Preview: UFC 294 ‘Makhachev vs. Volkanovski 2’

Makhachev vs. Volkanovski

The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s annual trip to the United Arab Emirates on Saturday looks much better now than it did two weeks ago. Initially slated to see Islam Makhachev defend his lightweight crown against Charles Oliveira, the UFC 294 headliner at Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi received a surprising upgrade a week and a half out, as Oliveira was replaced by featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski for a rematch of their classic encounter in February. Meanwhile, the co-main event sees former welterweight champion Kamaru Usman move up to 185 pounds to take on Khamzat Chimaev—a far more intriguing bout than the original pairing between Chimaev and Paulo Costa. The other major attraction on this card sees Magomed Ankalaev look to return to light heavyweight contention against Johnny Walker. Those three fights alone are worth the price of admission.

Now to the UFC 294 “Makhachev vs. Volkanovski 2” preview:


UFC Lightweight Championship

#3 P4P | Islam Makhachev (24-1, 13-1 UFC) vs. #2 P4P | Alexander Volkanovski (26-2, 13-1 UFC)

ODDS: Makhachev (-245), Volkanovski (+200)

When Makhachev won the UFC’s lightweight title, it felt like both a coronation and a continuation of a dynasty. Makhachev was assumed to have championship-level chops immediately upon hitting the UFC in 2015 but essentially lived in the shadow of Khabib Nurmagomedov, a longtime close friend and training partner. Nurmagomedov was essentially the first of the standout Dagestani wrestlers to hit the UFC and—injuries aside—had a fairly straight run to contender status, while Makhachev was forced to regroup after a stunning knockout loss to Adriano Martins in his second Octagon appearance. Add in that Nurmagomedov was the more charismatic competitor and more dynamic athlete, and it was easy to look past Makhachev as the more technically sound but less spectacular version of a fighter with a similar game plan. With Nurmagomedov’s retirement in 2020, Makhachev has become his own man while also serving as an extension of the Nurmagomedov family legacy. He has impressively met the moment as he has climbed the lightweight ladder, rediscovering his submission ability on the mat while also adding some striking that might even be more effective than the former champion’s. While Nurmagomedov was much more of a focused fighter in terms of funneling his opponents into his type of fight, Makhachev feels like a much more effective all-terrain fighter, with that crushing wrestling game in his back pocket, to boot. When Makhachev put in an excellent performance to win the lightweight title from Oliveira a year ago—he outstruck and knocked down the Brazilian before executing the fight-ending submission as an exclamation point—there did not seem to be an obviously exciting next fight for the new champion. A lot of the top contenders had already fallen short against Nurmagomedov, and Makhachev figured to be capable of exploiting those same issues. However, Makhachev had a name in mind immediately after winning the belt—Volkanovski—and with the idea of a fight between two of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world seeming feasible, that was the obvious next move.

The two locked horns in February for a fight that lived up to the hype as a dream match, though it did not play out quite as expected. Makhachev proved himself to be every bit the striker as Volkanovski on the feet, and the Russian’s wrestling game was not the guaranteed escape valve it had been in most fights, owing to the featherweight champion’s wrestling chomps. Volkanovski was the clear underdog—weight classes exist for a reason, and Makhachev could easily make welterweight—but he picked up right where he left off at 145 pounds, proving himself to be one of the most versatile and adaptive fighters in the sport’s history. “Alexander The Great” came to the UFC as a straight-ahead wrestler off the Australian scene, which made him easy to overlook, but the dominant nature of his victories made it apparent before long that Volkanovski was going to be a prospect to watch. His 2018 win over Chad Mendes was a hard-nosed affair in which Volkanovski had to overcome some trouble, suggesting that a subsequent fight against Jose Aldo would finally be where the Australian met his match. Instead, Volkanovski suddenly broke out an intelligent and layered striking approach that allowed him to neutralize one of the sport’s all-time greats, setting up his own legacy going forward. His title win and immediate rematch against Max Holloway were nip-tuck affairs—both of them wins—that derailed the Hawaiian’s own seeming inevitability as an all-time great. From there, Volkanovski put together one-sided title defenses against Brian Ortega and Chan Sung Jung before putting his stamp on the Holloway trilogy with a dominant performance that clearly put him a tier above one of the best fighters in the world. Thanks to Volkanovski’s seemingly unmatched ability to game plan for an opponent and adapt within a fight, he certainly earned the benefit of the doubt coming into the Makhachev clash and nearly pulled off the upset. Makhachev won the fight via unanimous decision, but it felt like Volkanovski was the one who had figured out his opponent by the end of 25 hard minutes.

The fight was close enough that the idea of a rematch floated in the ether even as both men moved on. Volkanovski defended his title with another standout performance against Yair Rodriguez in July, while Makhachev—who suddenly found himself without many healthy potential challengers who would be ready for Abu Dhabi in October—was initially slated to rematch Oliveira here. However, with Oliveira getting injured on about a week and a half’s notice, Volkanovski has made the call to step in and has even left the door open for defending his featherweight title against Ilia Topuria in January, as scheduled. With that backdrop, it is almost even more of a fascinating fight, if only because these are two fighters and camps that stand out for their strategy, only to find themselves with little time to do so. With full camps—and without the specter of the Aussie being too injured to train for a fight in September—Volkanovski would probably be the favorite. If nothing else, Volkanovski proved himself capable of once again figuring things out in the cage against an elite opponent, and his history with Holloway suggests he can build even more on that experience. In a way, that makes it a bit disappointing that between the late notice and recent injuries on the Volkanovski side, Makhachev essentially has to be favored by default. With that said, if Volkanovski is able to step in on this type of turnaround and unseat one of the best fighters in the world, it almost diminishes him accomplishing the near-impossible if someone else thinks he can do it ahead of time. The pick is Makhachev via decision.

Continue Reading »
Makhachev vs. Volkanovski
Chimaev vs. Usman
Ankalaev vs. Walker
Aliskerov vs. Alves
Nurmagomedov vs. Gafurov
The Prelims
More Fight Odds

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