Thiago Santos and Magomed Ankalaev are two of the more low profile and soft-spoken fighters in the UFC light heavyweight division. Put them in the same octagon, however, and there’s a recipe for something explosive.
Santos (22-9 MMA, 14-8 UFC) and Ankalaev (16-1 MMA, 7-1 UFC) are scheduled to clash in a five-round main event on Saturday at UFC Fight Night 203, which takes place at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas and streams on ESPN+.
For Santos, this situation is quite familiar. It’s his sixth UFC headliner, and his 11th bout in a row against a ranked opponent.
“Ankalaev is a tough guy, there’s no question about that,” Santos told MMA Junkie and other reporters at Wednesday’s UFC Fight Night 203 media day. “But I’m here to fight against the best fighters of the world, the best of this division. It’s just one more fight for me and I’m excited.”
Ankalaev, meanwhile, is relishing the moment. It’s the first time his name has been on the top of the billing for a UFC event, and he wants to make the most of it with a “violent” victory.
“It feels like an accomplishment,” Ankalaev said through an interpreter at media day. “I’m glad the UFC bosses gave me a chance to headline an event.”
Getting a UFC main event is usually a positive sign for the future. The promotion clearly believes in both men, with Santos being a long-established contender who has already fought for the belt, and Ankalaev as a promising surging contender with potential to fight for a belt down the line.
Ankalaev knows this is his moment to send a message. He’s currently on a seven-fight winning streak in the UFC, but the names on his resume don’t stack up to Santos. If he can beat the Brazilian – and do it impressively – he knows a championship opportunity wouldn’t be far off.
“I’m so close to the title nothing is bothering me,” Ankalaev said. “I’m just focused on the fight, focused on the title and moving forward. … “I feel it depends on how I win the fight, how I beat Thiago. I am hopeful I will get the title shot after.”
Although Santos is something of a measuring stick for Ankalaev in this particular matchup, that doesn’t mean his own ambitions aren’t present. After losing a split decision to Jon Jones in his first title shot at UFC 239 in July 2019, “Marreta” went on a three-fight losing skid that had many people erasing him as a future threat.
He bounced back on the winning track against Johnny Walker in October, and now Santos plans to still the talk about Ankalaev and put it on himself.
“Absolutely he has quality,” Santos said. “He’s a good fighter. He has my respect. He’s a good guy, a very tough fighter, a big challenge for me. But I’m here. I’m here to prove I can beat anyone in this division and become champion.”
Santos said he expects a “chess match” with Ankalaev when they step in the octagon this week. As the man tied for the second-most knockouts in UFC history behind Derrick Lewis, Santos is capable of laying out any opponent. However, he’s also wise to the fact there are no guarantees of a finish.
“You can never predict,” Santos said. “I’ve fought against other guys and strikers too, and everyone expected a knockout and it didn’t happen. You never know. I can do five rounds because I know it’s a possibility. If it happens, I know I’m ready.”
Ankalaev appears to agree with those sentiments and said he’ll put his best foot forward for a spectacular finish.
“Thiago is a very tough opponent. A very high-level striker, same as me. I’m ready to fight, I’m ready to entertain the fans. I’m ready for his style, I’m ready for his techniques, and – I’m ready.”
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