Watch MMA Storyline: Can Ikram Aliskerov upset Robert Whittaker?

Watch MMA Storyline: Can Ikram Aliskerov upset Robert Whittaker?


On Friday and Saturday, fight fans will be in for a whole lot of MMA fun as three of the sport’s biggest promotions will be in action.

The PFL begins Friday (4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN+) in Salt Lake City, Utah, with the lightweights and light heavyweights continuing their regular season. On Saturday afternoon, UFC Fight Night kicks off in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (noon ET on ESPN/ABC), with the main event between former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker and Ikram Aliskerov. Also at noon, Bellator's Series of Champions kicks off in Dublin, Ireland (12 p.m. ET on HBO Max), with Jason Jackson set to defend his welterweight title against Ramazan Kuramagomedov.

With 35 bouts across three cards, there's curiosity and anticipation all around. Andreas Hale, Brett Okamoto and Jeff Wagenheim break down the storylines to keep you focused during a busy weekend.


How good is Ikram Aliskerov?

Hale: According to UFC president Dana White, Aliskerov will have the opportunity to move up the middleweight rankings by stepping up in time to face Robert Whittaker in short order, as the only man he has lost to so far, Khamzat Chimaev, has had to pull out of the fight due to “seriously ill.” There's not much to know about the Russian, other than that he has two wins in the UFC by first-round stoppage against Phil Howes and Warlley Alves. Whittaker is several levels above Howes and Alves, and it could be the case that Aliskerov has done more than he can with little time to prepare.

But what if he doesn't? What if Aliskerov beats the former middleweight champion in Saudi Arabia? It would be one of the most significant leaps in UFC history when an up-and-coming fighter beats the UFC's No. 3-ranked middleweight. He would probably find himself in pole position for the title after just his third UFC fight. In a worst-case scenario, he would face Sean Strickland in a title eliminator.

If Aliskerov falls short, he could still climb up the rankings, provided it is a competitive fight. Aliskerov has nothing to lose and everything to gain on Saturday night. And in a division that certainly needs some fresh blood in the title race, the Dagestani sambo fighter could shake up the 185-pound division in a big way.


Jason Jackson looking for validation in Bellator title defense

Wagenheim: If you're a mixed martial artist competing inside a cage that doesn't have eight sides, you're fighting an uphill battle. The UFC is the big show, which gives its athletes an edge in achieving stardom. Fighters in Bellator, PFL and other second-rate promotions often play minor roles until they put on a performance that makes them impossible to ignore.

Jackson is doing just that. The Bellator welterweight champion enters Saturday's main event in Dublin on an eight-fight winning streak, including victories over Benson Henderson and Douglas Lima, both former champions. But Jackson's most impressive performance in that run of success was his November knockout of Yaroslav Amosov, who was 27-0 heading into the title fight.

Jackson's opponent this weekend is also undefeated. However, Ramazan Kuramagomedov (12-0) doesn't have the same public profile or combat experience as Amosov and has never faced an opponent of Jackson's caliber. So this bout is a necessary proving ground for the Dagestani challenger, while also putting Jackson in a position to beat another opponent with a perfect record in his second title defense. Who will put the sport on notice?


Is Sergei Pavlovich the 2024 version of Shane Carwin?

Hale: Remember Carwin? The lunchbox-carrying heavyweight who demolished everyone in front of him in a single round before losing to Brock Lesnar for the UFC heavyweight championship in 2010? And when Carwin finally lost for the first time in 13 MMA bouts, we only saw him one more time, in a losing effort to Junior dos Santos, before injuries derailed his career and he had to go into retirement.

Pavlovich's career has been very similar to Carwin's. Aside from a knockout loss to Alistair Overeem, Pavlovich has crushed the opposition in the UFC, scoring six consecutive knockouts before losing to Tom Aspinall for the interim heavyweight title in November. He faces the strong Alexander Volkov in the co-main event of the UFC in Saudi Arabia and will need to win impressively if he is to stay in title contention. That is not a certainty, given that Volkov combines an underrated ground game with effective striking.

If Pavlovich wins, he'll find himself in trouble again, and Aspinall's loss may just be a small blip on the radar. But if he loses? You can't help but wonder if he'll end up like Carwin, who is remembered as a ruthless knockout artist who saw his once-promising career end surprisingly quickly.


How much of an impact will first-round KOs have on PFL light heavyweight bouts?

Okamoto: If there was ever a study in how much the PFL’s regular season format impacts fighter strategy, it would be this week.

The 205-pound standings couldn't be more lopsided. Five athletes (Rob Wilkinson, Josh Silvera, Dovletzhan Yagshimuradov, Impa Kasangane and Antonio Carlos Junior) all finished the opening round with the maximum six points two months ago. Of course, the other five had zero points. If any of these five hope to make the playoffs, they'll have to make it past the first round to have a chance. And at least one fighter who already has six points will be on the outside looking in.

How aggressive will these first rounds look? Will any of the five who already have six points choose to play it relatively safe? This scenario is only seen in the PFL format, and honestly, I can't confidently say how it will play out. Of course, every fighter in every fight is looking for a finish at all times, but knowing it has to come in the first round is unique.


Khamzat Chimaev is the absent player who will be missed the most

Wagenheim: There has been a lot of attention paid to Conor McGregor's withdrawal from UFC 303, and for good reason.

He is by far MMA's biggest star. However, another upcoming absence announced around the same time would be a huge loss to the sport in a competitive sense. Chimaev's withdrawal from Saturday's main event is the latest in a series of setbacks for the 30-year-old from Chechnya who has stopped short of doing what he set out to do once he got to the top. Chimaev arrived in the UFC in 2020 like a tornado, destroying everything in his path. In his first two fights, both finishes, he went 83-1 in significant strikes. He didn't add much to that total in his third outing – as he scored a knockout in 17 seconds.

But injury, illness and visa issues have kept Chimaev from fighting just four times since 2020. When he has consistently competed against tougher opponents, Chimaev has not been as impressive as he once was. But he still won every fight and brought his record to 13-0 with an October majority decision in a middleweight bout with former UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman. This scheduled fight with former middleweight titlist Whittaker could have set Chimaev up for a long-awaited title shot. But now his future is back where it has been for the past few years: in doubt.


A look at UFC's relationship with Saudi Arabia

Okamoto: Anyone who follows combat sports – and entertainment in general – knows how disruptive and influential Saudi Arabia has become in recent years. The UFC came relatively late to the party, as the region already has a strong hold on premier heavyweight boxing, and is rumored to be expanding its reach massively in the near future. The PFL has signed a deal with Saudi Arabia and is taking its marquee PFL vs. Bellator MMA Champs event to Riyadh’s Kingdom Arena in February. There’s already a PFL MENA league that focuses on Middle Eastern talent. That division made its debut in Riyadh in May. It was only a matter of time before the UFC got Saudi investment.

This will be the first UFC event there, and Saudi Arabia's Riyadh Season has already agreed to sponsor the UFC's landmark event at The Sphere in Las Vegas in September. Saudi Arabia is a potential partner with any fight promoter at the moment, and any future deal between it and the UFC could have far-reaching effects on the combat sports calendar and certain fight placements.


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