UFC Saudi Arabia: Ranking fighters most likely to be on historic card

UFC Saudi Arabia: Ranking fighters most likely to be on historic card
UFC Saudi Arabia: Ranking fighters most likely to be on historic card

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Since the first UFC Saudi Arabia card was announced recently, anticipation around who could be on it has been palpable.

The event is set for March 2024 and will be the first time the Kingdom hosts a UFC showcase. Although it is a UFC Fight Night rather than a numbered event with guaranteed title fights, the UFC will want to mark their Saudi debut with a bang. But which fighters could feature?

Although everything is speculation at the time of writing, there have been potential clues that have sent the MMA community into a spin.

The UFC’s biggest star, Conor McGregor, fired up the rumor mill through social media. He was the first fighter to tweet his admiration of the deal, which felt significant given he is set to return around the same time.

More recently, the former UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya was slightly more direct with his connection to the event. In an online post showing his appreciation for Al-Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Adesanya added: “Saudi Arabia in March ... tempting hahaha.”

While we are sure to see some up-and-coming Middle East MMA fighters compete in the famed Octagon, the rest of the UFC Saudi Arabia card is a mystery. However, here is a look at the UFC roster of stars who could feature as the main and co-main events in March 2024 — and those unlikely to appear. 

 

Not a chance

OK, let’s get these fighters out of the way early. As it is a UFC Fight Night without any titles on the line, we can safely rule out the following fighters: Alexandre Pantoja, Sean O’Malley, Alexander Volkanovski, Islam Makhachev, Leon Edwards, Sean Strickland, Alex Pereira, Jon Jones, Tom Aspinall, Zhang Weili and Alexa Grasso. All of the above hold a championship strap at the time of writing and will sit out the UFC Saudi Arabia.

It would be unprecedented for Dana White and the UFC to change its title fight structure. While we are not saying it is impossible to add a championship bout, it is about as unlikely as UFC legends Georges St. Pierre and Khabib Nurmagomedov finally returning to go head-to-head. We won’t hold our breath.

 
Definitely, maybe

Given the love for him in the region, Khamzat Chimaev would be an excellent choice to headline UFC Saudi Arabia. The Russian, who now represents the UAE, recently won a close middleweight battle with former UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman. It would mean a short turnaround in training to prepare for the Kingdom’s showcase, but Chimaev wants to be more active, so this could work.

Potential opponents? Well, he was supposed to fight #6 middleweight Paulo Costa at UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi. An injury ruled the Brazilian out, and Usman was drafted in. Chimaev vs Costa in Saudi Arabia would be superb.

Elsewhere, Kevin Holland (#12 welterweight) is known for taking on anyone, anywhere, anytime -- and would be sure to accept the call. Finding him an opponent in time could be tricky. Most of those above Holland are either in action soon or fought recently. Gilbert Burns (#4) does not have a fight yet, but the aging star is unlikely to put his ranking on the line against Holland. Geoff Neal (#7) might want to avenge his loss to Holland when the pair fought under the Xtreme Knockout umbrella in 2017.

 

Hot favorites

Israel Adesanya recently spoke of his need for a break after Sean Strickland upset the odds and dethroned the former champ at UFC 293 in September. However, his online post suggesting he would be interested in the UFC Saudi Arabia card is not to be taken lightly.

Obviously, there are no easy fights in the UFC, but “Stylebender” may benefit from one that is not for a belt. Adesanya has bested almost all the middleweight contenders, and whoever he signs up to fight will have everything to gain. Chimaev is a fight that would make sense -- it would be a brawl for the ages.

Conor McGregor vs Michael Chandler at UFC Saudi Arabia is the stuff of dreams. It would mark an incredible moment for the UFC and Saudi’s new partnership, and the Irishman’s star power would make it one of the biggest cards of the year, with or without a title on the line.

It is a long shot, but McGregor is openly pleased about the UFC heading to the Kingdom. He has also spent the past few months training in to stay sharp.

McGregor also has eyes on boxing Manny Pacquiao in Saudi Arabia soon. There are still those in the industry earmarking Conor for UFC 300, which is bound to see the organization pull out all the stops. And while this makes sense, given how big he is for the UFC, he is also unlikely to want to be on an undercard for a title fight.

Other than those two, there are a lot of stars who need a showcase match-up to get back on track. Kai Kara-France, Adesanya’s teammate, has not been as active and has a score to settle with Manel Kape in the flyweight division. Petr Yan is a star attraction in the Middle East and desperate to halt a three-fight losing streak. Max Holloway (#1) is in featherweight limbo as he waits for a fourth fight with the champ Alex Volkanovski.

The UFC Saudi Arabia card could be the ideal platform for the undefeated regional favorite Muhammad Mokaev to take another step up in his career and headline the show.

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