On Saturday, Oct. 21, the UFC returns to Fight Island as UFC 294 kicks off from the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, UAE. This card has seen quite a bit of shake-ups in recent weeks with the main event and co-main event both seeing changes of opponents on short notice.
In the main event, UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev was supposed to be facing Charles Oliveira in a rematch of their fight one year ago from the same venue, when Makhachev captured the title. That was the last time Makhachev actually fought an opponent from the lightweight roster, as his first title defense was last February, when he went the distance with featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski. In that bout, Makhachev picked up a unanimous decision that was by no means decisive and was challenged by some watching. On less than two weeks’ notice, Oliveira pulled out of this weekend’s fight, and Makhachev will instead be facing Volkanovski in a rematch of their own.
The co-main event suffered a similar fate, as Khamzat Chimaev was supposed to be facing Paulo Costa in a middleweight title eliminator bout, but Costa publicly pulled out the day after Oliveira, as he needed to undergo elbow surgery. He was replaced by former welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, and the fight still serves as the middleweight title eliminator.
The main card also showcases a light heavyweight clash between second-ranked Magomed Ankalaev and seventh-ranked Johnny Walker, a middleweight bout between sophomore Ikram Aliskerov and veteran Warlley Alves and a bantamweight bout between 17-3 Said Nurmagomedov and Muin Gafurov, who is also making his sophomore appearance.
The UFC 294 prelims air live on ESPN+ starting at 10 a.m. ET, followed by the main card on ESPN+ pay-per-view at 2 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Islam Makhachev squeaked by Alexander Volkanovski the first time the pair met; will he take home a more definitive victory in the short-notice rematch?
Kuhl: Honestly, I don’t think so. Lightweight champion Islam Makhachev was effectively embarrassed in his first meeting with featherweight titleholder Alexander Volkanovski. In a fight that most expected him to cruise to victory in, they went the distance, and, regardless of the scorecards, he barely squeaked by Volk. Makhachev had finished all but two of his 12 previous UFC victories over lightweights, and he was never even close to stopping the 145-pound champ.
The fact is, Volkanovski is stepping in on short notice after a dominant win over Yair Rodriguez to unify the featherweight belt once again. He has absolutely nothing to lose. Makhachev, however, has everything to lose in this one. It’s his title on the line, not Volk’s. Makhachev is coming off of a questionable performance, and all of the pressure is on him to prove the hype is real. Volk will be more relaxed and having fun, just like in their first meeting, and Makhachev will be coming in under a lot of tension.
Makhachev was training for a rematch against Charles Oliveira, who has a much different style than Volk. Volk knows what he needs to do, and while Rodriguez was a much different fighter than Makhachev, he has effectively been preparing for an eventual rematch with the Dagestani fighter. But Makhachev was not in camp for Volk, and he was preparing to pull off another stoppage of Oliveira. I think this plays into Volk’s favor.
In their first meeting, Makhachev was able to get Volk down multiple times, but he wasn’t able to pose any threats. Volk, on the other hand, rocked Makhachev, showing his superior firepower, even as the lighter fighter. I expect Makhachev to go back to the takedown game, but I expect Volk to be even more prepared than he was for their last meeting. The Aussie already has the upper hand in the striking department, and I expect him to finish the fight before the championship rounds. Volk by TKO to become the next two-division champ.
Petela: I disagree vehemently. This fight is going to be one-sided in Islam Makhachev’s favor. The short notice nature of this fight will very much play into the game plan of Makhachev. He will use the same takedown heavy fight style that he used in the first encounter but it will be even more successful this time around because after getting back to his feet a few times early, Volkanovski won’t have the gas tank to continue getting back up. That isn’t a knock of Volkanovski’s cardio, he just simply hasn’t had the time to get in the proper shape for a fight of this magnitude and this high paced style. Hopefully this fight does big numbers on the PPV for the sake of both main event combatants but I don’t think this one is going to be all that competitive. Third round ground and pound stoppage win for Islam Makhachev who closes this chapter of his career and moves onto his originally scheduled rematch with Charles Oliveira.
This is Kamaru Usman’s first UFC fight in the middleweight division; does the welterweight great have the skills to defeat the seemingly indestructible Khamzat Chimaev?
Petela: Not at this stage of his career. There is no doubt that Kamaru Usman is one of the greatest welterweights of all time and a shoo-in for the UFC Hall of Fame shortly after his retirement. However, after rewatching his third fight with Leon Edwards, he is definitely half a step slower than he was in his prime, and that will be a problem for him in this fight. For the first time in his UFC career, he won’t be the superior wrestler, and he won’t have a size advantage over his opponent. Usman will spend a significant amount of time on his back early on in this fight, which will drain his gas tank, especially because he took this fight on short notice.
This is going to be a one-sided fight, with Khamzat Chimaev in full control of the bout as long as it lasts. He will be stronger and faster than Usman and land punishing ground-and-pound until he scores a TKO finish in the third round. This will be the first time that fans see Kamaru Usman just get beat up over the course of a fight, and it will probably be the last time we see him in a title eliminator fight. From here on out, he should be fighting high-profile opponents for big paydays.
Kuhl: I agree with my colleague on this one. Kamaru Usman’s body is broken for this level of athletics. He looks like a physical specimen, but he is not structurally sound, which is not getting any better with age. After 20 years of wrestling and MMA, his knees are shot. This became glaringly obvious in his last fight with Leon Edwards, and there is a huge difference between middleweight and welterweight. Granted, both Usman and Khamzat Chimaev are top-ranked welterweights, but Chimaev is more of a middleweight in size, and he was preparing to take on Paulo Costa in a middleweight title eliminator.
