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UFC Fight Night Saudi Arabia: Whittaker faces hungry challenger Aliskerov

The UFC’s first visit to Saudi Arabia this weekend features an unexpected but highly compelling middleweight fight between former champion Robert Whittaker and rising contender Ikram Aliskerov at Kingdom Arena in Riyadh.

Whittaker (25-7) was originally scheduled to fight Khamzat Chimaev, but Aliskerov jumped at the opportunity to step in after Chimaev was forced to cancel due to illness. Saturday night’s five-round fight on ABC provides a massive opportunity for Aliskerov, a graduate of Dana White’s Contender Series.

Aliskerov (15-1) has run through Phil Hawes and Warlley Alves in his first two UFC fights, running his overall win streak to seven. He was originally scheduled to fight Antonio Trocoli last week but when the opportunity came to face Whittaker, Aliskerov instead hopped a plane to Saudi Arabia.

“I respect him a lot and it’s my dream fight,” Aliskerov told reporters this week of Whittaker. “I have a goal, I have a fight, and I have an opponent; that’s it.

“If you start to overthink, it will not be good for you. For me, it’s just that simple.”

Whittaker is ranked No. 4 in the 185-pound rankings by ESPN and is coming off a unanimous decision win over Paulo Costa in February. His only losses in the weight class have come against current titleholder Dricus Du Plessis and former champ Israel Adesanya, who will meet at UFC 305 in Perth.

Whittaker opened as the -150 favorite over Aliskerov at BetMGM, where Whittaker has moved to -160 with 52 percent of the money backing him to win the fight. However, Aliskerov has also been popular with the public, drawing 52 percent of the total bets.

The favorite prop for this fight at the book has been Whittaker at +175 to win by knockout, technical knockout or disqualification.

The other fights on the main card beginning at 3 p.m. ET:

Sergei Pavlovich (18-2) vs Alexander Volkov (37-10): This is a matchup of Russian heavyweights who have also been training partners in the past. Pavlovich fights for the first time since losing to Tom Aspinall in November, snapping a streak of six first-round finishes. Volkov, 35, enters on a three-fight win streak, the most recent being a submission of Tai Tuivasa. Pavlovich is the heavy favorite at -250, while Volkov has drawn 58 percent of the total bets at +195.

Kelvin Gastelum (18-9) vs Daniel Rodriguez (17-4): The welterweight fight sees Gastelum coming off a loss to Sean Brady while Rodriguez returns to the Octagon for the first time since serving a sixth-month suspension for testing positive for a banned substance last September. He lost to Machado Garry in his most recent fight last spring. Gastelum opened at -250 but those odds have been trimmed to -225 with Rodriguez backed by 79 percent of the bets and 74 percent of the money at +185.

Muhammad Naimov (11-2) vs Felipe Lima (12-1): Lima makes his UFC debut while riding a 12-fight winning streak, most recently taking the Octagon MMA bantamweight titles with a unanimous decision win over Jonas Magard. Naimov has a six-fight win streak of his own, with his most recent victories coming over Nathaniel Wood and Erik Silva. This is expected to be one of the closest fights on the card, with Lima backed by 90 percent of the money, moving him to the -115 favorite over Naimov (-105), who opened as the -125 favorite.

Johnny Walker (21-8) vs Volkan Oezdemir (19-7): These heavyweights will open the main card Saturday night. Walker is coming off a second-round loss to Magomed Ankalaev earlier this year in a fight that was delayed while Walker was recovering from a knee injury. Oezdemir, 34, has been inconsistent but did submit Bogdan Guskov in Paris last fall. Both fighters are being offered at -110, with Walker backed by 69 percent of the money since opening at -145.

–Field Level Media

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