Magomed Ankalaev might be the best fighter in the UFC that people don’t talk about, though that should change soon.
Saturday night, the 29-year-old light heavyweight competes in his first main event, taking on former title challenger Thiago Santos in the final bout of this weekend’s outstanding fight card at the UFC APEX.
In a sport where Instagram posts and trash talk are often valued more than victories, Ankalaev has managed to fly somewhat under the radar despite entering this weekend’s event on a seven-fight winning streak.
Being quiet and unassuming doesn’t garner you a great deal of attention as you’re systematically working your way up the light heavyweight ranks, but there always comes a point where a competitor’s talents and results become too great to continue ignoring, and Ankalaev is just about there.
One thing that is currently limiting the jack-of-all-trades from Dagestan is that his last two outings have been 15-minute wrestling matches with limited flash. Despite the fact that four of his first five victories came by way of stoppage, including consecutive first-round finishes over Ion Cutelaba in 2020, fans easily lose track of those efforts when your next two appearances feature heavy amounts of grappling along the fence and little else.
But the fact that Ankalaev is capable of both — of grinding out tough wins and lighting opponents up with various strikes — is actually what makes him such an interesting figure in the light heavyweight title picture and someone many believe is destined to wear UFC gold.
Where some fighters need the action to take place in a certain domain, Ankalaev is capable and comfortable everywhere. He brandishes an arsenal of kicks that differs from everyone else in the division, clear knockout power in his hands, and the kind of grappling acumen fans and observers have come to expect from competitors raised in the Northern Caucasus region.
Each time out, he’s able to determine his best path to victory and deploy the tactics needed to get him there, and over his last seven appearances and in 16 of his 17 professional bouts, Ankalaev has emerged victorious.
In addition to being another example of how unassuming fighters don’t garner enough attention and recognition these days, it’s also interesting to wonder how different that would be if the streaking contender hadn’t suffered a literal last-second loss in his UFC debut four years ago.
Undefeated fighters generate a different type of buzz than just about anyone else in the sport, simply because everyone knows and understands how difficult it is to continue stacking victories as you work your way up the divisional hierarchy.
Though everyone knows the odd setback doesn’t define a career or nullify a fighter’s chance to eventually rise to the top of their respective weight classes, catching a loss always has a way of taking some of the shine off an emerging talent’s star, even when everything since has been impeccable.
Ankalaev controlled the vast majority of his debut fight against Paul Craig in London, dominating the striking exchanges and showing sharp wrestling and strong grappling on the canvas with the Scottish submission artist. Even when Craig was able to put him on the deck, Ankalaev quickly reversed him, advancing positions and shutting down submission opportunities.
He was seconds away from a dominant decision win, having mauled Craig for the majority of the final stanza, when the Scotsman latched onto a last-second triangle choke attempt, forcing Ankalaev to tap with one second remaining.
It was a brilliant setup and finish by Craig, and a panicked response by Ankalaev, who needed to hold out for literally one more second in order to secure a victory, but it feels like that blemish has kept some people from truly recognizing the depth of the Russian fighter’s talents and championship upside he carries.
Saturday’s main event showcase opposite Santos feels like the opportunity Ankalaev needs to convert the masses into believers — a headlining turn against an established figure in the division; one who pushed Jon Jones to the limit a couple years back and remains a Top 5 talent.
Santos is 4-3 since moving to the 205-pound weight class, but each of his last six bouts have come against Top 10 opposition.
He flat-lined fringe contender Jimi Manuwa in his second light heavyweight appearance and followed it up by stopping future champion Jan Blachowicz to earn a title shot. Despite fighting with a shredded left knee and a torn meniscus in his right knee, Santos went 25-minutes with Jones, earning the nod from one judge, but ultimately coming up short in his quest to claim gold.
Once he returned to full strength, he started quickly, faded, and was submitted by current champ Glover Teixeira and dropping a tepid decision to Austrian contender Aleksandar Rakic before getting back into the win column with a unanimous decision victory over Johnny Walker back in October.
The Brazilian veteran is an established knockout artist eager to get back to his fight-finishing ways, and someone that doesn’t lose to just anyone.
Beating Santos is something only genuine title threats accomplish, and only the current champion has been able to finish him since his transition to light heavyweight, which sets clear benchmarks for Ankalaev heading into their clash this weekend.
If he’s victorious and pushes his winning streak to eight, the only thing that remains for the streaking standout is a championship opportunity.
Teixeira is penciled in to defend his title against Jiri Prochazkain June, but the only other Top 10 fighter with a fight booked at the moment is Krylov, who is slated to face Craig next week in the UFC’s return to London.
While there is time for others to get booked, compete, and make their cases for contention between now and whenever the champion is ready to return this fall (at the earliest), no one can make as compelling a case as Ankalaev at the moment.
A stoppage win over Santos should seal the deal, and maybe then people will start spending a little more time talking about the quiet marauder that has steadily been stacking victories on his way up the light heavyweight ranks.