For a pay-per-view card that saw three of its biggest fights need replacement opponents on less than two weeks’ notice, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that Saturday’s UFC 294 event in Abu Dhabi felt like it was off the rails from the very beginning.
The show did carry on as planned despite two no contests, a handful of medical issues, questionable decisions by cageside officials and a five-bout PPV main card that produced less than 25 minutes of actual cage time.
Let’s take a closer look at the biggest takeaways from the UFC’s return to Yas Island in the United Arab Emirates.
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1. UFC needs a solution to governance abroad
Let’s face it, given the large site fees given to the promotion to bring its business to the U.A.E., and the fact that it presumably paid Alexander Volkanovski and Kamaru Usman handsomely to keep the fights atop the marquee intact, Abu Dhabi has become a major event for UFC. Because of that, UFC needs to make sure the commission it uses for these events is competent and on top of their game to avoid the type of hijinks fans witnessed at UFC 294. No less than three fighters admitted after the event that they hid staph infections during pre-fight medical exams. The cageside physician tasked for the event also made questionable (if not egregious) decisions in two bouts that were ruled as no contests. Johnny Walker was never given five full minutes to recover from Magomed Ankalaev’s illegal knee and Victor Henry was outright told he wasn’t hit directly in the groin by Javid Basharat despite replays confirming it. Henry would even go on to be hospitalized for swollen testicles, according to coach Josh Barnett. And then there’s Muhammad Naimov’s unanimous decision over Nathaniel Wood that saw the referee either miss or ignore repeated low blows that could’ve led to a disqualification.
2. Islam Makhachev is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world
Yes, this is a discussion that has already been complicated by UFC’s decision to put Jon Jones atop its P4P rankings following his comeback win to claim the heavyweight title. With no disrespect to Jones, who is likely the greatest fighter in the history of the sport, the real P4P debate of the moment was between Makhachev and featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski. They met for a second time in 2023, some eight months after Makhachev scored a disputed decision over Volkanovski in Australia. This time, even with Volkanovski accepting the fight on just 12 days’ notice, Makhachev fixed the glitch to cement his status as the best fighter in the world at this moment. This wasn’t a case of Volkanovski gassing out due to a lack of a full training camp. Makhachev deserves full credit for the manner in which he controlled the terms of the action leading up to his head-kick knockout just over three minutes into the opening round. Makhachev, the bigger and longer fighter, used calf strikes and kicks to the body to command distance and never let Volkanovski get out of first gear. He also narrowly missed the same fight-ending kick in the opening minute as Volkanovski appeared lucky to sidestep it just in time before succumbing to the same strike moments later. With two wins over Volkanovski and a clean stoppage of former champion Charles Oliveira, who was his original opponent for UFC 294 before suffering a cut, Makhachev has left little doubt over the 12 months as to just how great he truly is.
3. Despite pleas to stay active, Volkanovski needs a break
The concern, in this case, has nothing to do with Volkanovski snapping a 22-fight win streak in February only to now having lost twice to the same fighter in 2023. Instead, it was Volkanovski’s post-fight comments, made both in the cage and during an emotional press conference, which seemed to suggest all is not well for the 145-pound king. A teary-eyed Volkanovski pled with UFC to allow him to turn around quickly, preferably for a return against top featherweight challenger Ilia Topuria in January (provided the cuts above both eyes that were caused by Makhachev on Saturday would properly heal). But the reasoning Volkanovski used for his need to stay so busy at 35 is where the concern comes in. Despite mentioning that he has been blessed with great success, money and a beautiful family, Volkanovski revealed he has dealt with enough depression between fights that the best course of action would be to essentially stay in the cycle of training camp and fight preparation to avoid dealing with it. Given the legitimate concerns of brain trauma, even for a championship fighter like Volkanovski who competes in anything but a reckless style, taking time to deal with his mental-health challenges rather than avoid them would appear to be the safest route. Volkanovski fought just once in 2020 and 2021 but has competed five times in the last 18 months alone. Here’s to hoping one of the greatest fighters in the history of the promotion gets the kind of care and time he needs to bounce back in a safe manner.
4. Khamzat Chimaev left us with more questions than answers
The next big thing in the welterweight and middleweight divisions seems to be focused exclusively on 185 pounds after his unexplained weight fiasco last year. But even though he rebounded from a 13-month layoff to edge former welterweight champion Kamaru Usman on Saturday, securing a shot at new middleweight champion Sean Strickland, Chimaev’s majority decision was anything but convincing. Chimaev dominated the opening round by taking Usman down early and threatening him with ground and pound before coming close on multiple occasions to submitting him. But Chimaev would later claim he injured his right hand during the round and showcased less-than-exemplary cardio the rest of the way as he allowed the experienced Usman back into the fight. The killer instinct Chimaev has previously shown was gone as he looked ordinary in fighting Usman largely on even terms over the final two rounds. Was this simply a case of injury and cage rust coinciding against such a talented (but aging) opponent? Or has Chimaev, from the weight miss against Diaz to the sloppy war he engaged in while edging Gilbert Burns in 2022, shown us that his can’t-miss hype needs to be tempered?
5. Ikram Aliskerov is a scary, scary dude
A native Dagestan, Russia, the 30-year-old Aliskerov brought a reputation as a finisher to UFC when he first took part in the “Dana White Contender Series” last September. It’s a reputation he has now lived up to twice inside the Octagon as he packaged his impressive knockout of Phil Hawes in May with his 129-second demolition of Warlley Alves on Saturday, The fact that Alves was a late replacement for Nassourdine Imavov did nothing to take away the buzz that he’s coming on and is ready to be a factor at 185 pounds. Aliskerov appeared to hurt Alves with every strike he threw while improving to 15-1 overall as a professional. Oh yeah, and Aliskerov’s only defeat? It came against Chimaev back in 2019 in Jordan when he was knocked out in the opening round. Should the two Russian fighters continue to win, a rematch — even, potentially, for a UFC title — isn’t out of the question down the road.