Retro Robbery Review: Islam Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 284

Few things infuriate MMA fans more than a fight being scored incorrectly, though the term “robbery” tends to be thrown around carelessly and is often steeped in bias. With Robbery Review, we’ll take a look back at controversial fights and determine whether the judges were rightly criticized for their decision or if pundits need to examine their own knee-jerk reactions.

Full disclosure: After Islam Makhachev won a unanimous decision over Alexander Volkanovski this past February at UFC 284, I went out of my way to ignore requests that I do a Robbery Review of the result.

One of the reasons is that I didn’t want to contribute even a little bit to any scoring controversy because it was a fight that I thoroughly enjoyed and the fact that I saw the dreaded “R word” being tossed around was disheartening.

When a fight is that good and that competitive, the last thing we should be dwelling on is who won it, I firmly believe that. Judging discourse has overshadowed plenty of great fights, including Sean O’Malley vs. Petr Yan, Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz 2 and, of course, Volkanovski vs. Max Holloway 2. One of the reasons I started doing these reviews was to deter people from viewing closely fought contests through the distorted lens of misplaced scoring complaints and immediately following the UFC 284 main event with a Robbery Review would only fan the flames.

But you can only ignore the will of the people for so long and the fact is that 10 months after that first meeting there is still a vocal portion of the MMA community who feel that Volkanovski was done dirty on the cards. Maybe it’s because he was the smaller fighter going up a weight class, maybe it’s because the highly touted Makhachev looked vulnerable at times, or maybe some just think Volkanovski straight-up kicked Makhachev’s butt.

Regardless, enough time has passed for us to take this one to the lab and look at it with an objective set of eyes.

What was the official result?

Islam Makhachev def. Alexander Volkanovski via unanimous decision.

How did the fight go?

The crowd in Sydney was in full force cheering Volkanovski on and there was a massive pop when he scored the first meaningful combination of the fight. His movement was so tricky, you could see it took time for Makhachev to figure Volkanovski out. A left hand on the button backed Makachev up and it was all Volkanovski in the opening two minutes. Other than the occasional teep, Makhachev didn’t land much until he scored with a couple of punches in close. Volkanovski actually dropped to a knee during that exchange, but as we’d discover later, it was not scored a knockdown. Still, anyone who expected Volkanovski to have a clear advantage in the striking had to be surprised in that moment.

Makhachev followed by driving a knee into Volkanovki’s body and then tackling him against the fence. Despite some stout takedown defense from Volkanovski, Makhachev eventually adjusted for a beautiful trip and took the back. Volkanovski fought off an extended choke attempt to close out the round.

Sticking and moving was key for Volkanovski in Round 2. He avoided a lunging Makhachev punch and then slipped in a body blow before springing back to the outside. The height difference actually started to play a factor here as Makhachev’s punches whizzed over Volkanovski’s head. Fortunately for Makhachev, he scored with a reaction takedown, skillfully defusing an attack and bringing Volkanovski down against the fence in a flash. Just as quickly, Volkanovski was back up without having taken much damage and he followed by blocking a follow-up takedown attempt and nearly catching Makhachev with a knee to the dome as they separated. A clinch saw Volkanovski sneak in an overhand punch, while Makhachev drove another hard knee to the body.

Volkanovski wrestled Makhachev to the fence and landed a punch or two, but it didn’t last long and soon they were measuring each other in the center of the octagon again. A Volkanoski feint was read beautifully by Makhachev and he caught Volkanovski with a short right hand. Volkanovski found his range again, clipping Makhachev with an accurate left hand-leg kick combo. Makhachev fired back with a right hand that sent Volkanovski scrambling back, leading to another exchange of punches as Makhachev pressed the advantage. In the last minute, Makhachev went uppercut-clinch knee, prompting Volkanovski to turn him to the fence.

Makhachev’s clinch continued to be an effective deterrent in Round 3 in addition to stiff body kicks that kept Volkanovski at bay. Volkanovski’s activity was still a sight to behold and even though he wasn’t consistently getting through, Makhachev definitely felt those leg kicks and counters. Makhachev transitioned from a clinch to a takedown attempt, only to see his ground offense stifled again by the resilient Volkanovski. There was a big moment for Volkanovski as they broke away from the fence and he scored with a few wild punches. Makhachev made him pay for his aggression with a left elbow down the pipe that had Volkanovski nodding in approval. The lightweight champion smacked Volkanovski with another right as he circled out of danger. A slip from Makhachev created some late-round excitement to cap off a tight frame.

By Round 4, you could see that Makhachev had become comfortable scoring from range. He kept catching Volkanovski with a left hand that Volkanovski acknowledged with more head nodding. A beautiful level change from Makhachev put Volkanovski on his butt. What followed was one of the most memorable stretches of the fight as Makhachev spent three minutes in back control, unable to break through Volkanovski’s defenses, but also preventing Volkanovski from doing much of anything besides throwing punches over his shoulder and then letting out a crowd-pleasing roar.

I’ll save you the suspense and just say now that there’s little room for debate when it comes to Round 5 scoring. Makhachev opened with another Volkanovski-approved punch to the face and a great counter knee to the body, but none of that stopped Volkanovski from coming forward. He sensed that he needed a finish or a big final round, which he delivered. After stuffing two Makhachev takedowns, Volkanovski nearly reversed into a takedown of his own.