Usman is a game opponent at any size, and he was the champ for a reason. However, he is walking into the proverbial wood chipper in this one, especially on short notice. His biggest attribute has always been his massive advantage in wrestling, but Chimaev is a bad match-up in that area. He is a multiple-time Swedish national wrestling champion, and this has always been his strong suit in MMA. With a two-inch height advantage, and superior wrestling, I see him smothering the former welterweight champ from the outset. Then, adding in the extra 15 pounds is only going to put that much more stress on Usman’s bad knees.
Usman will always be a champ, and he is still one of the best fighters in the world, but I just think this is not a good opponent or weight class at this stage in his career, and I think Chimaev puts this one to rest by TKO in Round 2.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 294?
Kuhl: Alexander Volkanovski. He will score a massive short-notice upset over Islam Makhachev, and, while that will likely set up a trilogy fight, he will be the next two-division UFC champion.
Petela: Islam Makhachev. Dan and I are on complete opposite pages for this fight. I think Makhachev gets a dominant win over Volkanovski this time around and ends this rivalry once and for all. It shuts down any debate about the first fight and who should have won and Makhachev can move forward and continue on his run as a dominant champion in the lightweight division.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 294?
Petela: Dricus Du Plessis. Dana White has said that the winner of Kamaru Usman and Khamzat Chimaev gets the next middleweight title shot so no matter what the outcome, Du Plessis still has to wait in line for his crack at the belt. Despite having a valid claim as the rightful next contender, his inability to step in and fight Israel Adesanya at UFC 293 will likely force him to have to take one more fight before he gets a crack at middleweight gold.
Kuhl: Kamaru Usman. With the condition of his body, and the amount of stress that Khmazat Chimaev’s size will put on his degrading knees, I just don’t see a good outcome for him in this one. Plus, a finish can take years off your career, and he is already 36 years old. A loss to Chimaev will take its toll and will alter the outlook of the remainder of his career.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Kuhl: Abu Azaitar. In short, he has only fought twice since he last fought in World Series of Fighting seven years ago. Both of those were UFC fights. The first was a decision win over Vitor Miranda in Jul. 2018, and the last was a third-round-TKO loss to Marc-Andre Barriault in Mar. 2021. Peppered throughout his UFC career has been quite a few Azaitar withdrawals. He last pulled out of a fight with Sedriques Dumas last March, and the two will finally meet this weekend with Azaitar as the slight betting underdog. If he loses, a 1-2 UFC record over a five-year period does not look good, and he will likely be off the roster.
Petela: Mike Breeden. He has lost three straight fights and has been finished in two of those contests in the very first round. Adding to that, he missed weight in one of those losses. None of that is a good look for a young fighter with a short tenure in the UFC. If Breeden can’t hand Anshul Jubli his first professional loss it will probably be the end of the road for him with the UFC.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: Javid Basharat vs. Victor Henry. Basharat is an absolute monster. He is 14-0 over his MMA career and has the ability to finish fights by both submission and knockout as well as outlasting his opponents over fifteen minutes to score decision wins. He takes on a real tough veteran in Henry this weekend who will be making his thirtieth professional walk to the cage and he might just have what it takes to play spoiler to this surging prospect. I expect Basharat to get the nod but it wouldn’t shock me if Henry pulled off the upset.
Kuhl: The matchup between Sedriques Dumas and Abu Azaitar should be a good one. Azaitar has to make some kind of statement. After having only fought twice in the UFC, which was over a five-year span, he is only 1-1. Dumas, who was supposed to make his promotional debut against Azaitar earlier this year, is now also 1-1 in the Octagon. He, too, needs to make a big statement on Saturday. With their backs effectively against the wall, this one should be an exciting war.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Kuhl: Khamzat Chimaev. While his opponent Kamaru Usman is coming up a weight class and fighting on really short notice, a stoppage win over the former welterweight champ will get him his sixth performance bonus in seven UFC fights.
Petela: Johnny Walker. He has a chance to earn himself a title shot with a win over Magomed Ankalaev and I think that he does that by scoring a vicious knockout victory. When Johnny Walker wins he typically does it in dramatic fashion. Whether it is a spinning back elbow or a flashy kick, Walker gets the job done with a jaw-dropping knockout that earns him an extra $50K.
Pair this card with…
Petela: This is a daytime card so lay off the hard booze for this one. Instead, just crack open a few Miller Lites and enjoy the card with a nice charcuterie board. All in all, this should be an afternoon of fun fights though probably nothing that will be in the conversation for Fight of the Year.
Kuhl: Really good coffee. This card is going to be rich and energizing, just like a high-quality cup of Joe. It will be a great way to kick off a full day of college football, which will follow the card.
Main Card (ESPN+ pay-per-view, 12 p.m. ET)
LW Championship: Islam Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski
MW: Kamaru Usman vs. Khamzat Chimaev
LHW: Magomed Ankalaev vs. Johnny Walker
MW: Islam Aliskerov vs. Warlley Alves
BW: Said Nurmagomedov vs. Muin Gafurov
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 10 a.m. ET)
FlyW: Tim Elliott vs. Muhammad Mokaev
LW: Mohammad Yayha vs. Trevor Peek
BW: Javid Basharat vs. Victor Henry
MW: Sedriques Dumas vs. Abu Azaitar
LW: Anshul Jubli vs. Mike Breeden
FW: Nathaniel Wood vs. Muhammad Naimov
Women’s StrawW: Jinh Yu Frey vs. Victoria Dudakova
MW: Bruno Silva vs. Sharabutdin Magomedov
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