UFC 282: Suddenly vacant light heavyweight belt at stake
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Jan Blachowicz and Magomed Ankalaev have been waiting for their shot at the light heavyweight title, and neither expected it to come Saturday.
They were supposed to compete in the co-main event of UFC 282 until champion Jiri Prochazka pulled out last month of his fight with second-ranked Glover Teixeira because of a shoulder injury.
With the title suddenly vacant, third-ranked Blachowicz (29-9) and No. 4 Ankalaev (18-1) were moved up the main event. Ankalaev is a minus-340 favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Blachowicz, 39, found out about the championship opportunity after the flight from his native Poland to Las Vegas, his phone buzzing after landing. Blachowicz read the text message from his manager four times before he really believed it, and calls it an “early Christmas gift.”
“The universe worked with me very well,” Blachowicz said. “I wish Jiri the best recovery, but I will take my chance and be the champion again.”
It also was a major break for Ankalaev.
“The day has finally arrived, a day we've waited for for so long,” the Russian said through an interpreter. “We'll show what we're worth this Saturday. We'll come and take what's rightfully ours."
The co-main event now is between rising English star Paddy Pimblett (19-3) and American Jared Gordon (19-5) in a lightweight match. Pimblett, 27, has finishes in all three of his fights by the second round since entering the UFC in September 2021. Gordon, 34, has won four of his past five bouts and is the most experienced fighter Pimblett will have faced.
Pimblett, a minus-250 favorite, called himself “the people's main event on Saturday night.”
“I always saw this in my future and knew what was coming,” Pimblett said. “I always said I wanted to be the biggest star in this sport. None of it takes my by surprise.”
Blachowicz first won the light heavyweight title when he beat Dominick Reyes in September 2020 by technical knockdown in the second round. He held the belt until two fights later, when Teixeira defeated him by submission in the second round in October 2021.
Now Blachowicz has the opportunity to make up for the loss to Teixeira, who had dictated the terms of the 2021 fight by getting Blachowicz into a floor match that didn't play to the champion's strengths.
If he wins, Blachowicz will become the first UFC fighter to win two titles that were vacated. His first one occurred after Jon Jones gave up his belt to move up to the heavyweight division.
There could be a cloud hanging over whoever wins this fight that Prochazka is still the true champion. Blachowicz said he wants to fight Prochazka, but that "he doesn't want to fight against me. He a chose a different fight (against Teixeira), not me. I'll be ready for him when he will be healthy.”
As for Ankalaev, the 30-year-old has his own past defeat that hangs over his career.
Ankalaev was ahead on the scorecards in a 2018 bout against Paul Craig, but was submitted with a second left. He said that loss was a lesson in not cutting corners, saying he would sometimes miss a practice of sparring session if he thought his overall training was going well.
Now, Ankalaev said, he's far more detailed, “and that's why I'm here.”
Just as Blachowicz doesn't want to get into a floor match, Ankalaev would be wise to avoid to Blachowicz's punching power.
“I want to dominate the fight from that beginning to end. I want to make sure I'm the one who's the aggressor. I'm already prepared,” Ankalaev said. "I will do whatever I have to do in that octagon to walk out with the title.”
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