MMA storylines: The intrigue of Jason Jackson, Ikram Aliskerov and Sergei Pavlovich

MMA

On Friday and Saturday, fight fans will get their fill of MMA as the three largest promotions of the sport will be in action.

PFL kicks things off on Friday (4:30 p.m. E.T. on ESPN/ESPN+) in Salt Lake City, Utah, with the lightweights and light heavyweights continuing their regular season. On Saturday afternoon, UFC Fight Night commences in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Noon E.T. on ESPN/ABC), featuring a main event between former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker and Ikram Aliskerov. Also in the afternoon, Bellator’s Champions Series (Noon on HBO Max) touches down in Dublin, Ireland, as Jason Jackson prepares to defend his welterweight title against Ramazan Kuramagomedov.

With 35 fights on tap across three cards, there’s intrigue and curiosity all around. Andreas Hale, Brett Okamoto and Jeff Wagenheim hit on the storylines to focus on during a jam-packed fight weekend.


How good is Ikram Aliskerov?

Hale: Aliskerov will have an opportunity to race up the middleweight rankings by stepping up on short notice to face Robert Whittaker after the only man he has ever lost to, Khamzat Chimaev, was forced out of the fight due to being “violently ill” according to UFC president Dana White. There’s not much to know about the Russian outside of his two UFC wins coming by first-round stoppage against Phil Hawes and Warlley Alves. Whittaker is levels above Hawes and Alves, and it could be a case of Aliskerov simply biting off more than he can chew with little time to prepare.

But what if he isn’t? What if Aliskerov defeats the former middleweight champion in Saudi Arabia? It would be one of the most significant leaps in UFC history when a fighter on the rise defeats the UFC’s No. 3-ranked middleweight. He’d likely immediately find himself in pole position for a title opportunity after just his third UFC fight. At worst, he’d square off with Sean Strickland in a title eliminator.

If Aliskerov comes up short, he could still rocket up the rankings if it’s a competitive fight. Aliskerov truly has nothing to lose and everything to gain on Saturday night. And in a division that could certainly use some new blood in the title picture, the Dagestani sambo fighter could shake up the 185-pound division in a major way.


Jason Jackson looking for recognition in Bellator title defense

Wagenheim: If you’re a mixed martial artist who competes inside a cage that does not have eight sides, you are fighting an uphill battle. The UFC is the big show, giving its athletes a head start in pursuing stardom. Fighters in Bellator, PFL and other second-tier promotions often just play bit parts until they put on performances that make them impossible to ignore.

Jackson has been doing some of that. The Bellator welterweight champion will enter 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 outing during that run of success was November’s dethroning knockout of Yaroslav Amosov, who came into the title bout at 27-0.

Jackson’s opponent this weekend is also undefeated. However, Ramazan Kuramagomedov (12-0) does not have the public profile or combat experience of Amosov and has never faced an opponent of Jackson’s caliber. So this fight represents a necessary proving ground for the Dagestani challenger, while simultaneously putting Jackson in position to vanquish another perfect record in his second title defense. Who’ll put the sport on notice?


Is Sergei Pavlovich the 2024 version of Shane Carwin?

Hale: Remember Carwin? The heavyweight with lunch boxes for hands who obliterated 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 fights, we would only see him once more, in a losing effort to Junior dos Santos, before injuries derailed his career and sent him into retirement.

Pavlovich’s career arc has been eerily similar to Carwin’s. Aside from his knockout loss to Alistair Overeem, Pavlovich had steamrolled the opposition and scored six consecutive first-round knockouts in the UFC before being upended by Tom Aspinall for the interim heavyweight title in November. He’s matched up with the sturdy Alexander Volkov in the UFC’s co-main event in Saudi Arabia and will need to win impressively if he wants to remain in the title picture. It’s not a given, considering that Volkov pairs effective striking with an underrated ground game.

If Pavlovich wins, he’ll find himself right back in the thick of things, and the Aspinall loss could just be a mere blip on the radar. But if he loses? You can’t help but wonder if he’ll end up like Carwin, remembered as a savage knockout artist who saw the wheels come off of his once-promising career in astonishingly rapid fashion.


How much will a first-round KO affect the PFL light heavyweight matchups?

Okamoto: If there were ever going to be a case study on how much of an impact the PFL’s regular-season format has on fighter strategy, it would be this week.

The 205-pound standings could not be more lopsided. Five athletes (Rob Wilkinson, Josh Silveira, Dovletdzhan Yagshimuradov, Impa Kasanganay and Antonio Carlos Jr.) all ended the opening round two months ago with the maximum of six points. The other five, of course, left with zero. If any of those latter five hope to make the playoffs, they must get a first-round finish to have a chance. And at least one of the fighters who already have 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 exactly how it will play out. Of course, every fighter in every fight is looking for a finish at all times, but to know it has to come in the first round is unique.


Khamzat Chimaev is the absentee who’ll be missed the most

Wagenheim: Much attention has been paid to Conor McGregor‘s withdrawal from UFC 303, with good reason.

He’s by far the biggest star MMA has ever seen. However, another upcoming absence announced around the same time will be a bigger loss to the sport in a competitive sense. Chimaev’s withdrawal from Saturday’s main event is just the latest in a string of setbacks for the 30-year-old from Chechnya, stalling what once seemed destined to be an unimpeded ascent to the top. Chimaev arrived in the UFC in 2020 like a tornado, wrecking everything in his path. In his first two fights, both finishes, he built an 83-1 edge in significant strikes. He didn’t add much to that total in his third outing — because he scored a knockout in 17 seconds.

But Chimaev has competed just four times since 2020, with injury, illness and visa issues slowing his roll. When he competed against increasingly tougher opposition, Chimaev was not as dominant as he once had been. But he nonetheless won every fight, running his record to 13-0 with October’s majority decision in a middleweight bout with former UFC welterweight champ Kamaru Usman. This scheduled meeting with Whittaker, a former middleweight titlist, could have set up Chimaev for a long-anticipated title shot. But now his future is right back where it has been for the past few years: in doubt.


Keeping an eye on UFC’s relationship with Saudi Arabia

Okamoto: Anyone following combat sports — and entertainment in general — knows what a disruptor and influencer Saudi Arabia has become in recent years. The UFC was relatively late to the party, as the region has already taken a stranglehold on premier heavyweight boxing, with rumored plans of widely expanding its reach in the near future. The PFL has signed deals with Saudi Arabia and took its marquee PFL vs. Bellator MMA Champs event to the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh 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 in on the Saudi investment.

This will mark 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 the scale of 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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