UFC 294 roundtable: Do Alexander Volkanovski and Kamaru Usman take card to another level?

UFC 294 is pure chaos.

With marquee matchups announced for UFC 295 and UFC 296 to close out the year, it looked as though the upcoming pay-per-view in Abu Dhabi had been relegated to a footnote – Islam Makhachev vs. Charles Oliveira 2 and Paulo Costa welcoming Khamzat Chimaev back to the octagon.

Now, Oliveira and Costa are out. Alexander Volkanovski and Kamaru Usman are in. And UFC 294 will go down as one of the most talked-about cards of 2023, no matter who emerges victorious on fight night.

MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee, Mike Heck, and Damon Martin take a seat at the roundtable to discuss what’s left after two title fights were changed over the course of a hectic 48 hours, how the championship pictures in two divisions could be dramatically altered, and what else to expect from an unexpected Oct. 21 lineup.

1. Is UFC 294 better with Alexander Volkanovski and Kamaru Usman stepping in?

Lee: Yup.

As Jed Meshew often says, “The UFC is always one injury away from doing the right thing.” In this case, we have two injuries, and that has proportionately elevated UFC 294 from good to great!

(Wishing Charles Oliveira and Paulo Costa a speedy recovery and a quick return to action, of course.)

That’s not to say that we needed to see the Volkanovski-Makhachev rematch so soon. But as an admitted give-it-to-me-nooooooooowwwwwww-minded sports fan, I’m happy we’re guaranteed to see the two best fighters in the world run it back at least once. If I had to choose between only getting to see Makhachev vs. Volkanovski 2, Makhachev vs. Oliveira 2, or Volkanovski vs. Ilia Topuria in the near future, I’m comfortable picking the new UFC 294 main event. And this is coming from someone who was salivating over the thought of being front row for Volkanovski fighting Topuria in Toronto this coming January.

Seriously, when is the next time we’ll have the chance to see the same matchup occupy the No. 1 and No. 2 spots on our “Fight of the Year” list? It’s in play.

As for Usman replacing Costa against Chimaev, this is flat-out just a more intriguing fight. There was nothing wrong with Chimaev vs. Costa, but that kind of felt more like we were just killing two birds with one stone by booking a pair of fighters who have difficulty keeping a regular schedule. Usman vs. Chimaev is a fight we wanted when Usman was at the peak of his welterweight title run. As someone who thought that ship had sailed, this is a delightful surprise.

Congratulations, UFC, you’ve fallen upward once again.

UFC 290: Volkanovski v Rodriguez

Alexander Volkanovski
Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images

Heck: It’s certainly not worse, so that’s always a positive sign when you lose one half of the main and co-main events less than two weeks away from one of the year’s most important events, business wise. Is it better? I’m willing to listen to arguments that it is, but I’m currently siding with the “stays the same” team.

To be clear, I think the main event is more intriguing than the original booking. Makhachev is a horrendous stylistic matchup for Oliveira, and even on Oliveira’s absolute best day, I think Makhachev still beats him convincingly. Having said that, Volkanovski nearly got it done in February, and knowing the featherweight champion’s competitive spirit, there probably hasn’t been a day that’s gone by where he hasn’t at least thought about that 25-minute battle with Makhachev at UFC 284 and what he could have done differently.

As far as the co-main event, I respect the heck out of Usman for stepping in against Chimaev. But to me, the Costa fight was much more intriguing, because it answers a lot more questions, especially in regards to how Chimaev will fare as a middleweight contender.

Usman, while being one of the three best welterweights of all time, is an interesting name, but we’ll still have those questions about Chimaev and his future at 185 if he wins — and I believe that he will in a fight that suits him better, especially on 11 days’ notice.

Martin: Unequivocally yes, it’s a better card for a couple of reasons.

First off, Volkanovski — on less than two weeks’ notice or not — remains one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. Proof of that is in his systematically dismantling of Yair Rodriguez, barely five months removed from his previous fight against Makhachev.

Sure, that’s at featherweight, and now Volkanovski will balloon up to 155 pounds again for a second fight against the reigning UFC lightweight champion, but his talent and skill as one of the best fighters on the planet is undeniable.

While an immediate rematch wasn’t warranted based solely on their first fight in February, Volkanovski gave Makhachev the toughest fight since Adriano Martins brained him in his only professional loss. Make no mistake, Charles Oliveira is really, really good, but it can’t be forgotten that almost exactly one year ago, he got absolutely demolished by Makhachev inside two rounds.

Oliveira beating Beneil Dariush was impressive, but it never felt like enough to truly warrant a rematch with Makhachev. It seemed like the fight was booked, because UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi needed a main event, and Makhachev and Oliveira were the only top contenders available at the time.