With two minutes left to work, the fighters scrambled, and then Volkanovski upped the pressure. A right hand from Volkanovski caught Makhachev behind the ear as he appeared to go for a single leg, with Volkanovski ending up on top of him (this was ruled a knockdown, by the way). Volkanovski rifled in body punches from inside Makhachev’s guard and ended the round standing over him. A great visual for the challenger.

What did the judges say?

Ben Cartlidge scored it 48-47 Makhachev.

Derek Cleary scored it 49-46 Makhachev.

David Lethaby scored it 48-47 Makhachev.

Cartlidge and Lethaby had identical cards, with Makhachev winning rounds 1, 2, and 4, and Volkanovski winning rounds 3 and 5. Cleary gave Round 3 to Makhachev.

What did the numbers say?

(Statistics per UFC Stats)

This is yet another case where the total significant strikes stat isn’t particularly helpful, since the differential is primarily due to Volkanovski’s strong finish. He out-struck Makhachev 20-8 in the final round en route to a 70-57 advantage overall. The other rounds were exceedingly close:

Round 1: Volkanovski 11-10

Round 2: Even 19-19

Round 3: Makhachev 16-14

Round 4: Volkanovski 6-4

And never forget, not all significant strikes are created equal, so when you see Volkanovski up 6-4 in Round 4 for example, that doesn’t mean those six strikes were more impactful than Makhachev’s four.

If we want to get a slightly better impression of strike impact, both fighters landed their fair share of head shots, with Volkanovski holding the narrowest of leads in that category at 37-36. As mentioned above, Volkanovski was credited with the lone knockdown of the fight in Round 5.

Takedowns and control time were heavily in favor of Makhachev, unsurprisingly, with four total takedowns (one in each of the first four rounds) and 7:37 of control on the ground. Makhachev, however, was not credited with a single ground strike of note, which doesn’t reflect how effective his grappling was, but is kind of funny to look at.

What did the media say?

The media mostly marked it for Makhachev, with 23 of 29 scorers having it for the defending champion on MMA Decisions. Two had it 49-46 for Makhachev, including MMA Fighting’s own Jed Meshew.

What did the people say?

(Data derived from MMA Decisions and Verdict MMA)

If it were up to the fans, Volkanovski would have left UFC 284 as the “champ champ.”

Just going by the top result, 38.8 percent of voters on MMA Decisions had it 48-47 Volkanovski, ahead of the 37.3 percent for 48-47 Makhachev. Of course, if you add in the 12 percent who scored the fight 49-46 Makhachev, then there’s less room for controversy.

On Verdict, Volkanovski won by a final margin of 67 points, not a significant gap, but notably affected by a 75-point advantage for Volkanovski in Round 3, which seems a little crazy to me. Volkanovski’s definitive Round 5 also greatly impacted the final score, but based on how Verdict works that means a small segment of voters gave Volkanovski a 10-8 in that round, which… no.

How did I score it?

I recall having no issue scoring the fight for Makhachev, which is why I was so adamant about not chiming in on the scoring discourse. On a second viewing, I’m even more comfortable with that decision.

Maybe the most common misconception I see about this fight is that Volkanovski was winning the standup exchanges and that Makhachev fell back on his grappling. That couldn’t be farther from reality. While Volkanovski’s output on the feet over 25 minutes was unquestionably impressive, he got cracked several times in the bout. There are many fighters with weaker chins that would have been put down by Makhachev’s power shots.

This isn’t even subjective, Volkanovski’s reactions to some of Makhachev’s punches from rounds 2 to 4 were so obvious that the judges were left with no choice but to favor those strikes.

If you want to give Volkanovski points for surviving long stretches of Makhachev having his back, have at it. I won’t. And I’m not giving him too much credit for those over-the-shoulder punches either. Sorry, they’re not effective, even if they probably suck to take. As long as Makhachev was on Volkanovski’s back, he was in a far better position to finish the fight than Volkanovski and if you don’t think that’s the case, I don’t know what to tell you.

49-46 Makhachev.

Was it a robbery?

I’m remembering the other reason now why I didn’t feel inclined to do a Robbery Review of this fight: Not only was it so close that it would be an insult to both fighters to prioritize outrage over appreciation for their performances, but it’s easy to make a case for a Makhachev victory.

Watch this one again (and again and again, it’s so good!). Turn the sound off so there’s no commentary and no crowd reaction. Ignore the “underdog is thriving” narrative that colors so many of our scorecards when we judge fights at home. Enjoy the luxury of having slow-motion replays at the end of each round (I think Cartlidge, Cleary, and Lethaby did an outstanding job with what they had available live).

Maybe, maybe, you can make a case for rounds 2, 3, and 5 for Volkanovski, but it’s not a convincing argument and I’d be more inclined to have done an immediate Robbery Review if that’s how the verdict had gone. Volkanovski was brilliant against Makhachev and the fact that Makhachev won convincingly in my eyes only makes the win that much more impressive.

Lastly, we can praise Volkanovski for capping off the fight with a memorable flurry, but that doesn’t mean we have to retroactively award him any of the previous rounds and grant him the victory. Diaz Rules aren’t a real thing!

The final verdict

Not a robbery.


Was Islam Makhachev’s win over Alexander Volkanovski a robbery?

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