UFC 294 Paths to Victory: How Alexander Volkanovski can avenge loss to Islam Makhachev

Well, well, well. We’re back again.

This Saturday, UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev puts his title on the line against Alexander Volkanovski in a rematch of their UFC 284 title fight just eight months ago. Makhachev was originally supposed to run things back with Charles Oliveira, but “Do Bronx” suffered a nasty cut last week, and so on just 12 days’ notice, Volkanovski steps in.

Makhachev and Volkanovski have already spent 25 minutes in the cage together in what’s currently frontrunner for “Fight of the Year” (in case you somehow haven’t seen it, the UFC put the first fight up on YouTube), so how will each man change things up for the rematch? Let’s take a look.

UFC 284: Makhachev v Volkanovski

Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Paths to Victory for Islam Makhachev at UFC 294

Though the first fight was extremely competitive, Islam Makhachev pretty clearly won. There was a lot of (insane) discourse at the time about Volkanovski getting robbed. But reasonably speaking, Makhachev won three rounds, and arguably four. Volkanovski undeniably took the final round and exceeded the expectations of many, but he didn’t win the fight. Moreover, he ended up losing the bulk of both the striking and the grappling exchanges.

Secondly, let’s address Makhachev’s biggest advantage in both that fight and this one: He’s enormous. Makhachev isn’t quite as large as Khabib, but he towered over Volkanovski in the cage in their fight, and while I won’t say that was the difference maker, it sure didn’t hurt. Volkanovski was largely able to match Makhachev’s physicality in clinches, but not completely, and in the striking aspect, it made everything Volkanovski did substantially more difficult.

Makhachev has always been a better striker than he gets credit for. He’s not particularly flashy on the feet, and he doesn’t have a variety of tools, but he has good natural timing and he’s very defensively responsible. That pairs very well with the rest of his game, allowing him to compete at range against most people, and then change levels as fighters attempt to work in combination to get past his defense. In the first fight, Volkanovski was obviously the quicker man and the “better boxer,” but Makhachev repeatedly tagged him with countershots as Volkanovski tried to work his way in, and he created grappling exchanges when Volkanovski extended combinations for offense. These basic principles are sure to be part of Makhachev’s game plan for the rematch.

Somewhat surprisingly, the grappling department is where Makhachev struggled in the first fight. Yes, he had his moments where he was able to take the back and control position for extended stretches, but Volkanovski proved difficult to get hold of for much of the fight, and when he did, Volkanovski had a plan: give up the back and fight the hands to break away. It was a risky plan, but one that worked exceedingly well for most of the fight. Makhachev struggled to maintain control and get to his preferred position (top half-guard), and it was really only in the fourth round (when Makhachev made the adjustment to immediately jump the back) that he found a good response to it. Coming into the rematch, Makhachev should expect to see Volkanovski turn his back again, and he would be well-served to immediately attack that.

But with all this in mind, Alexander Volkanovski is extremely well-schooled and well-prepared fighter. And oh, by the way, he’s one of the greatest fighters of all-time. Volkanovski will have adjustments, and so Makhachev’s needs some of his own.

In the striking game, I’d like to see Makhachev use his kicks a little more as a way to destabilize Volkanovski and score points at range, and I’d also like to see him key onto Volkanovski’s shifting steps. Because of the size disadvantage he almost always has, Volkanovski has adopted a stand-shift during combinations to close distance (his first good punch of the first fight was a left off that), but he’s still a little clunky with it, and there’s a window to simply fire a left at him while he’s caught square. Makhachev managed it a time or two but having that as a triggered attack would be a lovely addition.

As for the grappling, my biggest ask for Makhachev would be to focus more on damage. When Makhachev did get dominant positions, he attacked submissions, but Volkanovski is a terrific defensive fighter and also barely has a neck. Choking him will be extremely hard, and instead, punching him a whole lot will yield better outcomes both in the short and long term.

