Islam Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski 2 was the only title fight at UFC 294, but the card had championship implications for at least three divisions. There is much to consider in the aftermath of Saturday’s Abu Dhabi card.
Makhachev scored a stunning first-round knockout over short-notice replacement Volkanovski on Saturday. Volkanovski accepted the untenable task of fighting Makhachev on roughly 10 days’ notice after Charles Oliveira was forced off the card with an injury. Makhachev, following consecutive title defenses against Volkanovski, can look ahead to his next challenge.
Saturday also marked the long-awaited return of Khamzat Chimaev. The mauler earned his right to fight UFC middleweight champion Sean Strickland with a competitive win over former welterweight titleholder Kamaru Usman.
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Let’s examine the best fights to make for the main event and co-main event fighters at UFC 294.
UFC lightweight championship — Islam Makhachev vs. Justin Gaethje: This might ruffle some feathers, but I’d rather see Gaethje get the next title shot over Charles Oliveira. While both men have solid cases, I often prefer the fresh matchup. Oliveira looked revitalized against Beneil Dariush, but he is only one fight removed from being thrashed by the reigning champ. Gaethje is riding consecutive wins and scored a KO of the Year contender against Dustin Poirier to become the ceremonial BMF champion. Makhachev has also expressed his preference for new challengers over rematches. Count me among Gaethje’s supporters despite UFC president Dana White stating that Oliveira is most deserving of a title shot.
UFC featherweight championship — Alexander Volkanovski vs. Ilia Topuria: Volkanovski said his work at lightweight is done for now. That’s a relief to hear. Volkanovski deserves all the respect in the world for taking on Makhachev on 10 days’ notice, but a second loss to the lightweight champ confirms that Volkanovski is best suited for 145 pounds. Ilia Topuria is one of the more interesting featherweight contenders in recent memory and can really test Volkanovski. The promotion reportedly targeted Volkanovski vs. Topuria for the rumored UFC 297 card in January before Volkanovski saved UFC 294. All parties want to move forward with the original plan. Volkanovski wants to keep busy and Topuria is hungry for his shot. White said he loved the idea of Volkanovski vs. Topuria in January if the featherweight champ gets medical clearance. Three months is possibly enough time for Volkanovski to recover, but you can’t help but worry about the quick turnaround after such a tough loss.
UFC middleweight championship — Sean Strickland vs. Khamzat Chimaev: This one is a no-brainer. White originally announced Chimaev vs. Usman as a title eliminator. The fight is arguably more interesting after Saturday’s co-main event. Chimaev lived up to expectations with a dominant first round but nearly let the fight slip against a short-notice opponent moving up in weight. In Chimaev’s defense, that short-notice opponent is arguably the second-best welterweight champion in UFC history. The idea that Chimaev underperformed adds to the intrigue. Strickland over-delivered in a shocking upset victory over Israel Adesanya. Strickland, equipped with some of MMA’s best coaches at Xtreme Couture, will work diligently to exploit any weaknesses they saw from Chimaev at UFC 294.
Kamaru Usman vs. Belal Muhammad or Vicente Luque-Ian Machado Garry winner: How quickly things change. Two years ago, fans wondered how close Usman was to dethroning Georges St-Pierre as the all-time greatest welterweight. Usman has since suffered three consecutive losses. Usman fought valiantly on short notice in a new weight class on Saturday. He survived a terrible Round 1 and roared to life in the second and third. Usman can go in two directions depending on your confidence level. Belal Muhammad is overdue for a welterweight title shot. A marquee win over Usman should do the job, unless Muhammad has reason to believe he can wait for the winner of Leon Edwards vs. Colby Covington. Conversely, Usman could re-enter the title picture by snapping Muhammad’s 10-fight undefeated streak. Usman could also take a further step back and face the hungry contender who emerges from Luque vs. Garry.