Islam Makhachev won the toughest fight of his life 10 months ago. Now he has to do it all over again.
The circumstances are different and seemingly in his favor this time around as he defends his lightweight title against featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski again, this time with Volkanovski taking the fight on 12 days’ notice, in the main event of UFC 294 on Saturday in Abu Dhabi.
It’s a rematch fans clamored for following their thrilling first meeting at UFC 284, whether it was because they simply wanted another taste of the 2023 Fight of the Year frontrunner or because they felt that Volkanovski did enough to deserve the win (count me among those who feels Makhachev comfortably defeated Volkanovski, but is still hungry to see them fight again).
There’s an argument to be made that both fighters are putting plenty on the line, with Makhachev switching from an opponent he demolished in their first fight — Charles Oliveira, who withdrew from Saturday’s main event due to an ill-timed cut — to a pound-for-pound rankings rival that pushed him to the limit, and Volkanovski possibly wasting a second shot at Makhachev with little time to prepare for it. Make no mistake, if Volkanovski loses, he can kiss his dream of toppling Makhachev goodbye for good.
The stakes are high in the co-main event, though in a way that few could have predicted at the start of last week. Khamzat Chimaev likely battling for a title shot in his return to middleweight, but it was supposed to be against Paulo Costa, not a former UFC welterweight champion. But an elbow infection took Costa out and put Kamaru Usman in, opening the door for Usman to be the one to challenge Sean Strickland — an opponent he defeated many moons ago when Strickland was still competing at 170 pounds.
Usman and Chimaev looked to be on a collision course during Usman’s championship reign, so this fight makes a lot of sense even if it ended up being booked out of nowhere. The great F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “There are no second acts in American lives,” but if Usman can turn this unexpected opportunity into a chance at becoming a two-division champion, we may have to rethink that quote.
In other main card action, Magomed Ankalaev fights Johnny Walker in a light heavyweight bout with contender implications, Ikram Aliskerov looks to continue his impressive middleweight run when he fights short-notice replacement Warlley Alves, and Said Nurmagomedov meets Muin Gafurov in a bantamweight barn-burner.
What: UFC 294
Where: Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi
When: Saturday, Oct. 21. The card begins with an eight-fight preliminary card streaming live on MMA Fighting at 10 a.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 2 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings and Pound-for-Pound rankings)
Table of Contents
Islam Makhachev (1 LW, 2 P4P) vs. Alexander Volkanovski (1 FW, 1 P4P)
Alexander Volkanovski will have every excuse in the world if he loses to Islam Makhachev again. And he’s going to need them.
I give Volkanovski tons of credit for taking this fight on short notice, because even if he’s playing with house money there are consequences if he loses. He’s won’t get another shot at Makhachev and if Volkanovski gets banged up at all, it will likely force him out of a featherweight title defense against Ilia Topuria in January that he’s still planning to go through with. Also, Volkanovski is currently ahead of Makhachev on both MMA Fighting’s and the UFC’s Pound-for-Pound lists; it’s only fair to drop Volkanovski down if he suffers a second loss in this series.
In the first fight, Volkanovski’s constant output on the feet and incredible defense on the ground were inspiring. He had no fear taking the fight to the larger Makhachev. Unfortunately for Volkanovski, he ended up eating some of the hardest punches of the contest and were it not for his iron chin, he might have lost by knockout rather than unanimous decision. We know that he can sting back though, which he did in Round 5, where he scored the only knockdown of the fight.
I expect the standup battle to play out in similar fashion on Saturday, with Volkanovski utilizing slick in-and-out movement to open up Makhachev for combos, and Makhachev scoring with long-range punches that set up hard counters. Where I think the fight will be different is that Makhachev will have more immediate success with the wrestling. It took Makhachev until Round 4 to secure back control for a prolonged period. This time, we’ll see more of that infamous Dagestani wrestling, much to the featherweight champ’s frustration.
The first fight set an exceedingly high bar, so don’t expect the sequel’s action to match that level. The result, though?
Kamaru Usman (2 WW, 8 P4P) vs. Khamzat Chimaev (T18 P4P)
I’m all in on Khamzat Chimaev being a future champion—just pick a division and stay in it, man!—but this is as dangerous a replacement opponent as he could get. Really, it’s a more dangerous matchup than the Paulo Costa fight.
