The UFC’s 18th visit to Abu Dhabi commences on Saturday as the MMA global leader returns to the U.A.E. hotbed for the first time since last October with a star-studded UFC 294 pay-per-view event.
Despite three of the five bouts on the main card needing last-minute tinkering, expectations remain high after featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski accepted a lightweight title rematch with Islam Makhachev on just 12 days’ notice in the main event. The co-feature will see former welterweight champion Kamaru Usman make his 185-pound debut against rising star Khamzat Chimaev.
As we draw closer to the start of this weekend’s action, let’s take a look at the biggest storylines surrounding the event.
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1. When forced to scramble, UFC is at its very best
How does one replace the loss of its two biggest fights on less than two weeks’ notice? If you’re the UFC, it’s all about finding the right kind of star power to repair such a gaping hole. But in the case of UFC 294, it’s fair to argue that all of the recent changes have done nothing but upgrade the card as a whole. For anyone lamenting the loss of Charles Oliveira, who suffered a bad cut above his right eye in sparring, and what that means for his originally scheduled rematch with Makhachev, substituting in the pound-for-pound king in Volkanovski is no small feat. The same can be said for the injury recovery concerns that pulled Paulo Costa from his middleweight clash with Chimaev, not too long after undergoing surgery to his elbow. Usman is not only a bigger name in terms of a replacement, the opponent upgrade was enough for UFC president Dana White to announce that the Chimaev-Usman winner will get the next shot at 185-pound champion Sean Strickland as a reward for saving the event. Considering Usman’s history of having already beaten Strickland back in 2017 at welterweight, and all it does is add yet another intriguing layer to Saturday’s proceedings.
2. Alexander Volkanovski finds himself in a no-lose situation
Short of getting knocked out cold and being injured, the reigning 145-pound champion enters a risk/reward scenario in his second meeting with Makhachev that leans heavily into the latter. Considering the bottle-necked depth upon both the featherweight and lightweight divisions, there’s no telling whether a much-anticipated rematch between respective champions would ever happen. Yet, Volkanovski performed so well in coming up just short against Makhachev in their February thriller, losing by disputed unanimous decision, that a second fight is still needed. Because of the last-minute nature, however, it takes a lot of pressure off of Volkanovski to succeed, which gives him a bit of a pass to roll the dice in terms of danger. Volkanovski has already shared publicly that he doesn’t have the requisite five-round cardio necessary for a repeat of the first fight and is focused upon scoring a stoppage. Should Volkanovski succeed and become a two-division champion, it would not only shake up the sport, it would represent a doubling down of his legacy while opening up opportunities for blockbuster fights (think Conor McGregor) that wouldn’t be there without. Volkanovski already has plans to defend his featherweight title in January against the dangerous Ilia Topuria and isn’t ruling out such a fast return regardless of whether he defeats Makhachev. It’s rare enough in MMA for the top two P4P fighters to get a chance to face off. It’s even more rare to get a rematch, especially one with so much at stake.
3. Kamaru Usman faces no shortage of questions only he can answer
At age 36, nursing notoriously bad knees, just how well Usman does in his middleweight debut — on short notice, no less — opposite one of the most devastating fighters in all of MMA remains a fairly large narrative for the native of Nigeria to dispel. After starting his Octagon run with 15 consecutive victories, which left him one shy of Anderson Silva’s vaunted UFC record, Usman dropped a pair of PPV headlining title bouts with Leon Edwards. Usman, who had previously dominated Edwards in their first meeting back in 2015, led for the majority of their 2022 rematch until losing via dramatic head kick in the final round. But his inability to best Edwards in their March trilogy, which Usman lost via majority decision, left many wondering whether time and mileage had caught up with the former champion. While wrestling has long been Usman’s calling card, the combination of injuries and age brings into question whether he can still operate on the ground at the same level he once did. And the questions only increase from there when looking at the well-rounded skills and violent tendencies of someone like Chimaev. With White having added the stipulation of the winner getting a title shot, this is Usman’s best opportunity to reinsert himself atop the sport. But it’s also dangerous enough of a test that a disastrous loss could mean the end of Usman’s incredible career.
4. Can Khamzat Chimaev put the stain of UFC 279 behind him?
From the moment he made his Octagon debut in 2020, through a trio of stoppage wins during the same calendar year that formally announced him, UFC fans have been waiting for Chimaev to prove whether all this hype is for real. A series of detours and pitfalls have prevented the native of Chechnya from fully proving that, including a pair of difficult battles with COVID in 2021 that left Chimaev publicly considering retirement. But nothing threw Chimaev fans for a loop quite like what took place last September in Las Vegas at UFC 279. Tasked with the ultimate showcase fight in his PPV main event opportunity opposite an exiting Nate Diaz, Chimaev bizarrely missed weight by nearly eight pounds. The reasons why still don’t seem to add up. And even though Chimaev partially redeemed himself by destroying replacement opponent Kevin Holland (after Diaz refused to face him) in just over two minutes, we still don’t know how great Chimaev actually is. The only thing his massive weight miss succeeded in doing was UFC forcing the former two-division threat to focus his efforts on middleweight. And now that a title shot is in place for the winner, Chimaev has a chance to finally make good on the insanely large potential he first brought with him to the UFC and fueled him through devastating early wins over the likes of Gerald Meerschaert and Li Jingaling.
5. One blemish later, Magomed Ankalaev resumes 205-pound title journey
Considering the chaos at light heavyweight following devastating injuries to then-champions Jiri Prochazka and Jamahal Hill, Ankalaev’s return on Saturday against the red-hot Johnny Walker presents an interesting scenario for the division. UFC has yet to fully commit to what the future title plans are for the division. And the last time we saw the 18-1-1 Ankalev compete, the native of Dagestan fought former champion Jan Blachowicz to a disappointing split draw that left the vacant UFC light heavyweight title just that, creating an opening for the Hill-Glover Teixeira slugfest that produced the next champion. Although Ankalaev was less than exciting against Blachowicz, no less than 23 of 25 media members who scored the contest felt that he had done enough to win. Both Ankalaev and Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov were bitter about the scoring and shared their displeasure about UFC’s decision to book Hill-Texeira publicly. Either way, it would be difficult to deny Ankalaev a second shot at UFC gold should he defeat Walker in spectacular fashion.