UFC 294: Makhachev Dealt Strong Hand for Rematch Against Volkanovski

Islam Makhachev and Alexander Volkanovski, UFC 294
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 20: (L-R) Opponents Islam Makhachev of Russia and Alexander Volkanovski of Australia face off during the UFC 294 ceremonial weigh-in at Etihad Arena on October 20, 2023 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Islam Makhachev has been dealt a strong hand as he looks to defend his title against featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski who steps in on ten days’ notice at UFC 294.

Going into UFC 294, UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev has a chance to outdo arguably the performance of his career against the same celebrated champion.  That February night in Australia against the featherweight king was a sublime performance that is expected to go down as Fight of the Year and it cemented what has been a special run for the champion.  Riding a 12 fight win-streak, Makhachev has now vanquished dominant stars Volkanovski and former champion Charles Oliveira in back-to-back performances.  In doing so, he has cemented himself as one of the top talents in the sport today, if not it’s current pound-for-pound fighter altogether.  If there is any greater platitude to be bestowed upon him, it is the fact that he is on a run that is beginning to resemble that of his celebrated teammate and childhood friend: Hall-of-Famer Khabib Nurmagomedov.

That makes Saturday the proverbial trap for Makhachev.  His opponent has had less than two full weeks to prepare for a rematch of a fight that saw Makhachev prevail after withstanding his best effort.  On paper, he has been granted all the intangible advantages one could ask for to deliver another stellar performance.  He has already expressed his desire for greater challenges, with BMF champion Justin Gaethje and the welterweight champion in his sights beyond Saturday.  But, it is dependent on him to deliver the way he is supposed under the circumstances and that is often where the greatest upsets take place.  Volkanovski is a drastically different stylistic challenge compared Charles Oliveira, but the deck is in favor of Makhachev to hold serve at an event built largely around him.

For Alexander Volkanovski, it certainly does feel like he’s playing with house money in the big picture.  Though it is short notice, he gets the gift of jumping the line of lightweight contenders and another shot at the only man to defeat him in the UFC.  “The Great” dared to live up to the nickname in February where his level was tested at an eye-opening level.  Fans had seen him three times against fellow legend Max Holloway and in doing so seen his legacy at 145 pounds be secured.  But February’s match with Makhachev saw him win over the greater sporting fandom as they acknowledged him as arguably the greatest technical talent in the sport today despite falling just short in his effort.  For years, Volkanovski was the one had intruded on the legacy crafted by the beloved Holloway and José Aldo.  But the Makhachev fight, and how he handled the loss gracefully afterward, cemented him as a bonafide working class world champion of the people.

Volkanovski showed he was still in top form in July in systematically dismantling Yair Rodriguez to defend his featherweight throne and was already in talks to defend his belt against the newest budding superstar in Ilia Topuria in January before receiving the call.  But while his train will continue beyond Saturday, his personal ambitions are another story.  A second straight loss to Makhachev, regardless of the circumstances, would virtually shut the door on another shot at lightweight gold unless the champion is unseated from his throne.  For Volkanovski, it would be a disappointment the likes of which he is not accustomed to.  With contenders like Justin Gaethje, Charles Oliveira, Dustin Poirier, and Conor McGregor all in the wings, another shot for Volkanovski at lightweight would feel like an afterthought.

Should Makhachev be victorious, the business decisions of the UFC would likely decide his next move.  Makhachev has ambitions of moving to attempt to become a two-division champion himself, but a big money fight between himself and Justin Gaethje feels far too enticing to leave on the table.  Should Volkanovski pull off the upset, it would be difficult to do anything but complete the trilogy immediately at a tentpole event next year for undisputed  supremacy.