UFC 294 PREVIEW
It’s a bright, early start for Australian fight fans hoping to catch Saturday’s UFC 294 from Abu Dhabi. Featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski steps in on 11 days notice to rematch Islam Makhachev, while Kamaru Usman faces Khamzat Chimaev in a potential title eliminator in the co-main event.
The Dagestani bruiser has a well-rounded game and should be able to take advantage of Walker’s defensive weaknesses. But it won’t be easy.
Islam Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski
A rematch between lightweight champion Islam Makhachev and Alexander Volkanovski headlines Saturday’s UFC 294 fight card at Etihad Arena on Yas Island. The two met in February, with Makhachev edging out a close decision win over Volkanovski, who replaced injured Charles Oliveira on 11 days’ notice.
Volkanovski is the better grappler and arguably the best striker in the division, but he isn’t in the same class as Makhachev on the ground. He tries to get inside the opponent’s head with a clinch game and low kicks, but that’s not enough to give him an edge in the wrestling department.
In their first encounter, Volkanovski got off to a slow start and was almost knocked out in the opening round by a powerful head kick from Makhachev. He took the second round but was unable to stop the champion’s assault, which culminated in the fighter landing several ground-and-pound strikes in the final minute of the round.
It was an impressive performance by Volkanovski, but he can’t afford to be this tentative again if he wants to retain his title. He must attack Makhachev early and often to get a definitive victory.
If the first fight was any indication, this rematch could be one of the best of 2023. Volkanovski’s willingness to take a fight with the top featherweight in the world on short notice speaks volumes about his focus and work ethic. Makhachev is aware of the threat Volkanovski poses, but he also knows that he has the skills to dominate him.
Makhachev enters the fight as a -240 favorite on Sports Interaction, while Volkanovski is a +245 underdog. The winner of this fight will become the fifth simultaneous double champion in UFC history. The first round will likely be a toss-up, but the champion is expected to cruise to an easy decision in the second. UFC 294 begins with prelims on ESPN+ at 10 a.m. ET and the main card on pay-per-view at 2 p.m. ET. For more on the show, check out our comprehensive UFC 294 preview. Follow the action live on ESPN+ and FOX Sports 1 with a re-air on Sunday at 8 p.m.
Kamaru Usman vs. Khamzat Chimaev
Kamaru Usman is making his middleweight debut on 11 days notice and he’s taking on Khamzat Chimaev in a fight that could see him land a 185 title shot. Usman is coming off back-to-back losses in the welterweight division to Leon Edwards and he’s hoping to make his comeback in the new weight class.
Chimaev is a big-time grappler with an elite wrestling base and he’s been impressive in his two fights since moving to the 185-pound division. The Chechen warrior has a huge advantage in the ground game and that might be what gives him the edge against the former champion.
Round one begins with Usman landing a nice front kick to the body. He follows that up with a few left hands. Chimaev looks for a takedown but can’t get it. The Nigerian Nightmare lands a nice left hand and fakes a single. Chimaev looks to move into half guard but Usman is able to escape.
The two fighters trade shots with Chimaev working on a couple of clinch attempts. Usman is attempting to eat up the damage with some quick strikes and he’s doing a decent job of it. Chimaev is still attempting to find a takedown though and it seems like it might be his only chance to win this fight.
Towards the end of the round, Usman is trying to work for a choke but it’s not there. The Nigerian Nightmare is able to fend off a few more strikes from the top and we enter round two with the action remaining on the feet.
Usman works a nice straight right hand and a combo that features a left hook and another straight right. Chimaev tries to shoot for a double but Usman is able to avoid it. He lands a few more strikes and then gets into the clinch with Chimaev. ‘Borz’ is looking for a choke but it’s not close to being there yet.
Said Nurmagomedov vs. Muin Gafurov
Muin Gafurov is a bantamweight fighter with excellent wrestling skills who has made a name for himself in the UFC with a number of impressive submission victories. His last outing saw him take on John Castaneda in a fight that was scheduled on short notice. Gafurov was able to dominate the fight with his grappling but ultimately fell short in the decision.
Said Nurmagomedov was riding a three-fight win streak heading into his UFC 294 fight against Jonathan Martinez. He was coming off of a knockout victory over Mark Streigl and submission wins over Cody Stamann and Douglas Silva de Andrade. Nevertheless, the Dagestan native was still unable to stop the bleeding and came up short in his UFC debut.
Gafurov is a heavy-handed striker who throws his strikes with a lot of reckless intent. While he doesn’t have the greatest punching accuracy, his big shots often find their way to the head of his opponents. Despite his reckless style, Gafurov has never been finished in his career and continues to earn a reputation as one of the more dangerous bantamweights on the roster.
Both Gafurov and Nurmagomedov are competent strikers but Gafurov’s grappling game is the more enticing betting proposition. He attempts a takedown about once per 15 minutes and manages to get the opponent on the mat in 16% of those opportunities. Likewise, Gafurov’s takedown defense is very good as he stuffs 65% of his opponent’s attempt to take the fight to the ground.
Moreover, Gafurov has also shown the ability to clinch and grind his opponents with a high degree of success. He averages about 1.0 submissions per 15 minute session and has the potential to be a real threat to the likes of Nurmagomedov on the ground. In addition, his kicking game is also solid as he connects on 40% of his significant strikes from distance and is able to land a fair share of those aimed at the head of his opponents.
Magomed Ankalaev vs. Johnny Walker
Despite losing his last fight, Johnny Walker is still a top-tier light heavyweight. He comes into this one on a three-fight winning streak with victories over Ion Cutelaba, Paul Craig, and Anthony Smith. Walker will have a tough test in this matchup with Magomed Ankalaev, who has been one of the most dominant 205-pounders since 2020.
The Russian is a crisp striker who can finish the job quickly and has proven to be a dangerous foe for most opponents in his career. Walker is a good striker himself, but he can be easily countered by Ankalaev’s speed and power. Walker’s defense is not good enough against Ankalaev’s takedown skills, which could lead to a long and drawn out fight.
Ankalaev is the -375 betting favorite against the +285 Walker, and he is likely to win this fight by either TKO or KO. The KO/TKO market is the best option here, as Walker has not made it to the second round in his past three fights and this is a huge step up in competition for him.
Both fighters begin to exchange low kicks to open the round. Walker paws with his jab and Ankalaev fires back with another low kick. Walker then appears to fake an injury from a big body shot, but then fires off a flying knee that hits Ankalaev on the chin.
At the end of the round, Ankalaev tries to get Walker to the ground but the fighters are separated by security as a powder keg nearly explodes in the middle of the octagon. They continue to trade punches with Walker throwing a few kicks to Ankalaev’s shin and back.
Ankalaev lands a few more solid shots and then scores with an illegal knee to the head that clearly glances Walker on the chin. The referee immediately calls for the halt to the fight and the doctor rushes in to check on Walker, who is visibly dazed after the illegal strike. The doctor declares the fight a no contest. Afterward, the fighters argue and yell at each other in a clear reversal of their earlier actions.