5 biggest takeaways from UFC Fight Night 238: Is Muhammad Mokaev top candidate for Alexandre Pantoja in Brazil?

What mattered most at UFC Fight Night 238 at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas? Here are a few post-fight musings …

Aiemann Zahabi's surprising rise continues

Just like that, Aiemann Zahabi might be the most relevant Canadian fighter on the UFC roster.

Zahabi (10-2 MMA, 5-2 UFC) was massive betting underdog against undefeated Javid Basharat coming into their bantamweight bout. He started a bit slow, but picked up steam to make it competitive and left with the unanimous decision win.

With a four-fight winning streak, the triumph over Basharat puts Zahabi in line for another notable fight at 135 pounds, but when might that happen? Zahabi’s past schedule makes it anyone’s guess

Zahabi has been in the UFC since February 2017, but has only fought seven times. His current streak consists of one fight each in 2021, 2022 and 2023, with this win marking an early and successful start to 2024. At 36, it would seem smart for Zahabi to try to capitalize on this momentum and see if he can break into the rankings.

New Knockout of the Year frontrunner?

Vinicius Oliveira delivered one of the most spectacular knockouts of 2024 so far when he completely folded Bernardo Sopaj with a brutal flying knee as the final seconds winded down in their bantamweight bout.

There’s a whole discussion of whether promising 23-year-old Sopaj should’ve even still been in the fight when he took the final blow. It could’ve probably been stopped by the referee or corner at some point before then, but this isn’t a debate about corner culture in MMA. Let’s focus on the brilliance of the knockout by Oliveira (20-3 MMA, 1-0 UFC).

From the charge into the attack, to the athletic leap into the air, and absolutely flush connection across the chin, it was all perfect. Thankfully Sopaj got up, because it got scary there for a minute. But once he did, we could celebrate the perfection of this finish.

I can’t think of many fighters who delivered a knockout like this that will stand the test of time on the UFC highlights in their promotional debut. That gives it additional points in the Knockout of the Year race, however, it’s still hard to top what Ilia Topuria did to Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 298, because the stakes of that fight were just so much bigger.

Umar Nurmagomedov overcomes adversity

We discovered another layer in the evolving prospect status of Umar Nurmagomedov after he was dropped for the first time in his career against Bekzat Almakhan, only to rally a turn in utterly lopsided scorecards by unanimous decision.

Nurmagomedov (17-0 MMA, 5-0 UFC) kept his undefeated record intact after he survived the knockdown in the opening seconds of his bantamweight fight before turning to wrestling for the rest of the bout. The final scorecards were 30-25, 30-26 and 30-26 in his favor, and while some section of fans will use the knockdown and grappling-heavy approach to tear Nurmagomedov down, there actually are a lot of positives to take from this performance.

It’s better for Nurmagomedov to live through this situation now compared to at a more significant stage. Almakhan fought admirably in his debut, but a more experienced opponent might’ve found a way to capitalize on rocking Nurmagomedov and finish the fight. Now he knows he can endure these moments, and that should only give him more confidence as the opportunities get bigger and better.

The most concerning part of all this was Nurmagomedov revealing in his post-fight interview that he was injured again and only 50 percent of his best. We don’t know how serious these injuries are just yet, but another lengthy layoff is the last thing he needs.

If he is healthy enough to make a normal turnaround in the next four to six months, his post-fight callout of Cory Sandhagen is right on the money and the fight that should be made next.

Should Muhammad Mokaev get the UFC 301 title shot?

Muhammad Mokaev had a chance to make an undeniable statement to get a title fight against Alexandre Pantoja at UFC 301 in Brazil on May 4 if he’d earned a flashy win over Alex Perez.

He didn’t get it, but was still the clear and rightful victor by unanimous decision in the flyweight bout. Mokaev (12-0 MMA, 6-0 UFC) might still get the opportunity to challenge for the belt and become the second-youngest champion in UFC history behind Jon Jones, but it’s not the certainty it would’ve been if he’d won in a highlight-reel manner.

It’s seemingly now a two-man race between Mokaev and Brandon Royval, who upset Brandon Moreno on short notice at UFC Fight Night 237 in Mexico a week ago. Royval is coming off the more significant win in the division, but he’s already lost twice to Pantoja, including just recently at UFC 296 in December. It’s feels like the harder sell for a pay-per-view title fight, whereas Mokaev is the fresh challenger.

If I had a say within the UFC brass, Mokaev would be my choice. He’s the more viable choice at this point, and honestly if you’re Royval, the better one for his own career. Royval needs to make good on his third crack at Pantoja, and doing it on such a quick turnaround while clearly not being 100 percent (I don’t care if he says his knee is OK), doesn’t seem ideal.

For all those reasons and more, I expect to see Pantoja vs. Mokaev for the flyweight title in less than 10 weeks’ time.

An underwhelming close

After a reasonably entertaining nine fights with some notable results, the co-main and main events of this card fell off a cliff and highlighted some of the uglier elements of the current UFC structure.

The heavyweight headliner of Jairzinho Rozenstruik vs. Shamil Gaziev and light heavyweight co-main event of Vitor Petrino vs. Tyson Pedro were both sluggish, ugly underwhelming affairs.

There was reason to be skeptical about how these matchups would play out ahead of time, and whether they were fitting for the billing. In the end, it was easy fodder for the anti-UFC Apex crowd to roast.

For more on the card, visit MMA Junkie’s event hub for UFC Fight Night 238.

Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie