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UFC 284 takeaways: Islam Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski reignites the war over meaning of pound-for-pound

The UFC’s latest superfight delivered. In a hellacious affair, Islam Makhachev edged out Alexander Volkanovski via unanimous decision to fend off the UFC featherweight champion and defend Makhachev’s lightweight title in the main event of UFC 284. The bout headlined an raucous return to Perth, Australia, which also saw Yair Rodriguez capture an interim featherweight belt with a second-round submission of Josh Emmett, Jack Della Maddalena thrill his hometown crowd with a first-round statement win, plus much more.

With so much to discuss, let’s hit our five biggest takeaways from UFC 284.

1. Legitimate superfights of this magnitude rarely come around in MMA, so hey, let’s go full Inception today and do five takeaways within a takeaway for our champs, shall we?

1A. How else could we start? I am so ridiculously impressed by Alexander Volkanovski. What a fighter. What a man. What a champion. If you saw UFC 284’s main event and came away anything less than amazed by the talents of the featherweight king, I question whether you know what you’re watching. Before UFC 284, Charles Oliveira landed more significant strikes on Islam Makhachev than anyone else had in the UFC. His tally? Nineteen.

Volkanovski blew that number out of the water. He not only topped Makhachev in significant strikes (70 vs. 54), he also obliterated Makhachev in total strikes (164 vs. 95) and showed off better defensive chops against that Dagestani wrestling than anyone before. By any measure, Volkanovski blew away every expectation many of the brightest minds in MMA had for him. He dared to be great and emerged from Saturday night smelling like roses, even despite the loss. Anyone who dings Volkanovski’s stock after this can kick rocks.

1B. We just watched the conversation starter for 2023’s Fight of the Year. Not only was Makhachev vs. Volkanovski dazzling theater, the Perth crowd made the 25-minute affair an even more electric experience with their pillar-to-post fervor. Every swing in momentum felt properly gigantic. If you’re the UFC, you have to take Volkanovski back to Australia after that, right? The man came off like a superstar. It’s a total layup. Don’t mess this up, guys.

We also just watched the best superfight in UFC history, at least in terms of pure in-cage action. There have been seven champion vs. champion UFC matchups so far, yet none have come close to matching the rollicking twists and turns Saturday’s main event gave us. Makhachev vs. Volkanovski somehow exceeded the hype. It’s not often you can say that.

1C. The bout’s scoring will be hotly debated for the rest of 2023, I’m sure, but I saw it the same as the judges. I had it 48-47 Makhachev, with Makhachev winning rounds one, two, and four. The first two rounds were the swing rounds, in particular Round 2. That said, Volkanovski wins by PRIDE rules, so I understand why people are upset. He did the most damage and did the most with his positions, and if this baby goes another round or two, Volkanovski probably pulls it off. But alas, that’s not how this game works.

Makhachev is the deserving winner, for better or worse. No robbery here.

1D. Is it stupid to say I’m not sure if Saturday’s result should be enough to definitively take away the No. 1 pound-for-pound spot from Volkanovski?

I’ll caveat that by admitting Makhachev will be my new No. 1 come Monday once our rankings update releases. But I also don’t feel particularly great about it. Volkanovski certainly looked like the best fighter in the world on Saturday night — a fighter who just so happened to be noticeably smaller than the other champion standing across from him.

If nothing else, UFC 284 reopens the war over the true meaning of pound-for-pound. Should the criteria more heavily favor who wins an actual head-to-head matchup between fighters of somewhat comparable sizes? Or should we throw a result like UFC 284 into the trash and limit the conversation strictly to who would win a hypothetical head-to-head battle if both fighters were actually the same exact size, rather than just hitting the same number on the scale for 10 brief minutes on weigh-in day? In this case, I’m torn. It’s such a nebulous argument, I don’t really know the answer. Fun debate, though.

1E. For real, though: Which lightweight in the world is really going to beat Islam Makhachev?

Take nothing away from that man — he defeated Alexander Volkanovski. That’s one hell of a feat, one which cannot be understated. His Round 4 level change, which ultimately swung the fight, was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Makhachev has made the lightweight division his own personal plaything for the past seven years, and it’s hard to see anyone out there who’s going to give him a more well-rounded and hard-fought challenge than what Volkanovski presented on Saturday. Beneil Dariush probably has the best chance with his dangerous mix of grappling savagery and standup power, but after that, I continue to believe we’re looking at a long and likely record-breaking reign for Dagestan’s second son.

Remember, the record for most consecutive UFC lightweight title defenses only stands at three. Makhachev has No. 1 in the books. I won’t be betting against him for No. 2.

2. My friends, I believe we just witnessed the great leveling up of Yair Rodriguez.

Make no mistake, what Rodriguez did to Josh Emmett? That was a special performance. The type of culminating moment where everything finally comes together in a manner I wasn’t sure would ever happen for him. Just think about it — consider the journey Rodriguez has taken us on. Consider how much promise he showed early on as the first TUF: Latin America winner, and then how ***outright bizarre*** these past six years have really been.

