The first UFC card of 2024 is upon us and certainly looks to be a promising night of action, with major divisional match ups taking place and a mix of prospects and legends showcasing their skills the UFC is certainly starting off the year with a bang. Let’s take a look at five fights that you need to keep an eye on.
Magomed Ankalaev vs Johnny Walker
A battle at the very top of the Light Heavyweight division as former title challenger and #3 ranked Magomed Ankalaev takes on Brazilian highlight reel and #7 ranked Johnny Walker in a rematch after their first bout ended unceremoniously at UFC 294.
After being judged a no-contest rather strangely due to Walker being rendered unable to continue after an illegal knee by Ankalaev, Dana White assured fans that the rematch would be made as soon as feasible. Now instead of just a main card placement it has become the main event of a fight night show and is seen by many as a possible number one contender fight with the winner getting a title shot.
With the return of Jamahal Hill unknown and Jiri Prochazka recently being finished by current champ Alex Pereira, there is clearly a gap at the top of the Light Heavyweight division, Ankalaev is the next highest-ranked fighter and will be looking to get back into the title picture after previously fighting to a draw with Jan Blachowicz for the then vacant title back in 2022, a fight that many felt he had done enough to win. Currently, on an unbeaten streak of 11 fights, Ankalaev will be looking to get back to winning ways after disappointing results against both Blachowicz and Walker in his last two fights.
Johnny Walker must see this as an opportunity to take out currently the biggest name active in the division and stake his claim for a shot at gold. Once the biggest prospect in the division, many felt that Walker’s hype had been unwarranted and that he had found his level fighting in and around the top 10, trading wins and losses often in spectacular fashion. This was until he picked up a finish over Ion Cutelaba and followed up with wins over Paul Craig and Anthony Smith respectively. Riding a three-fight win streak, Walker had some serious momentum going into the fight with Ankalaev and will feel that he has something to prove after the knee which ended the night early last time out. If he does indeed get the job done, surely a title fight is next in line for Johnny Walker.
Matheus Nicolau vs Manel Kape
Going from one of the biggest weight classes to the smallest, a battle at the top of the Flyweight division takes the spot of co-main event of the evening. Another rematch, these two squared off back in 2019 where Matheus Nicolau did enough to secure a narrow split decision victory. Nicolau would go on to assert himself as one of the top flyweights in the division picking up wins over Tim Elliot, David Dorak and Matt Schnell before being knocked out by Brandon Royval in a title elimination fight last April. Now attempting to defend his place in the top five, Nicolau will be forced to battle Kape once again.
Kape also went from strength to strength following the loss to Nicolau and has not tasted defeat since. Currently riding a four-fight win streak and after several high-profile altercations with various fighters on the roster, Kape’s presence in MMA media is at an all-time high. With the current champion having two wins over the #1 and #4 ranked contenders a statement win for either Nicolau or Kape could put them in with a real chance of fighting for the belt in their next contest.
Andrei Arlovski vs Waldo Cortes-Acosta
There were two possible legends that could have been included in this article, Andrei Arlovski and Jim Miller. Ultimately as Miller will likely be on the UFC 300 card we have elected to show Arlovski some love for this event instead. Set to turn 45 just over two weeks after the fight, Arlovski has been mixing it up in the UFC’s Heavyweight division for almost 25 years, becoming champion nearly 20 years ago. Yet still he is going strong and before losing his last two fights had amazingly been on a four-fight winning streak. The wily veteran may no longer be able to compete with the very best in the division yet has proven to be a more than challenging test for divisional up-and-comers looking to make a name for themselves. For Arlovski to gain a win two weeks before his 45th birthday would be an incredible feat to go on an already incredible resume.
His opponent Waldo Cortes-Acosta has an overall record of 10-1 and a 3-1 record inside the UFC. While a win over Arlovski does not hold the same weight that it would have in years gone by, the Belarussian would certainly be the most impressive name on the record of Acosta and would show that he certainly belongs in the UFC. If he can get through the gate guarded by Arlovski then he will almost certainly have a career spent in the Heavyweight rankings.
Farid Basharat vs Taylor Lapilus
A bantamweight matchup sees two highly talented fighters square off against one another on the prelims of this event. Farid Basharat is an alumni of Dana White’s Contender Series and since winning a contract back in 2022 has gone 2-0 in the UFC picking up wins over Da’mon Blackshear and Kleydson Rodriguez. An accomplished grappler, the Afghan fighter currently sits 11-0 overall with over half of his wins coming by way of submission. If he beats someone the calibre of Taylor Lapilus and stretches his streak to three inside the UFC octagon then 2024 could be a very big year for Basharat.
Taylor Lapilus is set to take the UFC by storm now in his second stint with the promotion. Despite being unceremoniously released back in 2016 despite going 2-1, Lapilus returned to the UFC after over five years away with an excellent performance against Irish prospect Caolan Loughran at UFC Paris this past September. Looking better than ever, Lapilus showed that he had majorly improved during his time away, now at 31 he is entering his prime years and will be looking to climb the rankings as quickly as possible. A name like Basharat would be an excellent addition to his CV while on his quest for a top-fifteen opponent.
Joshua Van vs Felipe Bunes
Once considered boring, the Flyweight division has had no shortage of prospects in recent times, one such fighter is the surging Joshua Van who has captivated audiences with excellent striking displays since signing with the UFC. Hailing from Myanmar, Van made his UFC debut in June of 2023 before fighting again in November. In an extremely quick turnaround, he is set to fight again just two months later. If he continues to fight at this pace we could be seeing the 22-year-old break into the rankings sooner rather than later. His opponent Felipe Bunes will be making his promotional debut, however, do not think it will be an easy match-up.
Going 3-1 in his last four fights with his only loss coming against UFC veteran Jussier Formiga, Bunes is an established fighter who poses a significant threat on the ground as evidenced by his eight victories via submission. This will certainly be a test for Van, dealing with a specialist in what is considered one of his weaker areas.