What mattered most at UFC 294 at Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi? Here are a few post-fight musings …
Muhammad Mokaev gets his breakthrough win
Muhammad Mokaev got his first real, ranked test in the form of one-time UFC title challenger Tim Elliott, and he showed that his goal of becoming the youngest champion in company history is not unrealistic.
Elliott has been around the block. His fight at UFC 294 tied the record for most flyweight fights in UFC history, which is a degree of experience that speaks for itself. He was showing it against Mokaev (11-0 MMA, 5-0 UFC) early in the fight, too, but the 23-year-old wouldn’t be denied, and in the third round found his way into a fight-ending arm-triangle choke.
Mokaev has until March 2024 to break Jon Jones’ record for youngest UFC champ. The window is rapidly closing, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Many have said over the years they want to surpass Jones’ record, but in terms of timing and proximity to the belt, Mokaev might actually have a chance.
What does the future hold for Kamaru Usman?
Kamaru Usman showed a level of boldness and fighting spirit few can relate to in stepping up a division on short notice to take the task of undefeated rising superstar Khamzat Chimaev. And although he gave a spirited effort, the former welterweight titleholder came out on the wrong end of a majority decision.
There’s potentially a case to be made for an Usman (20-4 MMA, 15-3 UFC) win here, or perhaps even a draw. The official result was a loss, however, and now Usman has swung from being one minute away from tying Anderson Silva’s all-time UFC winning streak in his second fight with Leon Edwards, to being a skid of three consecutive defeats. That’s the cruel nature of this business.
It’s gut-wrenching stuff for Usman, but he must have known this was a real possibility when he agreed to step into such a high-risk situation. On paper, there’s no shame in losing back-to-back fights against Edwards parlayed with the outcome with Chimaev, but in the grand scheme, it does raise some valid questions about his future.
At 36 and with a good chunk of tread on his tires, Usman has big decisions to make. Will he remain at middleweight in hopes of making a run there? Does he return to 170 pounds and try to get back into the title discussion, especially if Colby Covington is able to dethrone Edwards at UFC 296 in December? That seems like the top priority to figure out.
It also seems critical for Usman to sort through is mental state. He offered some raw insight about self-doubt and rediscovering his confidence after the Edwards fights, and now he has even more of that weighing on him.
Regardless of what happens from hereon out, however, Usman’s legacy is already set. He’s, at worst, one of the two-best welterweights in UFC history and is a guaranteed future UFC Hall of Fame inductee. But that doesn’t mean he needs to be finished with his work. One win would serve as a major course correction for him, but ultimately he needs to decide what his motivations are, because the next fight has a lot hinging on it, and another loss would only enhance these questions around him.
Khamzat Chimaev’s title chances
It wasn’t the destructive performance many have come to expect from him, but Khamzat Chimaev earned the biggest win of his career in outworking Usman on the scorecards to stay unbeaten and seemingly punch his ticket to a UFC middleweight title fight with Sean Strickland.
Say what you will about the competitiveness of the fight, the scoring of it, or the fact Chimaev (13-0 MMA, 7-0 UFC) narrowly edged out a short-notice opponent – there’s no denying his talent. It’s hard to know exactly how much his first-round hand injury compromised his effort, but UFC CEO Dana White didn’t seem too bothered by any of that as he looked ahead to Chimaev vs. Strickland in the aftermath of the card.
If Chimaev’s comments about Strickland at UFC 294 media day are to be believed, it’s going to be a swift transaction of the belt if and when the pair step into the octagon. So long as his conditioning holds up, Chimaev is a nightmare matchup for Strickland due to his grappling prowess and he will likely be a sizable betting favorite if that fight materializes.
No one should completely discount Strickland’s chances after he left egg on the world’s face with his shocking upset of Israel Adesanya to claim the 185-pound belt, but that was a style-friendly matchup in many ways, and the challenge of Chimaev is a completely different animal.
It does feel like Chimaev is just waiting to be anointed as the new champion, though, and if he manages to stay healthy and keep active, it doesn’t feel like anything is going to get in the way of meeting the superstar potential that’s been pegged on him since he arrived on the UFC scene roughly three years ago.
The repercussions of Alexander Volkanovski’s risky decision
Like Usman, the decision to step up and fight at UFC 294 on ultra-short-notice backfired on Alexander Volkanovski, but in a much worse way.
After taking Islam Makhachev the distance in their initial champ-vs.-champ meeting in February, Volkanovski (26-3 MMA, 13-2 UFC) rolled the dice by replacing Charles Oliveira on 12 days’ notice in hopes of avenging his lone octagon loss.
It ended in disaster, however, when Makhachev floored him with a head kick then finished the fight by knockout in just over three minutes. It was a rough way to go down, and the fallout of his choice is going to be fascinating to see unfold.
After starting his UFC career with 12 straight wins, Volkanovski has now lost two of his past three. Granted he’s still the featherweight champion and only faced setbacks at lightweight, but his contenders at 145 pounds – specifically Ilia Topuria – surely smell blood in the water.
That’s what makes Volkanovski’s insistence on making a quick turnaround to defend against Topuria in January a whole lot more concerning. Volkanovski was very open at his post-fight press conference about how keeping active is a critical part of keeping him mentally and physically healthy, but he needs to be intelligent about the timing and circumstances of his next move.
Similar to what was said about Usman above, it can be a quick shift from sitting on the top of the world to having nothing. If he’s not 100 percent ready to go, he’s not only going to have lost his bid a two-division champion status, but won’t have the featherweight title, either.
Volkanovski is one of the true good guys in the sport and is as real as it gets both inside and outside of the cage. He saved this event by stepping up on short notice, but now he needs to put himself in an advantageous situation, and fighting Topuria three months from now doesn’t seem like the best move in that regard.
Islam Makhachev is No. 1 pound-for-pound
Islam Makhachev is forever going to have his critics and detractors, but if you can look at things objectively, he might be the most complete force in the game right now after taking out Volkanovski in just over three minutes.
The naysayers of Makhachev will try to discredit the win over Volkanovski because of the short-notice circumstances, but I’m not buying it. If Volkanovski wasn’t all there, then Makhachev (25-1 MMA, 14-1 UFC) did exactly what he should’ve against an overmatched opponent by winning in a quick and devastating manner. What could he have done better in this situation? Not much.
Makhachev’s past three wins have come against pound-for-pound ranked names in Volkanovski and Charles Oliveira, and no one else can claim that type of resume over active competition at this point. Does Jon Jones have an overall better body of work in his UFC career? Absolutely. Longevity plays a huge part in rankings these fighters side-by-side, but Jones’ career over the past five years just doesn’t compare.
It’s arguable Makhachev’s skillset is more complete at this point, too. Jones has never highlight-reeled someone so quickly in the fashion we saw at UFC 294, and Makhachev adding that striking threat to his game on top of a ridiculous grappling and submission pedigree makes him a total nightmare for everyone who steps into the cage with him.
It might seem like crazy talk, but Makhachev does have a real path to being one of the all-time greats, and he seems mentally locked in on making that happen. If he beats Oliveira again, Justin Gaethje, some other names at 155 pounds and eventually moves up to welterweight to get that belt, too, the debate about where he fits in overall UFC lore will become a very real thing.
For more on the card, visit MMA Junkie’s event hub for UFC 294.