UFC Wins Big With First Saudi Show

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Anytime a combat sports promotion heads to a new market for the first time, it raises a series of questions: Will the fans come out to root on their favorite fighters? Will the fights themselves be entertaining? Will this first effort lead to more cards in that area?

These queries, and others like them, were weighing heavy on the minds of UFC CEO Dana White this past week. Saturday, MMA‘s top promotion made its first-ever trek to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia when Riyadh was the host city for its sixth Fight Night show to air on the ABC television network.

Not only was this show the promotion’s first endeavor in Saudi Arabia, it was White’s first visit to the country himself. Although the event started out a little slow, the product as a whole was amazing.

Oktagon Champ Wows on Short-Notice in ESPN Co-Featured Prelim

Your first dose of fireworks on Saturday afternoon happened late into the undercard. During the co-featured bout on ESPN, former Oktagon MMA Bantamweight Champion Felipe Lima (13-1 MMA, 1-0 UFC) made a short-notice call-up to the sport’s No. 1 promotion when he battled Muhammad Naimov (11-3 MMA, 3-1 UFC).

Lima was a late replacement for Melsik Bagdasaryan (8-2 MMA, 3-1 UFC), who withdrew from the card due to tearing his labrum. Although Felipe Lima was fighting at featherweight, the extra 10 lbs. proved inconsequential, locking up a rear-naked choke a minute and 15 seconds into the third and final round of the contest.

Lima was in the midst of going through his training camp for his July 20 rematch for the 135-lb. strap in Oktagon against challenger Jonas Magard before getting the call to join the UFC. He then stops Naimov on Saturday and scores the $50,000 (USD) Performance of the Night Award from White in the post-fight press conference. This is a man who’s made the best first impression possible.

A Jaw-Dropping Knockout

In the lid-lifter of the main card, light heavyweights took to the Octagon when Volkan Oezdemir (20-7 MMA, 8-6 UFC) squared off against Johnny Walker (21-9, 1 NC MMA, 7-6, 1 NC UFC). One word: Brutal. 

Midway through the opening round, Oezdemir uncorked an uppercut to put Walker away, knocking him down and out against the cage fence. Much like Felipe Lima had done earlier in the day on Saturday afternoon, Oezdemir got a highlight-reel finish of his own.

Heading into UFC on ABC 6 over the weekend, Oezdemir was the No. 9 contender in the light heavyweight division. After his knockout win in Riyadh, he’s (at the most) one to two wins away of firmly entering the light heavyweight championship picture.

If he scores another highlight reel-finish in his next fight, Oezdemir may get into the conversation even sooner. Only time will tell where he’ll be after his next appearance.

Whittaker Now Firmly in Middleweight Title Picture

Speaking of fighters being in the thick of the hunt for division championships, Robert Whittaker (26-7 MMA, 17-5 UFC), who entered this past weekend at No. 3 in the rankings at 185 lbs., is now in that position thanks to his first-round knockout of Ikram Aliskerov (15-2 MMA, 2-1 UFC) in the main event of the card on Saturday.

He may even get the title shot sooner than he expects. Dana White mentioned in Saturday night’s post-fight press conference that Whittaker could potentially serve as the alternate in the UFC 305 main event from Perth, Australia in less than two months’ time.

“We’d love to have him,” White told the media after the show. Even Whittaker himself would enjoy the opportunity should it happen to arise.

“Yeah, definitely, definitely. I’m in good health,” Whittaker mentioned during the ESPN+ post-fight show on Saturday evening. “It’s in my home country. How could I say no?” Knockouts like the one Whittaker recorded this past weekend move the needle in the UFC and Whittaker is a fighter who moves the needle.

Whittaker vs. Adesanya III Great Replacement From Live Gate Standpoint

While the UFC has had a rough go of it in relation to cancelled fights on marquee events of late, having Robert Whittaker serve as the possible substitute for the Aug. 17 headliner in Australia seems like an awesome idea. As it stands now, UFC 305 is slated to be headlined by a middleweight title fight pitting champion Dricus du Plessis (21-2 MMA, 7-0 UFC) against challenger and No. 2 contender Israel Adesanya (24-3 MMA, 13-3 UFC).

Given that Adesanya is from New Zealand, Australia’s easternmost neighboring country, if du Plessis is forced to withdraw from UFC 305, the promotion can plug “The Last Stylebender” in easily and still sell out the pay-per-view. Two fighters from neighboring countries battling for a title.

The storylines practically write themselves here. Whether or not the fight takes place remains to be seen.

Final Thoughts: All in All, a Successful Night

At the core, UFC on ABC 6 was a great evening for its first show in Saudi Arabia. Dana White mentioned in a live interview with Jon Anik after the main event’s conclusion that Saturday’s card was only the beginning.

“Obviously, [this was] our first time in the kingdom and my first time here,” the UFC CEO mentioned to a national television audience. “It was a great experience. We’re looking forward to the next one.”

The UFC is currently targeting a return to Saudi Arabia during early 2025. You only get one attempt to make a good first impression. For the UFC, their first impression in Saudi Arabia was fantastic.

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Drew Zuhosky has been writing about combat sports since May of 2018, coming to MMASucka after stints at Overtime Heroics and Armchair All-Americans. A graduate of Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, Drew is a charter member of the Youngstown Press Club. Prior to beginning his professional career, Drew was a sportswriter for YSU's student-run newspaper, The Jambar, where he supplied Press Box Perspective columns every week.