Islam Makhachev freely admits that Alexander Volkanovski is the best fighter he’s faced in the UFC. They’ll meet again for the lightweight belt Saturday (2 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV) at Etihad Arena in the main event of UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, after Volkanovski stepped in on 11 days’ notice to replace an injured Charles Oliveira in a rematch of a memorable bout at UFC 284.
The three judges combined to score two-thirds of the rounds — 10 of 15 — in favor of Makhachev on Feb. 10.
Makhachev, the UFC’s lightweight champion, successfully defended his belt against Volkanovski, the featherweight champion, by scores of 48-47 twice and 49-46. According to UFC Stats, Makhachev connected on 60 percent of his significant strikes (57 of 95) and 70.4 percent of his total strikes (95 of 135) in that bout.
He was successful on four of his nine takedown attempts and stuffed all four of Volkanovski’s attempts. And he had an edge in control time, 7 minutes, 37 seconds to 2 minutes, 55 seconds.
Yet, many believed Volkanovski won and Volkanovski, in fact, was ranked higher on the UFC’s pound-for-pound list after the fight.
That hasn’t sat well with Makhachev, who firmly believes there was no controversy about the outcome.
“Honestly, it wasn’t a close fight and if somebody disagrees with this, they could watch it again and they’ll see,” Makhachev told Yahoo Sports. "He looked good coming out of the fight, but he just won the last two or one minutes of the last round. That’s it. I think I clearly won the first four rounds and you can see that. They want to say he won, but I don’t know what they were watching.”
Having said that, Makhachev came out of the bout impressed by Volkanovski, who moved up a class in a bid to become just the fifth fighter in UFC history to hold two weight class titles simultaneously. It was a close, competitive fight, and Volkanovski never stopped trying.
Makhachev accepted the rematch with Volkanovski without as much as 10 minutes to think about it even though he knows how good Volkanovski is. Oliveira suffered a nasty cut above his eye on the last round of sparring and was forced to withdraw. The UFC offered the title shot to Volkanovski, who quickly accepted.
That did not surprise Makhachev in the least.
“He’s the best guy I’ve [fought], for sure,” Makhachev said. “I’ve said this for a while after the fight, this guy has a big heart. If you want to stop him, you have to turn off the lights, you know? He’s going to keep coming otherwise.
“He has that belief in himself like I do. I feel I’m the best and he says he’s the best. I was sleeping [when the news broke that Oliveira was out], but it didn’t surprise me that he would take the fight. That’s the kind of guy he is. He’s a champion, for sure.”
Makhachev, though, is still brimming with confidence. He said the time change for him when he went to fight in Australia threw him off to some degree. So the fight could be broadcast in prime time in the U.S., it began early in Australia.
Everything happened in the morning, and Makhachev said it was difficult to adapt.
“Things are going to be different this time for me because really [the fight is at a] pretty much normal time,” he said. “I don’t think maybe people understand the schedules in Australia. The beginning fighters [on the preliminary card], they had to go to the arena at 5 in the morning.
“I woke up very early, ate and breakfast was just two eggs and then we went to the arena. I didn’t have much time for recovery. That’s the biggest thing for me, that recovery but because [of the time] they didn’t give us much time for the recovery. It was hard. For him, his best chance was in Australia, where he’s at home on his time and doesn’t have to cut that much weight. It will be different for me this one.”
Makhachev rooting for Covington
There has been talk Makhachev will move to welterweight after this fight and compete for that title. Leon Edwards will defend his championship against Colby Covington on Dec. 16 at UFC 296 in Las Vegas.
Makhachev said he’ll be rooting for Covington.
“I hope he wins the belt because I want to face him and shut him up,” Makhachev said. “He talks too much and he says things [that are] not true. I have said I want to come up to 170. It’s my dream to fight for a second belt, but he says I don’t [want] to fight him. I want to smash him because it will put me in the history books.”
He’s in the history books as it is, and the willingness with which both Makhachev and Volkanovski accepted the fight against each other on short notice won’t soon be forgotten.
What will be forgotten, at least in the short term, is a shot at the welterweight bout if Makhachev doesn’t get past Volkanovski.
“Look, I have trained to be my best for this fight and there is no chance [I am looking ahead],” he said. “I know what is in front of me. Great champion. Tough guy. Get that done, and then I can think of other things.”