UFC 296 is filled with top fights. In the main event, Colby Covington returns after almost two years to challenge welterweight champion Leon Edwards. And in the co-main, flyweight champion Alexandre Pantoja rematches Brandon Royval.
Multiple potential champions and challengers are also on the card, but none of them are on a hotter streak of momentum than Shavkat Rakhmonov. The Kazakh welterweight is unblemished in his professional career so far, having finished all his fights.
First signed by the UFC as the reigning M-1 welterweight champion, Rakhmonov immediately proved that he belonged, submitting veteran Alex Oliveira with a first-round guillotine choke in his debut at UFC 254. His next fight took him Stateside for the first time; and he was no less impressive, getting a rear-naked choke on another veteran in Michel Prazeres.
A highlight-reel knockout of Carlston Harris gave Rakhmonov a massive reward: a co-main bout against Neil Magny. He shone very brightly, dominating en route to a second-round guillotine choke finish. He would continue this momentum with a thrilling scrap with Geoff Neal at UFC 285, whom he defeated by late rear-naked choke.
Stephen Thompson looking to spoil Shavkat Rakhmonov's ascension
On the other side of the cage, the 40-year-old Thompson is looking for one last title run. Much has changed since his loss to Tyron Woodley in 2017, and he believes defeating Rakhmonov in his first fight in just over a year will both strengthen his case and silence (at least for the moment) the doubters who have been claiming that he has seen better days and should retire.
Interestingly enough, the two have some history ahead of the bout. Back in 2022, when Rakhmonov was still a burgeoning prospect, Thompson was offered a fight against him but declined, having made it clear at the time that that he wanted Kamaru Usman. But he has since changed his tune, and he has one top priority: keep the fight on the feet against a very potent grappler.