UFC 294 takes place tomorrow in Abu Dhabi and we’ve got our predictions for all the fights below.
Islam Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski
Featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski has been granted his wish to challenge lightweight titleholder Islam Makhachev for a second time after losing out on the scorecards in a competitive fight last year. However, the catch is that he’s had to take the fight on less than two week’s notice as a a late replacement for Charles Oliveira.
The 35-year-old Volkanovski gave a very good account of himself in their first fight back in February, despite being at a size disadvantage. On the feet his speed, timing and technique were still evident at 155lbs, enabling him to navigate the 4″ difference in height, while his cardio also remained on-point and he showed he could hurt Makhachev at times, even dropping him in the final round.
Meanwhile, though Makhachev was able to get him down on several occasions, Volkanovski didn’t make it easy for him and stuffed several takedown attempts as well as showing his ability to scramble and find ways back to his feet.
Still, as well as Volkanovski did, Makhachev perhaps doesn’t get enough credit for the fact that he was able to beat a fighter who had gotten the better of so many top-flight fighters at featherweight. Makhachev’s wrestling perhaps wasn’t as dominant as he would have liked, but it still played a pivotal role in his victory. Meanwhile, despite not being as technical and battle-proven as Volkanovski on the feet, he still did well to stay competitive there. He might not have been as active as the 145lb king, but he had good accuracy and showcased the power that helped finish Charles Oliveira by hurting Volkanovski more than once, which is not something we’re used to seeing.
Volkanovski’s excellent cardio and work-rate was an important factor late in the first fight, so it’s unfortunate that the short-notice nature of his call-up might hinder his ability to replicate that this time around. If anyone can still overcome that though it’s him as he’s a fighter who stays in good shape all year round and is extremely mentally strong.
Even so, the fact that Makhachev has had a long fight camp to prepare for his next fight (albeit against a different opponent), is big for him and I do believe that Volkanovski pushing him so hard last time out will have highlighted areas for the champ to improve and as such he’ll be better than ever this time around. So I expect another highly competitive fight, but feel that once again Makhachev will have his moments on the feet and lean on his wrestling advantage to help win rounds to edge out a decision victory.
Pick: Islam Makhachev wins by decision.
Kamaru Usman vs. Khamzat Chimaev
Another high-profile late replacement, ex-welterweight champ Kamaru Usman agreed to step in for Paulo Costa against Khamzat Chimaev on less than two week’s notice.
It’s a match-up that not all that long ago was considered a dream fight at 170lbs when Usman was still the long-reigning champion and Chimaev was proving himself to be a stand-out talent in the weight-class. However, back-to-back losses against Leon Edwards has taken some of the shine off Usman, while weight issues at 170lbs have forced Chimaev to seek title glory at 185lbs instead.
Nevertheless, this remains a compelling stylistic clash. Chimaev is an impressively dominant wrestler who has been able to manhandle opponents at both 170lbs and 185lbs, while showing ruthless finishing instincts on the mat via both ground-and-pound and submissions. However, Usman has also been known for his excellent wrestling ability too, so this is a far tougher test than the likes of a Kevin Holland or Li Jingliang have been for him.
Meanwhile, Chimaev may not be the most refined technical striker, but he’s possesses big power, is fast for his size and his durability and determination reinforce his aggressive finishing instincts. Usman has done well to improve on his striking over the years too, developing robust boxing fundamentals, which paired with his strong cardio have enabled him to push a high-volume style successfully in five-round title fights.
So skill-wise these are two terrific talents. However, when it comes to Usman there are some real concerns heading into this fight, and not just because he’s stepping in on short notice and up a weight class. By itself his first loss to Leon Edwards isn’t overly concerning either as he was winning that fight handily before the head kick KO out of the blue in the final round. What was very troubling though was how he performed in the rematch back in March.
Whether that head kick KO loss had taken a bigger toll on him than we’d thought or age and old injuries were just finally catching up to him, the now 36-year-old Usman just didn’t look like his usual self in that fight, instead looking slower, less sure of himself and struggling to step up the gears when it mattered.
It could have just been an off-night, and to be fair to him he still only lost by majority decision, but it does lead to a feeling of unease heading into this one, and that’s only enhanced by persistent talk of him having knee troubles. As such it’s hard not to feel like out-of-sorts Usman fighting an in-his-prime, hungry lion like Chimaev up a weight-class on short notice is asking for trouble and so I think ‘Borz’ battles his way to a second round TKO finish here.