Because honestly, few roads have been weirder. Since mid-2017, Rodriguez suffered an absolute blowout, come-to-Jesus type of defeat to Frankie Edgar that imploded all the hype he had coming off of TUF; was briefly cut by the UFC in 2018 due to the drama surrounding his supposed refusal to fight Zabit Magomedsharipov; pulled off the flukiest of all fluky victories in a fight he was literally one second away from losing against Chan Sung Jung; wasted all of 2019 on the Jeremy Stephens saga; wasted all of 2020 with injuries and a silly USADA whereabouts suspension; lost his only fight of 2021 in a competitive yet highly damaging outing with Max Holloway; wasted all of 2022 with a nothing-burger result against Brian Ortega that lasted all of four minutes before ending in a fluky shoulder injury.

Through it all, Rodriguez never quite put everything together. It always felt as if there was another level inside of him, another gear just waiting to be unlocked.

That changed on Saturday.

At UFC 284, Rodriguez was the best possible version of himself — dynamic, fast, creative, freakishly long for the division, and dangerous as all hell. Saturday’s main event only made sense because Volkanovski was stuck waiting for someone at 145 pounds to establish themselves as a compelling contender. Well, consider that contender established. Volkanovski vs. Rodriguez is now as good of a featherweight fight as one could cook up.

Volkanovski will be favored, no doubt, but if you doubt whether the Rodriguez who showed up on Saturday is capable of beating anyone on a given night, you’re out of your mind.

3. Jack Della Maddalena is for real, ladies and gentlemen.

Randy Brown is nobody’s fool at 170 pounds, yet Jackie Three Names cut through him faster and more efficiently than anyone before. That’s the type of performance to launch a prospect overnight into the type of fights that actually matter. And you know what? I’m here for it. Between Khamzat Chimaev and Shavkat Rakhmonov, the new era of talent rising up the ranks at welterweight was already tantalizing — adding Della Maddalena to that mix feels almost cruel to the old warhorses still milling around the top of the division.

Australia’s own may not be in that same class yet as welterweight’s fearsome Eastern Europeans, but his time is coming. Let’s vault the 26-year-old into the top 15 and see how high he can fly. Give me Della Maddalena vs. Vicente Luque for all the violence.

4. I question your humanity if you’re able to watch Jens Pulver’s live reaction to his induction into the 2023 UFC Hall of Fame class and not feel a little tingle deep in your soul.

The UFC’s Hall of Fame has been a mixed bag of tricks over the years, but it’s an honor that has long been at the forefront of Pulver’s mind. No one in MMA campaigned for their place among the UFC’s best as passionately and painstakingly as the promotion’s first lightweight champion. And deservedly so. In many ways, Pulver has become a forgotten figure of MMA’s cowboy era. “Lil’ Evil” was one of the division’s preeminent purveyors of chaos well before lightweight was even a real weight class. He was also one of Miletich Fighting Systems’ Four Horsemen of the UFC at a time when the sport ran through Bettendorf, Iowa.

Pulver’s year in 2001, book-ended by seismic upsets over Caol Uno and B.J. Penn, rocked the sport and established why the lightweights deserved their place in MMA. He ended up adrift on the global scene for a time after that, having been one of the first causalities of UFC champions unsuccessfully leveraging their position into a bigger payday, but returned in 2007 to once again help reestablish the lightweight division’s position in the sport. His time on The Ultimate Fighter 5 opposite B.J. Penn remains the best season TUF has ever produced. (For real, go back and look at the list of names and talents that season gave us.)

Pulver even had an unexpected third act in the WEC, his stunning 23-second submission of Cub Swanson setting up a historic fight with Urijah Faber in 2008 that helped cement the featherweight division’s position in the sport as well, just as he’d done at 155 pounds.

Saturday’s honor was a long time coming and long overdue, but the UFC got this one right. There won’t be a dry eye in the house for Pulver’s Hall of Fame speech this summer.

5. You know what? I dig the point deduction by Marc Goddard amid the chaos of Jimmy Crute vs. Alonzo Menifield. There aren’t many referees in MMA who would’ve confidently taken a point from Menifield for his Round 3 fence grab, but hey, them’s the rules. Just because a fight is a banger doesn’t mean they should get thrown out the window.

Goddard’s decision resulted in one of the more entertaining draws we’ll likely see all year. It also resulted in one hell of a moral victory for Crute. The man appeared to be dead to rights at Menifield’s hands seemingly 600 times in the first seven or eight minutes of that fight yet somehow made it out to the other side. Incredible scenes all around. That’s how you open a pay-per-view. Crute already said he wants to run it back, so who am I to argue?

Book it, UFC. And while you’re at it, break these men off a little something extra financially for their troubles. As coach Eric Nicksick pointed out Saturday, the UFC cashed a $6 million dollar gate out there in Perth, yet just four fighters took home $200,000 in bonuses? And neither Crute nor Menifield got a win bonus already budgeted out for the event, despite Crute probably losing a year off his own career from all the damage Menifield inflicted?

Nah, man. Feels gross.

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