There’s no doubt UFC 284 is top heavy. The main event is one of the most anticipated contests in the past several years as Alexander Volkanvoski looks to claim Islam Makhachev’s lightweight title. After all, it isn’t every day that two fighters at the top of the P4P list collide. Hell, it isn’t every year either. The co-main event between Yair Rodriguez and Josh Emmett may being fighting for an interim belt, but it could very well become the featherweight title if Volkanovski becomes the lightweight champion. After all, no one has been able to actively defend a title in two divisions. For those of you who want to point to Amanda Nunes reigning over women’s bantamweight and featherweight, we all know that’s a farce. Those two divisions are the most shallow divisions in the promotion, the featherweight division not having enough full-time bodies to take up all the fingers on one hand.
Off my tangent, even if you’re not a fan of the champ-champ idea, this is a special fight that should be appreciated for what it is. Makhachev may not have a title defense under his belt, but he was long considered to be the heir apparent to the lightweight throne. That’s what happens when you do nothing to dissuade the praise being showered on you by a teammate who is considered a GOAT. As for Volkanovski, he scratched and clawed his way to the top of P4P rankings, growing more dominant with each passing performance. Something has to give between these two. I’m excited to find out what that is.
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Islam Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski, Featherweight
It’s too bad there isn’t a higher degree of flash to either of these gentlemen. Makhachev may be Khabib Nurmagomedov’s protégé, but he isn’t as personable as Khabib. Not that Khabib was overflowing with personality, but the former champion knew how to get attention. For instance, Khabib allowed Abel Trujillo to stand up time and again, just so Khabib could drag him down every time. In the process, Khabib set the UFC record for takedowns in a contest at 21. That he did so in a three round contest is even crazier. As for Makhachev, you won’t see any shenanigans like that. There won’t be any telling his opponent they must quit as pounds them out. Makhachev just cares about winning. Fortunately, he’s really good at that.
What hurts Makhachev’s marketability even more is there is no Conor McGregor at the forefront to pull him into the spotlight. While I don’t see anyone arguing against Volkanovski being a better fighter than McGregor, he doesn’t have the media profile of the former two-division champion possesses either. What Volkanovski has done is appeal to the MMA fanbase as opposed to the media in general. Sure, Volkanovski isn’t flamboyant in his presentation. But he has beaten Max Holloway on three separate occasions, including their most recent contest in which Volkanovski cruised to a decision. Holloway isn’t just an all-time great; he was also in his prime in each of those contests.
What makes Volkanovski so good is his intelligence. It isn’t that he isn’t a good athlete; he is. It isn’t that he isn’t heavy-handed; he is. However, he isn’t elite in any of those areas. Despite that, he’s able to maximize his abilities and exploit his opponents’ weaknesses due to him being a persistent student of the game. Plus, he’s well-rounded and technical enough that there is no blatant weaknesses in his arsenal. There are criticisms that could be made here and there – as is the case with any fighter – but it is exceptionally difficult to fault his overall approach, especially given he’s undefeated in the UFC.
Along the lines of not having any true weakness, it’s because Volkanovski tends to find ways to turn weaknesses into potential problems for his opponents. For instance, though he’s compact for the featherweight division, he’s turned himself into an absolute brickhouse. He’s able to stack more muscle on himself inch for inch, making himself incredibly difficult to get out from underneath or even take down. Plus, his short frame with his unusually long reach allows him to land his jab from angles his opponents aren’t used to. You’d better believe Volkanovski makes great use of that, often doubling and tripling up on it.
Unfortunately for him, there is a reason weight classes exist. As much as everyone loves to proclaim that size doesn’t matter, that isn’t true. It doesn’t mean it can’t be overcome, but it certainly matters. While Volkanovski is a powerhouse at featherweight, he’s undeniably undersized for lightweight. By comparison, there’s no way Makhachev would be able to effectively cut enough weight to get himself down to 145. And while Volkanovski’s takedown defense is solid, it isn’t impenetrable. When Makhachev finds the angle he likes for a takedown, he’s likely to finish the job. That Volkanovski is on the small side for the division works against the featherweight champion, at least in this contest.
Aside from that, there’s a bit of a fun contrast between Volkanovski and Makhachev. Whereas Volkanovski gameplans to maximize his offensive capabilities, there may not be a more defensive minded elite fighter in the history of MMA. Makhachev was reckless in his lone career loss — a one-punch KO loss in 2015 – and he has been anything but that since. Over his 13-fight UFC career, Makhachev absorbs less than one significant strike per minute. He’s only been taken down twice. Sure, it creates a for a lot of moments in his fights where he and his opponents are staring at one another as Makhachev either waits for them to make the first move or for an ideal opening.
That patience is what has made Makhachev gain a reputation as a boring fighter, but it has also been integral to his success. He’s not going to be pressured into changing his approach based on outside pressure. However, Makhachev proved he can fight at a faster pace against Charles Oliveira. Hell, he proved he’s a threat on the feet too, blasting Oliviera with a single punch before finishing him off with a power submission. I don’t foresee Makhachev winning a back-and-forth striking battle given Volkanovski has proven he can push a ridiculous pace with a wide variety of strikes over five rounds. That said, it isn’t hard to see Makhachev putting an early stop to the contest behind a single punch much like he did against Oliveira.