UFC 284: Makhachev v Volkanovski

Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Paths to victory for Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 294

Coming into this rematch, Volkanovski faces all the same issues he did in the first fight, only with the added complexity of short-notice — and the fact that Makhachev is probably an even better fighter. Don’t get me wrong, Volkanovski is “Great,” but he’s also 35. Not many fighters are improving dramatically at that age.

As addressed above, Volkanovski faced issues in all phases of the game. Makhachev’s size and timing made him a handful on the feet, and his physicality made him a handful on the floor. But Volkanovski acquitted himself better than fair and has a very real shot at pulling off the upset this time, with a few minor adjustments.

First and most importantly, I’m obviously not entirely sure what the game plan was for the first fight, but it seemed to be more focused on not getting run over as opposed to bringing the fight to Makhachev, and while I understand the inclination, I think it’s misguided. A plan like that works if Volkanovski can dominate the striking (“if I stuff takedowns, then I win”), but we saw that’s not really true. Makhachev can compete in all phases with Volkanovski, and so Volkanovski needs to be more proactive with his offense so as to assert himself in the fight like he did in the final round. Does that create more opportunity for Makhachev? Yes. But the fighters at the disadvantage have to create chaos, and Volkanovski appears to be that guy.

On the grappling front, I’d also like to see Volkanovski pursue his own takedowns more forcibly. While Makhachev is a great grappler, and you assume some risk by engaging with him there, he’s much more of a top-position grappler. When Volkanovski got on top in the fifth round, Makhachev didn’t have a ton to offer the featherweight champion. Why not commit to that and see where it takes you?

Also on the grappling front, stop giving up the back. It was a gamble that worked in the first fight — until it didn’t. Instead of of giving up the back, he should turn into Makhachev and work butterflies to create space and stay in motion.

On the feet, I’d like to Volkanovski shift his approach. The featherweight champ targeted the head a ton in the first fight, trying to knock out Makhachev. But the body work was much more effective for him and should be the focus in this matchup. Makhachev excels at stymying offense (Volkanovski’s 14 significant strikes landed per round are by far the lowest of his UFC career), but you can’t expect to beat him by fighting safe and head hunting. Jabs and hooks to the body are an effective deterrent against clinches and closing the distance, and if Makhachev forces the issue anyway, the hands are there to pummel.

All of this should be painting a pretty clear strategic picture for Volkanovski in the rematch: tire this man out. Volkanovski’s greatest advantage in this fight is his cardio, and he got somewhat close to authoring an incredible comeback with it in the first fight. That should be the focal point of this one: up the pressure, up the output, pedal down, make Makhachev work for it right from the opening bell, and trust in your grappling ability to avoid the one big mistake.


Short notice

As mentioned, Volkanovski is taking this fight on 12 days’ notice and coming off hand surgery. That’s less than ideal. But … there are rumors out there that Volkanovski has actually been preparing for this for several weeks, just in case. So maybe the short notice isn’t a huge factor. It still is for Makhachev, however, because while he has had a full camp, he’s also been preparing to face Charles Oliveira, and Oliveira and Volkanovski are about as different as can be.

If Volkanovski has been training for weeks, that’s actually a nice little edge for him. If that’s all smoke and mirrors, it’s probably not great for him. I guess we’ll see.

Change of venue

The less obvious — but still somewhat obvious — X-factor here is that the first fight took place in Australia, and this one is in Abu Dhabi. Home field advantage is a real thing in MMA, and Makhachev will have it this time around, which certainly helps his case. Perhaps more importantly, though, Volkanovski won’t have it. If you watch that first fight, there are spots in it where Volkanovski is visibly feeding off the crowd’s energy, hyping himself up as his country chants in support of him. That’s not coming this time around, and it might make a legitimate difference in performance.


I’ve already written way too much about this fight, but it an exceptional matchup between the two best fighters in the world. If we’re lucky, it will be half as good as the first one, and if we’re blessed, it will somehow be better. Sadly, I doubt either will be true, as sequels rarely live up to the hype of the first one. Instead, I suspect this one will be another example of why weight classes exist.

Islam Makhachev def. Alexander Volkanovski via unanimous decision.


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