Magomed Ankalaev will headline his first UFC card on Saturday night when he takes on Thiago Santos in a battle of light heavyweight contenders in the main event of UFC Fight Night 203.
Magomed Ankalaev (pictured) will try to continue his ascent up the light heavyweight rankings when he battles Thiago Santos in the main event of UFC Fight Night 203. (Image: Josh Hedges/Zuffa/Getty)
While Santos (22-9) is a seasoned veteran when it comes to topping UFC cards, the 29-year-old Ankalaev (16-1) is relishing his chance to jump into the spotlight.
Ankalaev quickly closing in on title shot
Ankalaev is riding a seven-fight winning streak into Saturday’s bout, and hasn’t lost since Paul Craig submitted him in his UFC debut back in 2018. He comes into the fight as a -600 favorite over Santos (+435) at DraftKings Sportsbook.
“It feels like an accomplishment,” Ankalaev told reporters. “I’m glad the UFC bosses gave me a chance to headline an event.”
It’s more than just the stage that matters for Ankalaev, however. His winning streak has pushed him to the No. 6 ranking in the light heavyweight division. Ankalaev sees himself on the verge of being in the title picture, something his entire career has been building toward.
“I did expect that I wouldn’t get a title shot after my last victory because I fought No. 7 and everyone who was in front of me were on winning streaks,” Ankalaev told UFC.com. “If I could impress them with my performance, I believe I could get a title shot next, but it’s completely up to the UFC.”
Santos has already been close to the mountaintop. In July 2019, he lost a split decision to the legendary Jon Jones in a battle for the light heavyweight title. Santos would then go on to lose two more fights in a row – to Glover Teixeira and Aleksandar Rakic – before bouncing back with a win over Johnny Walker last October.
Veteran experience gives Santos hope
Now, the 38-year-old Santos regards Ankalaev as a stepping stone towards another title shot.
“He’s a good fighter. He has my respect,” Santos told reporters. “But I’m here. I’m here to prove I can beat anyone in this division and become champion.”
While Santos rates as a heavy underdog, he says he has one clear advantage over Ankalaev on Saturday night.
“I think I have an advantage when it comes to experience,” Santos told Combate. “Not only in cage time, but the opponent I’ve faced, too. I’m used to fighting five rounds and main events. I don’t think he has ever fought for five rounds. I’ll use all of my experience in my favor.”
However, Santos’ recent performances don’t provide a clear picture of how he might overcome the rising Ankalaev. Even if Ankalaev can’t find a way to finish the fight early – and there’s every chance that both fighters could be patient, at least at the start – he’ll likely dominate Santos with his wrestling as the fight goes on.
It seems as though Ankalaev knows this is a fight he should win.
“Thiago is a great, tough opponent,” Ankalaev said. “But this is just another step towards the best for me, with all due respect.”