Last Thursday, the UFC announced their return to Abu Dhabi later this year, with UFC 294 on October 21. While no bouts have been confirmed, we look at three clashes we’d like to see on the card come fight night at Etihad Arena.
Islam Makhachev v Alexander Volkanovski
Lightweight champion Makhachev called out Leon Edwards immediately after his welterweight counterpart’s successful title defence against Kamaru Usman on Sunday morning. “I want Leon next” Makhachev tweeted. “October in Abu Dhabi.” Clearly, the 155lb champion is targeting double-champ status. Yet UFC president Dana White promptly dismissed the idea, saying Makhachev won’t be taking on Edwards in the capital.
The Dagestan native, who captured the lightweight belt in Abu Dhabi last October, seems a strong shout no matter what to headline UFC 294 given his affinity to the UAE. If so, then who better than to face than Volkanovski? The pair served up a Fight of the Year contender only last month, when Makhachev prevailed on points to register his first title defence and stretch his incredible win streak to 12.
Meanwhile, Volkanovski, the featherweight champion who stepped up to chase a belt in a second division, suffered his first defeat in 23 pro bouts – but what an effort. The Australian, one of the stars at the inaugural Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, is expected to defend his featherweight crown this summer against interim champion Yair Rodriguez, while Makhachev might compete around then too once he resumes training after Ramadan.
Even if the latter sits out until October, a rematch with Volkanovski more than whets the appetite. A “super-fight” to top the bill at Etihad Arena? Yes, please.
Leon Edwards v Belal Muhammad
Following the trilogy win against Usman on Sunday, Edwards said he was willing to take on whoever next – bar Colby Covington. The American was present at UFC 286 having travelled to London to make weight as a back-up for the headline event, with White confirming he is indeed next for a welterweight title shot. Edwards, though, asked why Covington deserves it given he has been largely absent since defeating Jorge Masvidal 12 months ago. What is more, Covington twice took on Usman during the Nigerian’s title reign and lost both times – although the first was an epic encounter.
Muhammad, meanwhile, deserves a tilt at the gold more than anyone. The American is unbeaten in his past nine bouts (eight wins and one no contest – against Edwards, in 2021), and last time out inflicted Sean Brady’s first pro loss, at UFC 267 in Abu Dhabi. Also, Muhammad previously told The National of his dream to win the belt in the capital. Some have called for Muhammad to first face Covington in a shootout for the chance to go up against Edwards. If the timeline works, then the UFC could do that and guarantee the winner meets the champion at Etihad Arena in October.
However, no one could really begrudge Muhammad, the No 4-ranked contender at welterweight, getting a straight shot at Edwards.
Khamzat Chimaev v Robert Whittaker
On Sunday, White confirmed Chimaev’s much-awaited return to action would fall in October. The UFC chief did not say quite where, but Chimaev is an obvious draw for Abu Dhabi having competed there in four of his seven appearances in the promotion. The Chechen-born athlete, whose explosive arrival in the UFC took place during Fight Island 1, is moving up from welterweight to middleweight, where he is thought to be one major win away from a title shot.
Former champion Whittaker or former title challenger Marvin Vettori have been mooted as possible opponents. Whittaker, though, would certainly pave the path to gold. The Australian sits currently as the No 2-ranked challenger at middleweight (Vettori is No 4), whose only two defeats in his past 15 fights came at the hands of Israel Adesanya.
Next month, Adesanya attempts to win back the belt from Alex Pereira in their rematch at UFC 287. Should he do it, then the calls for Whittaker to first face Chimaev will only grow. Whittaker, however, has not competed since September, when he defeated Vettori on points, while last month’s reported bout with Paulo Costa never came to fruition.
So, would Whittaker wait until October to get back into the octagon? At 12-0, Chimaev should be provided a formidable challenge next. Whittaker, who has also previously fought in Abu Dhabi, certainly fits the bill.