As for the co-main event, Chimaev hasn’t fought in over a year, but now he’s finally making his long awaited return to middleweight, which seems like the division where he truly belongs. The matchup against perennial contender Paulo Costa was definitely intriguing, but the Brazilian has been somewhat hit or miss, amassing a 1-2 resume in his past three fights with only a single appearance in each of the last three years.

Usman will be making his middleweight debut, so that change is probably the biggest question mark leading into fight week but no one can deny his credentials as one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. He’s coming off two straight losses to Leon Edwards but it’s impossible to forget he was winning their rematch in fairly lopsided fashion before “Rocky” lived up to his nickname by pulling off one of the most stunning comebacks in combat sports history with late, fifth-round knockout to secure the win.

The trilogy was a grueling back-and-forth battle that basically saw Edwards eke out the victory by decision. Rather than tearing down Usman for losing, let’s give some much needed praise to Edwards for finding a way to win against one of the three best welterweights in UFC history (Georges St-Pierre and Matt Hughes share the rarified air with him).

The circumstances surrounding the main and co-main event aren’t great. But in terms of compelling matchups, Volkanovski and Usman just bring more to the table than the guys they replaced.

2. Who has more to lose in the main event? Makhachev or Volkanovski?

Martin: Without a question, Makhachev cannot lose to Volkanovski, especially with the UFC featherweight champion taking this fight with only 10 days to prepare.

Let’s not forget, Makhachev barely got past Volkanovski the first time around; most believed he would steamroll his way to victory. Up until that fight happened, Makhachev barely lost a minute of any fight and claimed the 155-pound title. That set high expectations that he would vanquish a smaller opponent like Volkanovski, no matter how many title defenses he had in his own division.

Instead, Volkanovski gave Makhachev everything he could handle over five rounds, and there were plenty of calls that he should have secured the victory that night. In fact, Volkanovski’s performance was so strong that many people still considered him the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the sport ahead of Makhachev, despite technically having a loss to him.

Now the odds are stacked against Volkanovski, because he accepted the rematch on such incredibly short notice. But that also gives him nothing to lose. The same can’t be said for Makhachev, who has everything to lose if he falls to Volkanovski after barely squeaking by him during their first encounter.

A loss for Makhachev would end his title reign before it ever really gets started — he only has one defense on his resume as it stands, and that’s the win over Volkanovski — and that certainly stops him from jumping up to welterweight to seek champ-champ status. That’s why everything rides on Makhachev proving the first fight was just a fluke. Otherwise, that same word might get thrown around when it comes to the assessment about his short time as champion.

Lee: Let me make the case for Volkanovski taking the bigger risk here.

Right up front, I want you all to take a look at the most recent edition of the MMA Fighting Pound-for-Pound Rankings. See who’s at No. 1 there? It’s not the lightweight champion, who won a unanimous decision over the featherweight champion eight months ago. It’s Alexander Volkanovski. And before you check, Makhachev is behind Volkanovski in the UFC’s official rankings too.

Theoretically, that shouldn’t change, even if Volkanovski loses again, given that he’s the smaller man going up to challenge for a second title. But at some point Makhachev has to get his due, and Volkanovski has to face some sort of consequences if he can’t overcome this challenge. Especially if Makhachev wins this fight more definitively than the first.

In the event of a dominant Makhachev win, Volkanovski isn’t getting a third shot and it’s possible that he’s wasted his second shot by coming in less than 100 percent prepared. As proud as he’ll rightfully be of his featherweight accolades, he’s made it clear that scoring a win over Makhachev means a hell of a whole lot to him.

Volkanovski has earned the kind of respect that will last a lifetime, but if he falls short this Saturday, the second-guessing on whether it was the right time for a rematch could last just as long.

UFC 284: Makhachev v Volkanovski

Alexander Volkanovski and Islam Makhachev
Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images

Heck: It’s clear that Makhachev has more to lose in this new rematch, and it might not be all that fair.

Obviously, Volkanovski deserves tons of kudos and praise for stepping in on less than two weeks’ notice to take this fight for a chance to right his only promotional wrong – even though a lot of people thought Volkanovski won the Fight of the Year nominee in February. The featherweight champion sits atop of most people’s pound-for-pound lists, and for good reason, and while having a targeted title fight for January against Ilia Topuria, Volkanovski is putting that on the back burner for this perceived low-risk, high-reward chance at greatness. If Volkanovski wins, it’s a historic feat, one we’ll talk about forever; if he loses again, well, he took the fight on short notice and saved the day.

