UFC 284 delivers on promise of epic champion vs. champion

About 12 times a year, the UFC aims to secure your hard-earned cash with a big fight. They’re not always Big with a capital ‘B’, but it’s sold that way all the same.

Islam Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski Sunday morning in Perth, Australia was a Big fight, not merely a big fight. And whether you bought into the idea that the MMA leader dropped the ball in the promotion of the clash of champions — featherweight king Volkanovski challenging the lightweight newly-crowned titleholder — no amount of hype or lack thereof changes that fact.

And every moment of Makhachev’s victory via unanimous decision, 48-47, 48-47, 49-46, felt just as B-I-G as the pound-for-pound No. 1 vs. No. 2 contest figured, on paper, to be to cap UFC 284. From the moment the crowd Down Under broke out into song along with Volkanovski’s walkout to — what else — “Down Under” by Men at Work, it was on and rarely let up.

None would mistake Makhachev-Volkanovski for an all-action assault like the deified 2005 brawl between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. No, this clash of titans felt epic in the same way as a good Hollywood thriller, with tension and anticipation mixed equally with pronounced moments of violent action throughout the five 5-minute rounds.

Would Volkanovski’s advanced striking foil the favored Makhachev and his dogged grappling? Might Makhachev reveal some depth to his stand-up arsenal that had yet to be seen throughout his rise to the top of the 155-pound division last October? These questions shaped the early drama.

Islam Makhachev (right) and Alexander Volkanovski
Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The answers wound up as a healthy mix of confirmation of suspicion and surprising results. The typical high output on the feet was never there for Volkanovski, unsurprisingly picking his spots more carefully against a man who would love nothing more than to grab hold of the 145-pound champion and ride him to the floor.

Not even two minutes went by before the stance-switching Volkanovski caught the defending champion square on the bearded chin with a left, throwing his fellow Aussies into a frenzy. But Makhachev took it well, didn’t back down, and sent Volkanovski briefly to a knee only a minute later. There was more to the Dagestan, Russia native’s striking that had previously met the eye.

Meanwhile, Makhachev’s pursuit of his challenger’s back always seemed to pay off. He secured takedowns in each of the first four rounds, claiming rounds one, two and four from all the judges thanks in part to the standout grappling that’s been his bread and butter in much the same way as mentor, friend, “brother” and retired former lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov.

But Volkanovski showed grit along the way, rarely allowing himself to be placed in the type of fight-finishing danger Makhachev applied to Charles Oliveira in the fall. No official submission attempts like the ones Volkanovski survived against Brian Ortega a year and a half ago. The Aussie was defiant in the face of a 3-minute-long back take in the fourth frame, launching punches at Makhachev which, while not the type to end a fight, fired up his countrymen once again.

Islam Makhachev, at right, lands a punch on Alexander Volkanovski.
Islam Makhachev (right) lands a punch on Alexander Volkanovski.

Even down on the cards (but unaware thanks to a lack of open scoring), Volkanovski felt very much in the fight going into the fifth. And after some back-and-forth on the feet and a pair of fended-off Makhachev takedown, the challenger made one last push for “champ-champ” status. With a raucous RAC Arena behind him, Alexander “The Great” sniped his foe with a right and followed him to the floor. While the window quickly closed on Volkanovski’s chance to end it, he earned about as much respect as any fighter to fall short on a quest to reign over two weight classes at once.

Only a few top-billed battles a year really qualify for that uppercase Big, and they needn’t all be on the Conor McGregor level. I’m talking about Israel Adesanya vs. Alex Pereira last November at the Garden, Francis Ngannou taking on Ciryl Gane last January in Anaheim, and Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington 2 also in Manhattan back in November 2021. No disrespect to the myriad championship clashes atop the other pay-per-view events each year, but there’s levels to this stuff.

Not all of those fights delivered on their promise, but the UFC does have a knack for hitting more often than it misses when the Big fight arrives.

Makhachev vs. Volkanovski was a Hit, with a capital ‘H.’

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