Where Makhachev is at his best is from the top position. Makhachev is more efficient than Khabib with regards to his GnP. Whereas Khabib would unload like a frenzied madman, Makhachev doesn’t waste any of his punches. Not all land clean, but they do create openings that create submission opportunities or clean strikes. It is in this situation that I see his size advantage will come into play.
Ultimately, while I believe the odds are skewed way too far in the favor of Makhachev, Makhachev is the rightful favorite. He’s the bigger and more powerful grappler. Like I already said, size does matter. Volkanovski is a good wrestler, but he’s not on the level of Makhachev. I’m not convinced he can consistently keep the fight standing if Makhachev makes consistent efforts to ground him. If Volkanovski can do that, he’s on his way to victory and a legacy as an all-time great. I have no doubt Volkanovski will do everything within his power to win. However, I have no doubt Makhachev will do the same. Somethings gotta give. I’m going with the bigger fighter. Makhachev via submission of RD4
Yair Rodriguez vs. Josh Emmett, Featherweight
Make no mistake, Rodriguez got his spot in this contest thanks to his flashy style. Rodriguez has one win in the last three years, that win coming off a Brian Ortega dislocated shoulder. This isn’t saying Rodriguez isn’t good or that he can’t win. Absolutely, he can. But him being in this contest is further proof that the UFC is more of a business than it is a sport.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, this is a fun looking contest. Rodriguez has long been someone the UFC has looked to prop up as a major star as they’ve looked to make inroads to Mexico. He’s lost a bit of the promotional push with the emergence of Brandon Moreno, given Moreno is willing to fight anyone, anywhere, anytime. After all, Moreno did go down to Brazil to challenge Deiveson Figueiredo. On the other hand, Rodriguez has established himself as a prima donna, proving very picky about who he fights. That accounts for the lack of fights over the last several years.
While it could be argued Rodriguez might have received a shot at the title sooner if he had been busier, it could also be argued that he’s been able to keep his body fresh. The same can’t be said of Emmett. Even more telling, it’s not like Emmett has been extremely active himself. Yes, he’s been more active than Rodriguez – pretty much any active fighter with a pulse has been – but he’s been fighting once a year for the past three years. At least Emmett can fall back on the excuse he’s had wear and tear on his body he needed to rehab from. But what does all the injuries say about his current physical condition? That he turns 38 next month doesn’t help.
While Emmett’s physical state puts him behind the 8-ball, it needs to be acknowledged he has been overcoming the odds to get here. He was 26 when he started his professional MMA career, 31 when he made it to the UFC. That’s old in both cases, particularly for someone not fighting above 200 pounds. He had his face collapsed from a Jeremy Stephens punch, the type of injury that typically ends or derails careers. He’s been the underdog more than half the time in the five fights since returning from that injury. And yet, he’s won every fight since coming back, including the contest with Shane Burgos where Emmett tore his ACL minutes into the fight. Emmett is used to overcoming long odds.
Besides proving to be doggedly tough, Emmett has a major equalizer in his arsenal; he has the type of power that needs to be respected. After all, he is the UFC record holder for most knockdowns in a single round, securing four in his featherweight debut in 2017. His most recent fight against Calvin Kattar was the first time he fought at 145 that he didn’t secure a knockdown. Emmett’s has excellent timing on his counters. He’s primarily known for his hooks, but his jab is underrated and he does an excellent job working the body on taller opponents.
However, Emmett is a bit of a one-note fighter. Sure, he’s got a strong wrestling background, but he has scored a total of two takedowns in his eight featherweight fights. He doesn’t pursue them in the least. It is somewhat understandable as there is no aspect of fighting more draining than wrestling. At his age and with his physical maladies, it makes sense he would want to reduce the wear and tear. But if he were ever to go the wrestling route, this would be the fight.
Rodriguez has come a long way since he was mauled by Frankie Edgar on the mat in 2017. He’s not going to get dominated in that manner again. However, there’s no doubting his takedown defense is still his Achilles heel. While most of his fight with Max Holloway took place on the feet, the aspect that really distanced Holloway from Rodriguez was the takedowns. No disrespect to Holloway, he’s an all-time great. But no one has ever labeled him as a takedown machine. And yet, Holloway didn’t have any great difficulty getting Rodriguez down and controlling him for stretches.
In the end, youth and athleticism should still be the biggest factor. Rodriguez is a technical striker capable of utilizing his long reach to his advantage. Plus, he’s one of the most dynamic strikers on the roster. Whether it be spinning attacks, flying attacks, or something that wasn’t deemed possible by many – such as his up-elbow against the Korean Zombie – Rodriguez’s creativity is one of his biggest assets. As he’s gotten older, he has become more judicious about when to throw something high risk as well. Rodriguez has proven he can go five hard rounds too. Not that Emmett can’t, but Emmett’s preferred pace is a bit slower. Plus, Rodriguez’s durability is underrated. The only stoppage in the last decade was by a doctor stoppage in between rounds. Emmett can win this. He’s defied the odds to get here. But if feels like he’s falling apart in his effort to get here. Even if Rodriguez isn’t quite as deserving to be here as Arnold Allen, he should walk out with the win. Rodriguez via decision
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