After a slow start to the new year for combat sports, things are heating up in a big way entering.
An absolute must-see featherweight title bout tops the bill as defending champion Alexander Volkanovski looks to shake off a recent knockout loss at 155 pounds when he welcomes the dangerous Ilia Topuria in what could be the Australian champion's toughest title defense to date.
The supporting main card bouts feature no shortage of star power as former champions Robert Whittaker and Henry Cejudo return in separate bouts with future title considerations at stake.
As we draw closer to this weekend's action, let's take a closer look at the biggest storylines ahead of the card.
1. Ilia Topuria appears on the verge of breakout stardom
At age 27, with as much power and technique as he has swagger, Topuria enters his first UFC title fight with an unbeaten record (14-0) and a trail of terror left in his wake through six appearances in the Octagon. Even better for the promotion, Topuria just oozes star power. In fact, he's so confident he will finish the greatest featherweight in UFC history on Saturday that he has already updated his social media accounts to say, "Undefeated 15-0. UFC World Champion." A native of Germany but born of Georgian descent, Topuria has called Spain home since age 15 and has engulfed himself within the celebrity culture of said nation, rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest soccer stars from yet another passionate nation that UFC would love to take over. And the good news for Topuria is that he has used his last three fights over the past two years to showcase his well-rounded skill set. Topuria folded Jai Herbert in half with punches in a knockout win, beat Bryce Mitchell so badly on the ground en route to a submission that he left his opponent openly considering retirement in the aftermath and then went five hard rounds to showcase his cardio in outpointing Josh Emmett.
2. Alexander Volkanovski's legendary reign has never felt so vulnerable
Let's be honest, this is new territory for "Alexander the Great." Despite being 18-0 in his career at 145 pounds, Volkanovski retains the title of betting favorite entering Saturday's sixth defense of his featherweight title by the absolute slimmest of margins in this virtual pick 'em. Not only has Volkanovski lost two of his last three fights coming in (albeit both to pound-for-pound king and lightweight champion Islam Makhachev), their rematch in October ended via head-kick knockout loss. Volkanovski's gamble of accepting the bout on less than two weeks' notice backfired in a big way. Although he will have a full camp this time around as he moves back to his preferred division, Volkanovski's age (35) seems to be the only thing people are talking about. Should Volkanovski win, it would place one title defense shy of Jose Aldo's UFC featherweight record. But a loss would open up an all-new set of questions for one of the greatest fighters in the promotion's history.
3. Will Robert Whittaker ever fight for the UFC middleweight title again?
It's an interesting question to ponder entering the former 185-pound champion's co-main event bout against hard-hitting Paulo Costa, which brings with it increased hope for the winner of re-entering the title picture. Whittaker is still just 33 and has claimed leading up to UFC 298 that he still feels like he's in his prime. But come October, it will be five years since Whittaker wore UFC gold and he enters the Costa fight having lost two of his last three, including a humbling second-round TKO loss to recently crowned champion Dricus du Plessis last July. The biggest issue for Whittaker in that fight was that he wasn't competitive at all and was overwhelmed by both the power and size of his less skilled opponent, which is not dissimilar to the contrast in style he will face against Costa. With former champion Israel Adesanya -- who is 2-0 against Whittaker in title bouts -- no longer atop the division, it could help Whittaker land a massive fight should he defeat Costa. But just like Volkanovski, it could prove disastrous to his future plans should Whittaker drop his third fight over his last four, especially as the division continues to replenish itself with a new slew of top fighters like DDP, Sean Strickland, Khamzat Chimaev and Bo Nickal.
4. Merab Dvalishvili-Henry Cejudo could be its own main event
Talk about a can't miss fight in the sport's deepest and most talent rich division. In a fight that likely produces the next title challenger at 135 pounds, the uncrowned champion in Dvalishvili, who no longer has teammate and good friend Aljamain Sterling slowing down his title dreams, takes on the 37-year-old legend in Cejudo who is giving one more try at proving he still has it on the highest level. Although Cejudo came up just short in a split-decision title loss to Sterling last May, the fight came directly off of a three-year layoff and the cage rust showed as Cejduo got off to a slow start. In order to correct the mistakes that cost the former two-division champion a shot at reclaiming glory, Cejudo has replaced his coaching staff for this fight and will need every edge he can get against the superhuman motor that Dvalishvili brings to the table. However the fight plays out, the matchup is fantastic. Dvalishvili will need to prove, should the former Olympic gold medalist Cejudo consistently stuff his spamming takedown attempts, that he can handle himself just as well with his hands. If his last two fights are any indication, as Dvalishvili extended his win streak to nine with wins over former champions Jose Aldo and Petr Yan, it's very likely he'll get a shot at the winner of the UFC 299 rematch between champion Sean O'Malley and Marlon Vera. But even in his twilight years, few can gameplan on the same level as Cejudo, who should benefit cardio wise from this being only a three-round fight.
5. Mackenzie Dern could be out of chances with another high-profile defeat
Fresh off a disastrous TKO defeat to former champion Jessica Andrade in November, Dern has never faced a bigger set of questions regarding her future at age 30 than she does entering Saturday. Her implosion against Andrade showcased all of the technical mistakes Dern continues to make despite having the experience of 12 trips to the Octagon. Yet, it was her dropping of former coach Jason Parillo ahead of the fight that caught most of the headlines as Dern visibly regressed in a disastrous performance that dropped her to just 3-3 since 2021. If the recent pattern of flipflopping wins and losses is any indication, one might assume Dern should be headed for a victory when she faces Amanda Lemos. But the fact that Dern took the fight on short notice against a dangerous fighter who is fresh off a title loss isn't helping restore confidence. While it's still too early to declare this as "win or go home" for Dern, we are getting closer to a "now or never" scenario.