Pick: Khamzat Chimaev wins by TKO in Rd2.
Magomed Ankalaev vs. Johnny Walker
Magomed Ankalaev’s unbeaten run currently stretches to 10 fights, but that does include a split-draw in his last fight against Jan Blachowicz in an interim 205lb title fight. And the UFC didn’t see fit to give him another shot at the belt straight away, instead lining up against Johnny Walker instead, who has managed to navigate beyond a disappointing string of result to compile a three-fight winning streak.
Anakalev is a patient, economical and technical striker who works well on the outside, using kicks to maintain distance while looking for openings to land punches or counter-strike. He also can be effective in the clinch and has a sturdy wrestling game which he can use to control the action on top for extended periods if required, preferring to opts for positional dominance rather than go all-out for a finish.
Ankalaev’s risk-adverse approach is in direct contrast to the way his opponent Walker used to fight, as the Brazilian was an all-action offensive striker whose athletic, creative but reckless style resulted in some big highlight reel wins and some equally big losses during his early run in the UFC.
Walker then attempted to reign in his wild-man instincts, which led to a painful adjustment process as he struggled to adapt, leading to more losses. He has since turned things around and got back to winning ways, and the fact that he’s a large 205lb’er who will have a 3″ height and 7″ reach advantage over Ankalev certainly is a plus point. That being said, it still feels like a bit of a Jeckll & Hyde fighter who still has to constantly struggle with his desire to just go-for-broke.
Walker’s size and power will be problematic for Ankalaev and could make it tricky for him to work from his preferred range on the feet, though I do think he would find significant opportunities for counter-strikes there. However, I think Ankalaev’s grinding clinch work and wrestling advantage will provide another avenue to victory here that he’ll gladly take.
Pick: Magomed Ankalaev wins by decision.
Ikram Aliskerov vs. Warlley Alves
Ikram Aliskerov made an impact in his UFC debut in May by KO’ing Phil Hawes and now affording his next opponent Nassourdine Imavov pulled out he goes up against Warlley Alves instead, who steps up to 185lbs on around three weeks notice.
Aliskerov was also in the running for a fight with Paul Costa at point, so the UFC brass have certainly taken notice of the four-time World Combat Sambo champ. There’s certainly a lot to like as he is a a good all-rounder who has considerable power on the feet and will have a 4″ reach advantage here, while he also has a strong wrestling game and can pose a threat via submissions too.
Even if he’d had a full fight camp I still think this would have been a tricky fight for Alves as Aliskerov appears to have the advantage in both striking and wrestling here and I’ll take him to find a TKO finish by the second round.
Pick: Ikram Aliskerov wins by TKO in Rd2.
Said Nurmagomedov vs. Muin Gafurov
Said Nurmagomedov did well to win six of his first seven fights in the promotion, but did then lose by decision to Jonathan Martinez earlier in the year. Now he provides a tough test for Muin Gafurov, who is looking for his first win in the UFC after losing in his debut back in June.
Nurmagomedov hails from Dagestan but isn’t a member of the famous fighting family that has immortalized that surname and that shows in his fighting style as he’s much more striking orientated. Nurmagomedov frequently uses versatile kicks to all levels as a primary weapon and while he’s not a particularly big hitter he does have good speed and timing. Meanwhile, despite his wrestling not being at the level of his namesakes, he’s still very capable there when required and can grapple too.
Gafurov is an action-orientated fighter who has a full-blooded approach to both his striking and wrestling. That certainly makes him challenging to deal with, but does leave him open to counters and can also compromise his cardio the longer the fight goes.
This should be fairly competitive, but I feel Nurmagomedov will be able to hold his own in the wrestling department while getting the better of the striking exchanges with his kicking game to secure a win on the scorecards.
Pick: Said Nurmagomedov wins by decision.
Prelims (Predicted winners in bold)
Tim Elliott vs. Muhammad Mokaev
Mohammad Yahya vs. Trevor Peek
Javid Basharat vs. Victor Henry
Abu Azaitar vs. Sedriques Dumas
Mike Breeden vs. Anshul Jubli
Nathaniel Wood vs. Muhammad Naimov
Jinh Yu Frey vs. Viktoriya Dudakova
Bruno Silva vs. Shara Magomedov