For the amount of praise Volkanovski is getting, Makhachev deserves it as well, maybe even more so, especially since he was preparing for a totally different fighter – one he finished with relative ease a year prior. Now he has to get ready in short order to face the man who has given him his toughest battle in years. That’s real championship guts from Makhachev that will likely be overlooked in the aftermath of this all.

If Makhachev wins, he may not get the credit he deserves for beating a featherweight on short notice, and if he loses, it’ll be all about Volkanovski’s achievement, and not Makhachev – once again – facing the next guy up after an opponent falls out. It’s a win-win for Volkanovski in my eyes, and it’s not the same for the current lightweight champ, unfortunately.

3. Does the winner of Usman vs. Chimaev deserve a middleweight title shot?

Shortly after the new UFC 294 co-main event was announced, UFC CEO Dana White told Yahoo Sports that the winner of Usman vs. Chimaev will be next to fight middleweight champion Sean Strickland.

Heck: Damon, you taught me many years ago when I was just getting into the MMA space that I need to strike the word “deserves” from my vocabulary, but for the sake of the question, the answer is absolutely not. But will the winner get the next title shot against Sean Strickland? Barring a long layoff or severe injury, whoever wins this fight will most certainly jump the line.

Now if I’m Dricus Du Plessis, I would be pretty frustrated with all of this. “DDP” is unquestionably the No. 1 contender for the middleweight title. He didn’t just beat Robert Whittaker, he absolutely blew the doors off of “Bobby Knuckles” in a fight many questioned Du Plessis for taking, and very few were giving him a chance to even be competitive. It was also matchmaking malpractice to put that fight on the UFC 290 card knowing full well that Israel Adesanya was going to defend his title two months later — although Strickland made sure to ruin all of the UFC’s future plans by becoming the middleweight champ — and then for Dana White to play the “well, you know how I feel when people turn down fights” card when Du Plessis needed more time is just plain ridiculous.

DDP “deserves” it, but he’s going to watch Chimaev or Usman get that shot before he does.

Martin: Yep, as the esteemed Mr. Heck points out, deserves — and we might even toss “earned” into that mix as well — as words that rarely carry much weight when it comes to title shots in the UFC. Sure, both get tossed around an awful lot, but Johny Hendricks found out how little that mattered when Nick Diaz jumped over him for a title shot. Belal Muhammad is figuring that out right now as he prepares to watch Colby Covington — with his last win over a fighter still on the current UFC roster coming back in 2018 — about to fight Leon Edwards for the welterweight title in December.

Du Plessis should probably pay attention, because his inability to face Adesanya just two months after he washed Whittaker will probably end up as the biggest mistake of his life. Does he actually deserve blame for that? Absolutely not, but since when does that actually matter when it comes to the hierarchy of dumbfounding decisions made in the UFC?

Usman has an established name as a former UFC champion and Chimaev might be the most hyped contender on the UFC roster since Daniel Cormier arrived from Strikeforce. Toss in the fact that Usman took the fight with Chimaev on less than two weeks’ notice and you can already see the narrative being written.

Does the winner of that fight “deserve” a title shot? Based solely on resume alone, not a chance. But when has that ever really mattered? In other words, Du Plessis should probably start paying attention to Jared Cannonier vs. Roman Dolidze and perhaps Brendan Allen vs. Paul Craig because one of those four fighters will probably be his next opponent.

UFC 279: Chimaev v Holland

Khamzat Chimaev
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Lee: As much as I want justice for Du Plessis, I can’t argue against giving the next middleweight title shot to either Chimaev or Usman.

In Chimaev, you have a guy who looks like one of the 10 best fighters in the world when he’s actually competing and not showing complete disregard for weight classes. You want to believe that he’s here to stay at 185 pounds, even though he’ll inevitably ramp up the “champ champ” talk just when we’re starting to enjoy him again, whether that means moving up or down a division.

Who doesn’t want to see Chimaev just go in there and truck Strickland and finally fulfill his championship destiny, which seemed like a sure thing when he made his stunning Fight Island debut three years ago? Or if you’re a Strickland fan (or just a fan of chaos), watch the champion derail another hype train and continue his unexpected creep up the list of the all-time greats?

In Usman, you have a guy who has a lopsided win over Strickland dating back to 2017 when both were up-and-coming welterweight contenders. That’s a lifetime in MMA years, true, but enough to build a compelling rematch on and enough to position Usman as a favorite in a title fight that seemed like a remote possibility not too long ago.

Neither fighter should just waltz into the No. 1 contender spot, but if either performs to the best of their abilities, it will be hard to argue against them.

Fonte: mma fighting