UFC 294 pre-fight narratives

Many UFC 294 narratives developed in the short eleven day lead up to the surprise rematch between the lightweight and featherweight champions, but they all seemed to surround Alexander Volkanovski rather than the defending champion Islam Makhachev.

The announcement immediately evoked an undeniable sense of awe at the reckless boldness of the pound-for-pound king Volkanovski. Since coming up just short in his first attempt to dethrone the Dagestani, Volkanovski reminded everyone that he was still the man at 145 pounds by knocking out Yair Rodriguez.

This made it all but certain that he would eventually get a second chance at becoming a two-weight world champion. That premonition turned out to be true, but the circumstances that provided its fulfillment were far less than ideal.

Naturally, all the questions surrounded Volkanovski: How would he look at UFC 294 with virtually no preparation? Would he be able to pick up where he left off in the fifth round of their first encounter? Would he still be able to weaponize his pace over five rounds? Would he be able to make adjustments from the first fight?

As is typical in the chaotic sport as MMA, it’s very difficult to ask the right questions in anticipation of a fight. Rather than this fight being defined by what Volkanovski brought to the table and what lessons he learned from their first fight, Islam Makhachev quickly and emphatically showed that this fight was going to be about his improvements and his adjustments.

February 12, 2023, Perth, Perth, Australia, Australia: PERTH, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 12: (R-L) Islam Makhachev punches Alex Volkanovski in their Lightweight title fight during the UFC 284 event at Rac Arena on February 12, 2023 in Perth, Australia. Perth Australia - ZUMAp175 20230212_zsa_p175_133
Matt Davies / ZUMA Wire, IMAGO

UFC 294 had a change in direction

Even within the first several seconds, it was clear that both fighters were bringing a new approach to this fight. In their meeting in Perth at UFC 284, Volkanovski was very eager to close the large distance created by the open-stance matchup (southpaw vs orthodox).

His primary distance-closing tactic was shifting into southpaw while advancing forward with his combinations. Even though he was able to shock Makhachev early, eventually Makhachev started to time his shifts with quick counters and reactive takedowns.

However, the direction of movement in the rematch was different. Immediately is was Makhachev who took the front foot and looked to push Volkanovski back. That was considered no problem for Volkanovksi, who was content to stay in his usual orthodox stance and has proven time and time again to be an incredibly astute outside fighter.

Islam Makhachev adopted a patient pressuring approach, backing Volkanovski up with feints and pursuing him with shuffling footwork.

This proved troublesome for Volkanovski though as Makhachev’s attacks on the front foot proved more difficult to read than he likely anticipated. It’s possible that given more time he could have gotten a beat on Makhachev, but for the brief duration he was kept entirely on the defensive, scarcely throwing even a single strike.

February 12, 2023, Perth, Perth, Australia, Australia: PERTH, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 12: (R-L) Islam Makhachev kicks Alex Volkanovski in their Lightweight title fight during the UFC 284 event at Rac Arena on February 12, 2023 in Perth, Australia. Perth Australia - ZUMAp175 20230212_zsa_p175_119
Matt Davies / ZUMA Wire, IMAGO

Islam Makhachev exploited an old weakness

While Volkanovski did have success boxing from orthodox in the latter portions of their first fight, Makhachev was determined to press his own advantages at UFC 294; most importantly his kicks.

Volkanovski has always struggled with southpaw kickers, even going back to his first professional loss. Fighters generally get good at masking their weaknesses by tidying up their defense and finding ways to punish opponents who want to exploit their openings, but vulnerabilities rarely disappear entirely.

This is the case with Volkanovski and southpaw kickers. His short stature, preference for hanging out at long range, and even his habits when he moves away and responds to threats all leave him open to kicks from the open side. Makhachev had success kicking Volkanovski in their first fight and he carried that success into the rematch.

Volkanovski has always struggled with southpaw kickers, so Makhachev made it his primary means of offense in the rematch.

The most important thing that Makhachev learned from their first fight was that Volkanovski would never punish him for kicking into the open side. His willingness to kick is bolstered by his generally correct assumption that no opponent wants to try to take him down, and Volkanovski’s lack of counters amplified that, allowing Makhachev to kick with impunity.

Makhachev set up his kicks to the legs and body of Volkanovski with head feints that conveniently looked like his level changes. After finding success with his low and middle kicks, it was natural to parlay them into high kicks.

Makhachev’s ability to kick without fear of counters allowed him to set up his devastating finish by making Volkanovski expect a body kick only for the shin to come up high instead.

The finish also demonstrates the effectiveness of Makhachev’s methodical pressure. The fact that the initial knockdown happened so close to the fence allowed him to quickly find a controlling position to land the final ground and pound that coaxed the referee’s intervention.

Alexander Volkanovski’s adjustments at UFC 294

It wasn’t all one way traffic though. Volkanovski was the pound-for-pound king heading into UFC 294 for a reason and he wasn’t going to leave the cage without showing that he had learned some things from their first fight as well.

Volkanovski was surprisingly adept at defending against Makhachev’s A-game in their first fight, and he was ready to do the same again…

Read the rest of the post over at the BE Substack, where we breakdown several more aspects of the fight, including more on Volkanovski’s adjustments and Makhachev’s new ideas.

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Miguel Class
Miguel Class

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