The marquee is loaded with big names as the UFC sets to kick off the first of pay-per-view level fight cards on back-to-back weekends.
This Saturday marks the return for the promotion to Fight Island in Abu Dhabi as light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz fights atop a UFC 267 card against former title contender Glover Teixeira. The event will mark a rare free PPV for fight fans with the UFC not wanting to stage a similar card the following week with a massive UFC 268 set to go down inside New York's Madison Square Garden.
Considering the depth of the UFC 267 show, there are no shortage of storylines to sift through. Let's take a closer look.
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1. Blachowicz out to prove he's anything but a transitional champion
Given his age and late evolution from journeyman to contender, it was difficult not to wonder whether Blachowicz's upset win over Dominick Reyes to capture the vacant UFC light heavyweight in 2020 would be short lived. Make no mistake, it was a feel-good story. Yet, in the aftermath of long-time champion Jon Jones giving up his title, the idea of Blachowicz, now 38, setting forth to begin his own title reign of consequence wasn't on the front of the mind. A victory over Teixeira, himself an inspiring example of perseverance, would have Blachowicz on his way toward building a nice one. A unanimous decision in March against reigning middleweight champion Israel Adesanya in Blachowicz's first defense went a long way in suggesting the Polish slugger might be here for a while. Blachowicz will be a 3-1 favorite against Teixeira in the kind of style matchup that should test his well-rounded game across the board.
2. At 41, Teixeira should not be taken lightly
As a fight journalist, there are very few pure moments that strip away the profession and remind you what simply being a fan of the craft still feels like. Teixeira, some seven years removed from his first UFC title shot against Jon Jones, has an opportunity to create smiles across the board from the old hard-cores. The native of Brazil is not that far removed from three losses over a five-bout stretch, which seemed to suggest his best days were behind him. Instead, Teixeira found the fountain of youth through hard work and evolution. By focusing on the fundamental aspects of his ground game, he began to use his grappling much more as a weapon. A five-fight win streak ensued, including four by stoppage (with three submissions). The two most recent were also the most impressive as Teixeira proved to be the last man standing in slugfests against Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos simply by being wise, patient and violent when the moment most demanded it. Teixeira's efficient rebirth has been fascinating on multiple levels and probably would get more attention if not for his reserved and humble demeanor. Either way, he'll have a shot at cementing his legacy with the immortality that comes from becoming a champion. And he's a threat against Blachowicz in doing so in nearly every category.
3. Petr Yan vs. Corey Sandhagen might as well be for the undisputed bantamweight title
Sounds a bit harsh, no? Let's just say recent luck hasn't been favorable for the UFC in terms of keeping business as usual atop a loaded 135-pound division. Although the weight class might be the deepest in the sport, the chain of command is broken at the moment. Aljamain Sterling might have the title, but he has anything but a convincing claim to it following a disqualification win over Yan in a fight Sterling was clearly losing. While the result is anything but Sterling's fault, his subsequent injury layoff and recent diagnosed nerve damage puts his fighting future in question. Is it an interim title bout pairing two fighters who recently lost to the current champion a perfect scenario? Not exactly, but it's clearly the best available move, especially considering TJ Dillashaw, fresh of a disputed decision win over Sandhagen in his comeback fight, isn't quite healthy enough to return. Luckily for fans and UFC brass alike, Yan-Sandhagen is a can't miss fight between two competitors poised to take over control of the division. And given Sterling's uncertainty, it's the closest facsimile UFC can create towards finding out who is the best 135-pound fighter of the moment.
4. Islam Makhachev is a dangerous threat to Dan Hooker's ambition
Hooker, in the days following his September win over Nasrat Haqparst, chose to stay put in the United States rather than travel back to his family and endure a lengthy quarantine in his native New Zealand. Considering how much-needed Hooker's win was at UFC 266 and how much momentum he might build off he dominant performance, which saw him shift from a striking-heavy attack to a more balanced effort behind his wrestling, the move was looked at as a potentially strategic one. Talk about a risk/reward scenario Hooker now finds himself in by drawing the red-hot Makhachev, who rides an eight-fight win streak and appears to be on the verge of breaking out in a big way. Makhachev was a childhood friend of Khabib Nurmagomedov and might be the closest thing the UFC has to try and reinvent the former lightweight champion's mystique and dominance. Hooker would find himself directly back in the larger 155-pound title picture with a win but he'll be a healthy underdog in trying to do so. While Hooker's newfound love of wrestling is promising for his future, it likely won't mean a thing against someone of Makhachev's talent on the mat. A win of this stature would be a huge revelation as to just how high Makhachev's ceiling actually is.
5. Khamzat Chimaev's return is happening somewhat under the radar
Given how spectacular Chimaev looked in a breakout 2020 that saw the native of Russia record three stoppage wins in just two months, one would think his comeback from illness would be a bigger story. Instead, the 27-year-old Chimaev has been quiet in the leadup to his welterweight return against Li Jingliang. Part of what makes that silence, and the lack of buzz surrounding it, so intriguing is that Chimaev has plenty of questions that need answering regarding his condition. At 6-0, the two-division threat has yet to go the distance through nine pro fights. Yet, his recent battles with COVID-19, which hospitalized him multiple times and canceled plans for a December return against Leon Edwards, remain a very fluid situation. Chimaev went through so much physically that he openly pondered retirement until controversial Chechan dictator Ramzan Kadyrov came out publicly to overrule Chimaev's concerns and ensure the public their fighter would return. What lingering effects, if any, those health challenges have had on Chimaev will be tested in what's expected to be a high-paced fight with Jingliang.