Islam Makhachev, Alex Volkanovski electrify Australian crowd with performance worthy of 1 vs. 2

About a minute remained in the lightweight title fight Saturday at UFC 284 between hometown hero Alex Volkanovski and reigning champion Islam Makhachev which, by that stage, had already lived up to every one of the outsized expectations for it.

As tough as Volkanovski, who entered as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world in the UFC's rankings, had proven to be, as elite of a competitor as he'd shown himself to be, the rowdy pro-Volkanovski crowd at RAC Arena in Perth, Australia, had to know that Makhachev was a minute away from victory.

Makhachev had by no means out-classed Volkanovski, nor had he proven that Volkanovski didn't belong at lightweight. Volkanovski is the UFC's featherweight champion and Makhachev demeaned him before the fight, insisting the Australian was clearly no lightweight.

As the clock ticked relentlessly on, Volkanovski landed a right hand. Makhachev was hurt and fell to his back. Volkanovski, knowing it was now-or-never, jumped on him, hoping for a dramatic last-minute finish.

This was real life, not a movie, and try as he might, Volkanovski wasn't able to get that fight-ending shot in and the clock ran out. Makhachev was properly announced as the winner, winning by scores of 48-47 twice and 49-46. Yahoo Sports scored it 48-47 for Makhachev.

They leapt to their feet and embraced. Seconds later, Bruce Buffer read the scores that made official the verdict. Makhachev had kept his lightweight title by the thinnest of margins, and had surpassed Volkanovski as the world's pound-for-pound best fighter.

Makhachev closed as a -375 favorite at BetMGM largely as a result of his wrestling, but it was his striking and his toughness, his ability to take a punch and survive, that led him to the finish.

All throughout the promotion, Makhachev vowed that he'd knock Volkanovski out. While that never came close to occurring, Makhachev had plenty of success on his feet. Makhachev landed 57 of the 95 significant strikes he threw, connecting on about 60 percent. Given that he also scored four takedowns on nine attempts, he showed enough variety in his game to beat the world's best fighter.

Volkanovski was disappointed because, as good as Makhachev is, and as well as both of them fought, this was a winnable fight for him. Had he been a bit more aggressive a bit earlier in the fight, a round or two may have changed and that would have made all the difference.

And that's the kind of thing that gnaws at a fighter, knowing he could have won but he did not.

"It was a close fight, but what can you do?" Volkanovski said, glumly. "I'm the type of person who tends to be harder on myself. ... I expected to win so I'm disappointed. I could have done more. I underestimated his striking and he underestimated my wrestling."

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 12: (R-L) Islam Makhachev of Russia and Alexander Volkanovski of Australia talk after their UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 284 event at RAC Arena on February 12, 2023 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Lightweigiht champion Islam Makhachev (R) embraces featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski after scoring a unanimous decision victory in their fight at UFC 284 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Makhachev was in control for much of the fight but he was never dominating or close to finishing. He had 7:37 of control time, around 30 percent of the fight. He had no submission attempts and no knockdowns, though he did drop Volkanovski to a knee at one point in the first round.

What he did was fight a smart, controlled fight. He didn't take any undue risks, realizing his wrestling would keep him safe most of the time. His left hand was repeatedly finding a home, but he never fell in love with it. He never got overwhelmed by the moment and didn't try anything that could have created the opening Volkanovski needed until the very end.

It was the kind of performance a guy who was focused on winning would turn in.

"I showed why I am No. 1,” Makhachev said as the crowd booed lustily. “He has good striking, good wrestling skills … but like it or not, I am the best fighter in the world.”

He's going to be a tough guy to beat, and has a chance to have a long reign as champion. Volkanovski, curiously, might be the guy with the best chance to defeat him. Volkanovski will return to featherweight and face Yair Rodriguez, who turned in an exceptional performance in a win over Josh Emmett that gave him the interim featherweight belt.

No doubt, though, Volkanovski will keep an eye on Makhachev's results, eager for that second chance to prove what he already knows in his heart, that he is good enough to win.

Makhachev struggles with the 155-pound weight limit and it's likely that his title reign will last as long as he figures he can make the weight. A move to welterweight is unquestionably in his future, though.

And if that happens sooner rather than later, it will be a disappointing turn of events because it will mean we'll never see these two in the ring with each other again.

Just like flyweights Brandon Moreno and Deiveson Figueiredo, who fought four times, they have a style that brings the best out of each other. If they fight 10 times, nine of them would be nail-biters.

If this fight were the last time we see them in the Octagon against each other, at least we can be thankful we got a bout worthy of the lofty expectations it carried.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 12: Islam Makhachev of Russia reacts after his victory over Alexander Volkanovski of Australia in the UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 284 event at RAC Arena on February 12, 2023 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Islam Makhachev celebrates after defeating Alexander Volkanovski in their lightweight title fight at UFC 284 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)