The size differential matters, as it would had the two met at welterweight in the past, but it’s not as though Kamaru Usman is going to look like a garden gnome in there. He’s strong enough and has enough length to mitigate the pounds he gives up at middleweight and should contend if he decides to stick around in the division. I’m not worried about him getting completely bullied by Chimaev.
Where I would be concerned for Usman is when it comes to sheer punching power. Usman showed pop in his hands during his title reign, but Chimaev has natural power and if they start to trade, it’s Usman who will have his lights shut off. That’s not to say Usman can’t win a striking battle. We saw him throw down for almost 10 rounds with Colby Covington and he’s shown more technical acumen than Chimaev. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he replicates the success that training partner Gilbert Burns had in his fight with Chimaev, only better.
Chimaev will also take over if he can get this fight to the ground. Usman has elite takedown defense, so Chimaev won’t be able to just muscle him down. In the event that he does, Usman is going to struggle to keep Chimaev off of him and keep him from doing damage. Check out this Bloody Elbow breakdown of Chimaev’s incredibly effective ground-and-pound to get a better understanding of what makes him so deadly in top position.
Through all the ups-and-downs I’ve stayed on the Chimaev bandwagon and I’m not hopping off now. Chimaev by knockout.
Magomed Ankalaev (3) vs. Johnny Walker (9)
That Johnny Walker is a wild card, isn’t he?
He started his UFC career looking like a dark horse to challenge Jon Jones, then went into a slump that had him looking like a never-will-be, and now he’s on a three-fight win streak and one impressive performance away from maybe fighting for a world title. He just might do it too.
All he has to do is beat Magomed Ankalaev, who might be the best light heavyweight in the world? He’s certainly looked the part at times, mixing in fast finishes with a handful of methodical wins that haven’t exactly set the matchmakers’ imaginations on fire. Still, you can’t argue with a 10-fight undefeated streak nor the grit that he showed in salvaging a split draw against Jan Blachowicz. Had he figured out Blachowicz sooner, he could be entering UFC 294 as the defending champion.
If Walker is to win this, it has to be in the first round. Once this gets past five minutes, Ankalaev will take over, likely with a strong wrestling attack that Walker won’t be able to withstand for long. Ankalaev has to be aware of how quickly Walker can end this and if he minds his manners defensively, he should be able to take this fight where he needs it to go.
Ankalaev survives early trouble and finishes Walker in the second.
Ikram Aliskerov vs. Warlley Alves
Volkanovski and Usman are getting all the shine, but how about Warlley Alves taking this fight on two weeks’ notice? Ikram Aliskerov has been pegged as one to watch in the middleweight division and for good reason, he has sharp finishing instincts, heavy hands, and legit Sambo skills. He didn’t have an opportunity to show that in his debut, but that’s because he was too busy one-shot KO’ing Phil Hawes.
With respect to Alves, a well-rounded fighter who has been a solid test at welterweight for the past few years, this is too tough a hill to climb. Alves is giving up size and reach, competing without a full camp, and has been in a poor run of form with three losses in his past four fights. I hope he’s being handsomely compensated for this booking, because this looks like a paycheck outing to me.
Aliskerov is the biggest favorite on the card and I expect that to play out in real time. He finishes Alves quick, giving the Abu Dhabi crowd a thrill and sending Alves home with some money to buy Christmas gifts.
Said Nurmagomedov vs. Muin Gafurov
There’s plenty of intriguing fights that could have opened up the pay-per-view, but I’m glad Said Nurmagomedov and Muin Gafurov were granted this spot. Though the stage is set for the under-appreciated Nurmagomedov to put on a showcase performance, don’t count out Gafurov. The former LFA champion has a creative arsenal supplemented by a healthy amount of aggression.
Gafurov’s tendency to get wild will be his undoing because you can’t make those kinds of mistakes against a fighter of Nurmagomedov’s calibre. John Castaneda made Gafurov pay for his misses with painful counter punches, opportunities that Nurmagomedov will capitalize on with timely takedowns. Gafurov has a busy ground game, but Nurmagomedov’s technique should prevent him from initiating much offense.
Nothing in this fight will come easy for either man. Nurmagomedov’s cardio has to be on point for 15 minutes if he wants to keep Gafurov from catching him late, while Gafurov’s durability will be put to the test by Nurmagomedov’s wrestling attack. I’m picking Nurmagomedov to earn a decision and hold onto his spot in the crowded bantamweight rankings.