There are a number of significant storylines developing out of UFC 294, which is Saturday at Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Here are a few that stick out to me, and my thoughts about them:
Can Volk flip the script?
We’ve seen this one before. On Feb. 10 in Perth, Australia, in the main event of UFC 284, featherweight champion Alex Volkanovski, having essentially cleaned out the division, moved up to lightweight to challenge for champion Islam Makhachev’s belt.
It was a close, thrilling fight that could have gone either way, though Makhachev won by scores of 48-47 twice and 49-46. So many, though, thought Volkanovski had won when the UFC released its rankings two days later, as Volkanovski moved up in the pound-for-pound rankings and took over the top spot.
Now, because of a cut suffered by former champion Charles Oliveira, Volkanovski is back in the main event. He took the bout with 11 days’ notice and conceded his cardio, one of his biggest advantages, won’t be the same as it normally is.
The opening line favored Makhachev by better than 2-1 and though it’s moved back-and-forth a bit, BetMGM still has Makhachev at -250. Volkanovski is +200.
So much is working in Makhachev’s favor that one has to think he’s going to come out of this with the win. Volkanovski, though, is a master strategist, is as tough as anyone in the sport and despite not having the benefit of a full training camp, still figures to be able to go at a high pace.
“No one has ever broken me, and believe me, this guy isn’t going to be the first to do it,” Volkanovski said.
Makhachev landed 60 percent of his significant strikes and scored the only four takedowns of the bout in their first fight. Volkanovski landed 48 percent of his significant strikes, which is a good number but pales in comparison to what Makhachev accomplished.
When the fight was at distance, Makhachev was having success landing cleanly on Volkanovski. Given the shortened, nearly non-existent camp, Volkanovski can’t have that this time. He needs to find a way to cut the distance and avoid being at the end of Makhachev’s jab.
When he did that in his first fight, he was successful. Less than two minutes in, he slipped a jabbed, switched from conventional to southpaw, stepped inside and delivered a straight left hand that wobbled Makhachev and backed him to the cage.
That punch helped slow Makhachev’s wrestling shots. If he’d been more successful at connecting with that shot, he’d have been able to keep it from becoming a wrestling/grappling contest.
A minute or so later, Volkanovski again got into that close distance. But instead of delivering a left down the middle, he threw a looping shot that Makhachev easily avoided. The champion then landed a counter left of his own that dropped Volkanovski to his knee briefly.
Volkanovski was able to score effectively inside in the first fight. He went both to the head and body and landed kicks. But Makhachev always would come back with something and if Volkanovski didn’t get out after his punches, he’d get caught.
He’ll need to push the pace more, work smarter at that inside range but waste no timing getting out if nothing is there or after he’s landed his combination.
Wrestling takes so much out of one that Volkanovski’s best bet is to try to make it a slugfest. He proved he can do it in spurts, but he has to be able to avoid getting countered as frequently as the last fight. Lateral movement, as well as moving in and out, will be huge for him.
Does Chimaev have a mental edge on Usman?
Khamzat Chimaev will face former welterweight champion Kamaru Usman in a three-round middleweight bout in the co-main event, with UFC CEO Dana White guaranteeing the winner the next shot at champion Sean Strickland.
Like Volkanovski, Usman also took the fight on 11 days’ notice and is moving up a division. Even Usman admits that Chimaev is the naturally bigger guy. Chimaev is incredibly strong, has elite wrestling and is a very hard puncher. His cardio is first rate and he’s got great submissions.
But he is also brilliant at being able to get into his opponents’ heads. This is a huge fight for Usman, who is coming off of back-to-back losses to welterweight champion Leon Edwards.
At the news conference Thursday, he listened to Usman and issued a rebuttal that seemed to shock Usman.
“Like Sean Strickland says, we’re going to do the man dance, and it will be my will up against his, and we’ll see who starts to unravel first,” Usman said.
Chimaev didn’t wait to respond.
“Somebody’s coming to dance and I’m coming to kill somebody,” Chimaev said. “That’s the difference here. I’m not dancing in the cage. I’m coming to smash your face, bro. Sorry.”
