Magomed Ankalaev: The Russian propelled by defeat to the verge of a UFC title
On Saturday night at the top of a reshuffled UFC 282 deck, light heavyweight Magomed Ankalaev will bid to become Russia’s latest mixed martial arts world champion – provided, of course, he can find an answer to former champion Jan Blachowicz’s ‘legendary Polish power’.
Both men have been afforded an opportunity to prosper from the misfortune of another former champ, Jiri Prochazka, who withdrew from this weekend’s headline fight after suffering what Dana White described as “the worst shoulder injury in UFC history.”
While the Czech heals up and awaits further challenges, Ankalaev and Blachowicz will duel at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas to determine the 205lbs division’s newest pacesetter.
And make no mistake, Ankalaev’s starring role has been earned rather than handed to him.
The Dagestan-born fighter has been near faultless in his career to this point, and perhaps unlike some other well-known fighters from the same region, Ankalaev’s success is based upon a foundation of striking rather than the oppressive style of grappling which propelled the likes of Khabib Nurmagomedov and Islam Makhachev to the summit of the sport.
His 18 career wins have delivered an impressive 10 knockouts (and not a single submission), as well as nine UFC victories in a row. But despite his three most recent wins coming against fighters who have previously contended for the UFC title, it was Ankalaev’s debut in the organization in March 2018 which he says set him on the path to a world title.
On that night in March 2018, Ankalaev tapped in the final second of a three-round fight he was dominating to that point against Scottish submission artist Paul Craig – and after overcoming the initial disappointment, he would later recount it as a vital learning experience.
“I used to be worried about losing and what people would say about me,” Ankalaev, 30, said recently.
“That doesn’t happen anymore. You can say that I had the worse loss in the UFC. I gave up in literally the final moments of a fight. People were saying good and bad things.
“That loss changed my life. It was hard for me at first, I didn't come out in public for a month. My mother lives in Khasavyurt [in Dagestan] with my brother – I spent a month there.
“I thought I wouldn’t fight anymore. Then within that month I realized that it wasn't because of me. I did everything I could, it was the will of The Almighty.
“It was a relief, I started to understand the situation. Then I went back to training. I came in the gym and I put in work. I left it all in the gym and got my results.”
It was from the ashes of that first defeat that Ankalaev built the foundations of his eventual title challenge, an opportunity which was delivered to him this weekend sooner than he might have expected.
It is those past nine wins, though, which earned him this right and one wonders if he could have achieved that winning streak without the echo of his first career loss ringing in his ears – and so long as he carries his momentum with him to the cage in Las Vegas on Saturday night once again, he can use it as a platform to achieve his greatest success.
Blachowicz is about as powerful a foe as there is in the UFC’s light heavyweight fold, but the nine losses on his record show there is a clear path to victory for Ankalaev. The Pole isn’t so much an elite striker, but an effective one – and he is more than capable of taking any opportunities handed to him by the Russian.
But his recent form, and the quirk of fate which handed him the starring role in the UFC's final pay-per-view card of the year, suggests that this in Ankalaev’s fight to lose.
And would he even be in this position if not for that stunning last-second loss to Craig all those years ago?
“When you’re undefeated you always worry about that zero,” Ankalaev explained.
“I'm over that now. I know what it’s like to lose, what it's like to win. I know how bitter it is to lose. With that knowledge I give my all in the gym.”