UFC Vegas 84 predictions

Magomed Ankalaev and Johnny Walker have a title shot in their sights. Again.

These two had their chance to make a case to be the No. 1 contender at light heavyweight three months ago at UFC 294, but as has so often been the case with this division recently, nothing was resolved in their first meeting. Ankalaev made the mystifying decision to throw an illegal knee at a grounded Walker, Walker was ruled unable to continue after a confusing conversation with a ringside physician, and the fighters were left with a no-contest and no choice but to run it back.

And run it back they will Saturday night at the UFC APEX, this time in the main event of UFC Vegas 84 with five rounds to prove they deserve a shot at champion Alex Pereira. If all goes according to plan, either Ankalaev or Walker—No. 4 and No. 8, respectively, in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings—should be fighting for a UFC title before year’s end. Then again, if there’s anything we learned from 2023, it’s that “according to plan” doesn’t mean squat.

The first UFC card of the new year was supposed to feature another pivotal rematch in the co-main event between flyweight contenders Matheus Nicolau and Manel Kape, but after Kape made an absolute mess of his weight cut, that bout has been canceled. Instead, a lightweight bout between Jim Miller and Gabriel Benitez serves as the penultimate fight, while a heavyweight bout between Andrei Arlovski and Waldo Cortes-Acosta has been bumped to the main card.

One could argue it worked out better this way as Miller and Arlovski get another chance to shine on a slightly brighter stage. By the end of the weekend, the MMA lifers will have a combined 84 (!!!) UFC appearances between them. If that’s not worthy of prime time, I don’t know what is.

What: UFC Vegas 84

Where: UFC APEX in Las Vegas

When: Saturday, Jan. 13. The six-fight preliminary card begins at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN+, followed by a five-fight main card at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

Magomed Ankalaev vs. Johnny Walker

OK, I’m a sucker, I’ll admit it. I’m picking Magomed Ankalaev to win again.

When I first had to write about this matchup this past October, I picked Ankalaev to survive a fast start from Johnny Walker and find a finish in Round 2. I see no reason to change my winner prediction, though it could play out differently with five rounds to work with instead of three.

Walker might not be as inclined to rush Ankalaev out of the gate, instead choosing to give himself more time to find an opening to land a quick strike knockout blow in the later rounds. You can be certain that Walker’s team will be fine with falling behind on the scorecards if it means they can gather enough data to remove the judges from the equation.

On that same token, I can see Ankalaev strategically working his way to a decision rather than attempting to manufacture a finish out of nowhere. He simply has more ways to win this fight and as long as he doesn’t flirt with anymore senseless fouls, I like his chances of finally becoming the undisputed No. 1 contender at 205 pounds.

Now please don’t fool me again.

Pick: Ankalaev

Jim Miller vs. Gabriel Benitez

You think I’m picking against Jim Miller with UFC 300 just a few months away? Come on.

True, it doesn’t really matter if “A-10” (arguably the most unused nickname in UFC history), wins or loses on Saturday because the matchmakers probably already have a contract with April 13 on it ready for Miller to sign, but it’s more fun to imagine him making his third appearance at a UFC century event on a win streak, no?

Gabriel Benitez is the right opponent for him at this stage of their careers (this fight was actually supposed to happen in February of last year), both in terms of skill set and age range, so no complaints as far as choice of opponent. “Moggly” is actually a significant challenge as Miller’s most recent wins have all come against over-matched, under-experienced competition, with the exception of Donald Cerrone, who had one cowboy boot out the door when he lost to Miller.

I still think Miller has the edge here and he’ll come out on top of what should be a fun fight. Miller comes forward early, withstands some of Benitez’s offense, and then pours on the pressure until Benitez’s questionable defense crumbles. Let’s see another first-round finish for Miller in the books.

Pick: Miller

Ricky Simon vs. Mario Bautista

The third of three bantamweight fights on this card, both Ricky Simon and Mario Bautista should have plenty of motivation. For Simon, he’s wanting to bounce back from a tough fifth-round TKO loss to Song Yadong in his first UFC main event; for Bautista, a win over Simon would make it six straight and cement him as a legitimate top 15 contender in a crowded division.

Up until this point, with respect to Bautista’s opposition, he’s been picking off lower-ranked fighters. He has a high finishing rate, especially when it comes to snagging submissions, and he’s just been missing that standout name on his resume. That’s where Simon comes in.

Simon has the better quality of competition and the better wins, but there are still doubts as to how high he can go as he’s fallen short in breakthrough opportunities against Song, Rob Font, and Urijah Faber. The time is now for the talented Simon to show that he’s serious at making a title run.

These two are evenly matched, so don’t expect either to smoke the other in the opening round. They’ll tactically tag each other with leg kicks, thrill viewers with some entertaining scrambles, and dart in and out as they throw leather. Simon is the heavier hitter, so when this one goes to the cards, he’ll have enough of an edge in the striking battle to get back in the win column.

Simon by decision.

Pick: Simon

Phil Hawes vs. Brunno Ferreira

Is this a trap game for Brunno Ferreira?

“The Hulk” specializes in first-round knockouts. Phil Hawes’ past three losses have all come by way of first-round knockout. Picking Ferreira to win by first-round knockout seems simple enough.

Hawes has shown plenty of improvement over the course of his UFC career, particularly in the striking department, and when he gets his offense going there are moments where he looks like a guy who could fight for a title. Then there are other moments where he lets his hands drop and seconds later he’s eating canvas.

Given that this could be a win-or-cut fight for Hawes, it’s possible that adding urgency to his immense talents could prove to be a winning formula. It’s also possible that his chin lets him down again. I’m leaning towards the latter.

It’s not like Ferreira is some defensive savant, I just trust his chin more than I do Hawes’. He also has a tricky movement style that I imagine Hawes’ training partners had difficulty simulating in camp. All Ferreira needs is one good punch to lay you out and Hawes has allowed himself to be hit by one good punch too often for my liking.

Ferreira by first-round knockout.

Pick: Ferreira

Andrei Arlovski vs. Waldo Cortes-Acosta

Andrei Arlovski has made a whole second career out of winning mucky decisions, but has he met his mucky match here?

In his first two UFC fights, Waldo Cortes-Acosta won on points against a pair of opponents that he probably should have finished, given his reputation heading into his debut. “Salsa Boy” has sharp hands and good agility for a heavyweight, so I was disappointed when he couldn’t put Chase Sherman nor Jared Vanderaa down for the count.

That experience winning forgettable three-rounders is exactly what Cortes-Acosta needs here though as he’s dealing with a former heavyweight champion in Arlovski, who hasn’t finished a fight in almost nine years. NINE YEARS. “The Pit Bull” simply does enough to keep winning and keep getting fight contracts sent his way. It’s one of MMA’s great success stories and it could go on forever.

I’m going Cortes-Acosta by decision, which I have little confidence in. Still, there has to be a point where Arlovski’s tactics don’t pay off on the scoreboard. He’s lost recently by knockout and by submission, and now it’s time to see his decision win streak (judges’ calls have gone his way seven straight times!) come to an end.

Dance on ‘em, Salsa Boy.

Pick: Cortes-Acosta


Matthew Semelsberger def. Preston Parsons

Marcus McGhee def. Gaston Bolanos

Farid Basharat def. Taylor Lapilus

Jean Silva def. Westin Wilson

Tom Nolan def. Nikolas Motta

Joshua Van def. Felipe Bunes