Fighters have to be mentally strong against Chimaev, not only because of his talking but because of his highly aggressive, attack-first style. His conditioning is elite, and Usman is going to have to find a way to slow Chimaev’s charge.
Usman needs to break Chimaev’s confidence, as well, and he’s going to have 10 fewer minutes, two fewer rounds, in which to do it. Usman’s previous 12 fights were scheduled five-rounders.
He’s going to have to get out of the gate early, seize the momentum and make Chimaev think before he just rushes in.
Does the location matter?
Makhachev complained that his sleep routine was messed up when he fought Volkanovski at UFC 284. Because the fight was held in Australia but began at prime time in the U.S., the card started early on a Sunday morning.
Makhachev told Yahoo Sports that his routine was disrupted and that he didn’t eat the way he normally would have. Volkanovski is from Australia and had no such issues.
“His best chance [to beat me] was in Australia,” Makhachev told Yahoo Sports.
Volkanovski scoffed and said Makhachev still had 30 hours after he weighed in before he had a fight.
“That just sounds like whining to me, to be honest with you,” Volkanovski said.
Dana defends Paulo Costa
Chimaev repeatedly blasted Paulo Costa, whom he was originally supposed to fight Saturday, for running. Costa developed a staph infection in his right elbow and was declared medically unfit to fight, so Usman replaced him.
It didn’t matter to Chimaev, who repeatedly bashed Costa. That created the unusual scenario of White defending Costa.
White and Costa have butted heads repeatedly in Costa’s time in the UFC, but White stood his ground at the news conference and backed Costa even as Chimaev let the Brazilian have it and the crowd booed Costa’s name lustily.
White was asked a question about Costa, but didn’t hear it. Chimaev did and said, “The guy s*** himself.” White heard that and asked the reporter to ask his question again, but said, “I assume you asked about Costa.”
White then backed Costa’s decision to pull out.
“Listen, Paulo Costa can be a pain in the ass, no doubt about it,” White said. “But he’s seriously injured.” Chimaev again said, “He s*** himself," prompting White to chuckle and the crowd to roar.
But White continued in defense of Costa.
“He’s seriously injured and needs to get taken care of,” White said. “He had a staph infection. It’s legit. Listen, if it wasn’t legit, I’d be the first one to say it. [But] it’s absolutely legit that that guy is seriously injured and needed to do what he needed to do. I know that’s not a popular answer for Khamzat, but it’s the truth.”
Big fight for light heavyweights
Magomed Ankalaev is ranked No. 2 at light heavyweight and Johnny Walker is No. 7, so it’s an important fight for positioning in the division. Ankalaev hasn’t fought since his disputed split draw with Jan Blachowicz on Dec. 30 in Las Vegas at UFC 282.
The 6-foot-6 Walker has knocked out Paul Craig in the first and then scored a one-sided decision over Anthony Smith. Bookmakers, though, have made him a big underdog. Ankalev is -355, while Walker is +280.
The title picture is crowded, and Walker can make it even more confusing with an upset victory. Ankalaev will probably have the wrestling and grappling edge, but Walker is quicker with better movement and can cause Ankalaev issues with his kicks.
Can Aliskerov climb the rankings?
Ikram Aliskerov earned a contract on Season 6 of "Dana White’s Contender Series" and clearly has looked as if he belongs. His only loss came when he was knocked out in a 180-pound catchweight fight in 2019 by Chimaev before both made it to the UFC.
Aliskerov is a four-time gold medalist in combat sambo and looks like another of the Dagestani fighters who are going to make noise in the UFC.
He’s a -600 favorite over veteran Warlley Alves, who is +440. Aliskerov is someone worth keeping an eye on.
Mokaev also worth watching
Unbeaten flyweight Muhammad Mokaev was 23-0 as an amateur and is 10-0 with a no-contest as a pro heading into Saturday’s featured preliminary bout against Tim Elliott.
This will be Mokaev’s fifth fight in 19 months in the UFC, an extremely aggressive pace. He’s a -410 favorite to win, with Elliott at +320.
Mokaev is ranked 11th and Elliott is 10th at flyweight. A win over a fighter of the quality and toughness of Elliott should signify that the 23-year-old Mokaev is a legitimate title threat at 125 pounds.