UFC 286: Fiziev Looks to Spoil Gaethje’s Return in Pivotal Lightweight Bout

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 17: (L-R) Opponents Justin Gaethje and Rafael Fiziev of Kazakstan face off during the UFC 286 ceremonial weigh-in at The O2 Arena on March 17, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Fireworks are expected in London as lightweight bangers Justin Gaethje and Rafael Fiziev collide with major title implications on the line at UFC 286.

A few months shy of his six year anniversary in the UFC, Justin Gaethje finds himself in a unique position.  Since living up to his nickname “The Highlight” when he arrived in 2017, Gaethje has been a staple of the lightweight elite who has competed fought for championship gold three times and delivered multiple Fight of the Year performances along the way.  He has competed against the best of the best, having shared the cage with the likes of Khabib Nurmagomedov, Charles Oliveira, and Dustin Poirier.  His resume has also seen him record his share of career defining victories as he ended the 12 fight win-streak of Tony Ferguson and bested Michael Chandler in an electrifying bout at Madison Square Garden.

But Saturday will be a little different.  It will be nearly a year since he last fought, in a title fight he was largely winning early before Oliveira capitalized on an error and rallied to get the finish.  Since then, Gaethje has stood on the sidelines to handle necessary medical procedures and seek the right bout for himself.  An exciting contender who still boasts a loyal following, the former interim champion is looking for the right matchups at 34 years of age as he looks to make a title run while he remains in his athletic prime.  But as increasingly youthful upstarts make their way up the rankings, the pressure to return to form is higher than ever if he wishes to remain in the hunt for the belt.

For Rafael Fiziev, Saturday marks a huge opportunity to knock off one of the established stars of the division at a time when it appears they may be vulnerable.  One of the most dynamic strikers at 155 pounds, “Ataman” only left the first round once en route to six straight stoppage victories that earned him a call up to the UFC roster in 2019.  His Octagon debut would end up being his only loss as the returning Magomed Mustafaev shocked the undefeated Fiziev with a first round TKO.

Regardless, Fiziev’s extensive background in Muay Thai translated well to the Octagon and he soon put the loss in the rear-view mirror as he quickly rattled off victories in exciting performances against the likes of Renato Moicano, Marc Diakiese, Bobby Green, and former champion Rafael dos Anjos.  The latter would be Fiziev’s first UFC headliner, one he capitalized on to great effect in a spirited contest with the established veteran and ultimately prevailed with a finish in the last round.  Going into his most high profile bout to date, Fiziev enters a potentially new face in the title picture as the division has a relatively new king sitting on the throne in Islam Makhachev.

The lightweight landscape is expected to remain in limbo for the next several months as the title picture sorts itself out.  There are multiple combinations of matchups to be made depending on who wins Saturday’s bout and who prevails in the upcoming bout between Charles Oliveira and Beneil Dariush.  Should Fiziev and Oliveira win their respective bouts, it is expected they would be matched up in a title eliminator later this year.  Should Dariush prevail, a bout with Dustin Poirier for this Saturday’s winner would also make sense for all parties involved as they try to secure a title shot.