated Xtreme Couture rep puts his pristine 11-0 record on the line when his bantamweight altercation with Taylor Lapilus helps buoy the undercard. Basharat has posted back-to-back victories since he joined the UFC roster following a successful outing on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2022. The 26-year-old last suited up at UFC Fight Night 226, where he subdued Kleydson Rodrigues with a first-round arm-triangle choke in September. In Lapilus, he faces perhaps his most difficult test to date. The Frenchman has captured titles in three different organizations—German MMA Championship, TKO Major League MMA and Ares Fighting Championship—and answers his latest call to arms with the momentum of a six-fight winning streak in his back pocket. Is this where Basharat finally runs aground?

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Renan Ferreira