It’s that time, folks. The best fight of the year and one of the most important matchups in UFC history takes place this weekend when Islam Makhachev puts his lightweight title on the line against the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Alexander Volkanovski in the main event of UFC 284. If Makhachev wins, he’ll ascent to the top of the pound-for-pound rankings, and if Volkanovski wins, the question will turn to where among the all-time greats does he rank?
The stakes are enormous so let’s take a look at what each man needs to do to win this marquee matchup and ultimately what will happen on Saturday night.
Paths to Victory for Islam Makhachev at UFC 284
It’s hard to write something new about Makhachev because he, and Khabib Nurmagomedov before him, have such linear games. That’s not a knock on the champion (if anything, it’s a testament to how incredible they both have been as fighters), but everyone knows how they win/won, it’s just a matter of can they do it. If Makhachev wins on Saturday, it will be because he was able to score takedowns and hold the position, or score takedowns and finish Volkanovski.
Okay, but how does he do that?
Well, mostly by doing what he always does. Like Khabib, most of Makhachev’s takedowns come from the clinch. He can (and has) succeeded with shot takedowns or reactive doubles, but mostly he gets into a tie up off of a striking exchange and then goes to work, off-balancing his opponents and chaining techniques together until he gets the desired outcome. There’s a reason he has a 68 percent takedown success rate, and it’s not because he’s lucky.
I expect Volkanovski will do everything in his power to avoid engagements, but Makhachev is exceedingly well-studied. Javier Mendez and company have done an exceptional job with game planning over the years, and preparing counters to the opponents, and that’s to be expected here. Volkanovski uses low kicks liberally on the feet, both to offset his size disadvantage and to disrupt the timing of his opponents. I will be shocked if Makhachev doesn’t come in preparing to either catch a kick and initiate a takedown sequence or simple sit down on a left hand counter. Makhachev has excellent timing on his counters (as Charles Oliveira found out) and that can send Volkanovski to his butt as easily as a double-leg can.
Which brings me to the other key takeaway for Makhachev here: he can be confident in his striking. Yes, Volkanovski is undoubtedly the better striker, but an under-discussed aspect of this fight is the power advantage Makhachev has. Volkanovski is a crisp and accurate striker, but he’s not icing people, even at featherweight. Makhachev, meanwhile, has done just that, against far bigger men. Every exchange for Makhachev is an opportunity to either finish the fight or create contact to initiate a takedown. For Volkanovski, they are risk-reward propositions where he can score points. That’s a pretty major advantage for the lightweight champion.
The final point for Makhachev and the one that is the most fascinating to me is how he manages top control. It seems very likely Makhachev will be able to get takedowns, but can he maintain position? We have no reason to doubt him as he’s done it to nearly everyone, but unlike Oliveira, Volkanovski will be doing everything to dig underhooks and stand back up, not trying to grapple with Makhachev. If Makhachev cannot simply ragdoll Volkanovski on the floor, he needs to make sure the times he does get top control, he’s doing damage. Because as the fight goes on, Volkanovski will still be there, and Makhachev may need to build a lead if things aren’t coming easy for him.
Paths to victory for Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 284
Again, it’s tough to say something new about how to approach fighting Islam Makhachev, because it all boils down to, “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON’T GET TAKEN DOWN!” Tt’s the same here: for Volkanovski, the floor is lava on Saturday night. And so, as I see it, there are two paths forward for Volkanovski.
The most obvious one, and the one I suspect he will try at first, is to simply avoid the ground altogether. Volkanovski is the superior technical striker, he’s faster, has better footwork, and excellent timing. Volkanovski can come out with the intention of staying on his bike, presenting angles, never giving Makhachev a clean look at an entry or tie-ups, and content to pile up damage on the outside. Given Volkanovski’s presumed edge in cardio, this plan’s success rate goes up as the fight drags on and takedowns become more difficult.
In this plan, Volkanovski would be best served by being the one backing up Makhachev, and certainly never allowing himself to be corralled to the fence (the fence is where the bulk of Makhachev’s takedowns come and as such, is also lava), and if he should get taken down, UP, GET UP! This is a viable gameplan but one that requires near perfect execution. Granted, we’ve seen Volkanovski pull off near perfect before, but it’s a narrow path to walk.
Instead, I’d like to suggest a different path for Volkanovski: friggin’ going for it.
The fundamental problem that faces Volkanovski in this fight is that Makhachev is the more dangerous fighter. Volkanovski has made a career out of solving problems through adaptation, but at some point, the physical disparity is too much, so Volkanovski needs to change that math. If Volkanovski tries to out point him, that’s a long 25 minutes, particularly if Makhachev doesn’t end up fearing Volkanovski’s striking. So, make him afraid.
Makhachev is still not a wildly comfortable striker and he can absolutely be drawn into brawls (the limited success Charles Oliveira had against him was when he charge in and Makhachev swung back recklessly). Every moment Makhachev is punching is a moment he isn’t taking you down, so make than an enticing proposition. Get in the inside and let fly, defense be damned, and really sit down on your punches. You might become the lightweight champion with one, and you will at the minimum get the respect you’re going to need to keep him from taking you down relentlessly.
Ahead of the Oliveira fight, I compared Islam Makhachev to Isaac Newton, saying he inevitably solves all problems. Volkanovski should introduce a little anarchy to the equation though, and see how that changes the math.
I’m genuinely not sure what to make of both men heading into this one. Normally, I would say fighting in someone’s home country would favor that fighter, but Makhachev, frankly, seems like it’s fueling him up. In all of the pre-fight media and videos, the lightweight champion is carrying himself like a man without a care in the world. He seems exceedingly confident, if not downright enthusiastic at the possibility of fighting Volkanovski.
Volkanovski, meanwhile, certainly doesn’t seem nervous but he has a pretty clear chip on his shoulder for reasons that remain unclear. Makhachev hasn’t really done anything to him yet Volkanovski is out here threatening to “wipe that smirk off his face” and getting upset that Makhachev is disrespecting the culture because he didn’t show up to a party of some kind. I’m not really sure what to make of it. He had a chip on his shoulder going into the third Max Holloway fight and delivered one of the best performances ever though, so maybe this is just him gearing up for the fight.
Alexander Volkanovski absolutely can win this fight, I just don’t think he will. For Volkanovski to win, he has to fight at his best, while Makhachev only needs to be good, and that sort of advantage means I’m always going to pick the other guy. In the end, weight classes exist for a reason.
Islam Makhachev def. Alexander Volkanovski by submission (rear-naked choke) at 2:45 of Round 3.
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