4 Positives & 4 Negatives From UFC 294: Islam Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski 2

On Saturday, the mixed martial arts leader returned for its latest pay-per-view event, UFC 294.

The promotion’s 11th numbered event of 2023 took the Octagon back to the United Arab Emirates, where a familiar face headlined proceedings inside the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi.

After planned challenger Charles Oliveira withdrew on late notice earlier this month, UFC Lightweight Champion Islam Makhachev was forced to turn his attention to a different rematch, instead sharing the cage with reigning featherweight kingpin Alexander Volkanovski just eight months on from their competitive five-round battle Down Under.

The co-main event also saw a change close to fight night, with an infection suffered by Paulo Costa preventing him from settling a grudge with the undefeated Khamzat Chimaev. In his place opposite “Borz” was former welterweight titleholder Kamaru Usman. After consecutive losses to Leon Edwards, “The Nigerian Nightmare’ made his middleweight debut in search of a first shot at glory in a different division.

Elsewhere, #2-ranked light heavyweight contender Magomed Ankalaev met the always entertaining Johnny Walker, flyweight prospect Muhammad Mokaev shot for a spot in the top 10 against veteran Tim Elliott, and a whole host of promising names attempted to make a statement on a prominent stage.

But did all those names and storylines come together to form a memorable night of fights in the Middle East? Let’s find out with all the positives and negatives from UFC 294.

Positive – Strong Opener, Strong Debut

While it was the very first fight of the night, Bruno Silva vs. Sharabutdin Magomedov marked one of the more intriguing matchups on the UFC 294 card owing to the arrival of the undefeated Dagestani.

Firstly, credit to the UFC for the bout order. The promotion often gets it wrong and leaves fighters unamused with their positions on the card — case in point, Chris Gutiérrez last week at the Apex. But opening proceedings with a perennial entertainer like Silva and a willing dance partner in Magomedov was the perfect way to kick things off.

Across three rounds, the pair swung hard, connected even harder, and left each other bloodied. It was ultimately “Shara Bullet” who emerged victorious on debut, with his striking in round one and subsequent work off his back in frames two and three getting the job done for a comfortable decision win.

The positives came in droves here. As well as the manner of the fight being a plus, another high derived from the scorecards, which saw Magomedov correctly rewarded for the damage he inflicted from an unfavorable grappling position.

Although the jury is still out on Magomedov as a person — that’s probably an understatement when it comes to a man who attacked someone for… *checks notes*… kissing in public — there’s no doubt he looks set to provide a welcome injection of excitement into an often-lackluster weight class.

Negative – A Cheater’s Sport

“Hey, welcome to your introductory class for mixed martial arts. Let’s start with rule number one: you get at least two free low blows and fence grabs before any punishment, so be sure to use them wisely!”

There was seemingly something bad and undesirable in the water given to the referees at UFC 294 — extreme and baffling leniency.

That was first visible in the featherweight bout between Muhammad Naimov and Nathaniel Wood. While it was the Tajik fighter who exited the Octagon with a unanimous decision triumph added to his record, that came courtesy of a notable helping hand from Lukasz Bosacki.

To put it frankly, the third man inside the Octagon utterly failed in his task of preventing and adequately punishing rule-breaking. First came two low blows, both of which connected clean and caused the Englishman serious pain.

Why, when fighters are reminded of the rules in the back, are they given not one but two further warnings inside the Octagon? Oh, but it didn’t end there. Later on, Naimov’s fouling turned to fence grabs, with “Hillman” likely preventing a takedown by clinging onto the cage.

Good job he was punished for that, right? RIGHT? Of course not.

UFC 294: Muhammad Naimov vs. Nathaniel Wood 

Image: Craig Kidwell/USA TODAY Sports

“Well, let’s hope that’s the end of questionable officiating for the night,” the MMA fan said moments before Abu Azaitar used Sedriques Dumas’ hair as reins…

Jason Herzog is a great referee and certainly among the best seen inside the Octagon. But the suggestion that a grab of the hair to hold the head in place for a punch was unintentional is crazy.

Low blows, fence grabs, and hair pulls, oh my! Everything goes in Abu Dhabi.

Negative – Are You Serious, Doc?

Nothing says ‘good healthcare professional’ like questioning if a fighter writhing around in agony is faking a shot to the — in the words of Victor Henry — “dick and balls.”

Ahead of time, Henry and Javid Basharat’s matchup looked set to be one of the best on the UFC 294 prelims. Unfortunately, things didn’t go to plan for either man, but one was still left significantly worse off.

Seconds into the second round, “La Mongosta” was struck clean to the groin. The sound of the kick connecting to the cup was immediately a point of concern, and the seriousness of the foul was visible when Henry collapsed to the canvas.

It was the kind of blow that quickly left you doubtful of the fight continuing. And towards the end of the five minute recovery time, that ultimately came to fruition. But, not before the cageside doctor — who, just to be clear, is employed as a means to help the fighters — essentially called Henry a liar to his face.

Soon after, we learned that Henry had been vomiting backstage and was sent to hospital to undergo a testicular ultrasound.

But yeah, it didn’t hit low, doc.

UFC 294: Victor Henry

Image: Craig Kidwell/USA TODAY Sports

Positive – ‘Punisher’

During a set of prelims that featured multiple staph confessions (more on that later…) and a host of fouls, a standout moment was needed to conclude it. Enter one, Muhammad Mokaev.

After a decorated amateur career, the Dagestani-born British fighter has developed into an incredibly promising prospect at the professional level. And in his fifth fight under the UFC banner, “The Punisher” firmly broke into contention.

Having escaped a difficult submission in his previous outing against newcomer Jafel Filho, Mokaev pushed through more adversity on Saturday in what marked his toughest assignment on MMA’s biggest stage to date.

While he withstood some tight submissions against top 10 veteran Tim Elliott —notably delivering a beautifully brutal slam while the Kansas native held onto a triangle choke — Mokaev entered the final round needing a finish, having dropped both rounds on two of the three scorecards.

Fortunately for the 23-year-old, he found exactly that courtesy of an arm-triangle choke. With that, “The Punisher” has remained unbeaten, will find himself within the top 10 next week, and should be due a major fight down the line.

Is a return against a top five flyweight in December to set up a March title shot that could see Mokaev break Jon Jones’ youngest champion record out of the question?

Crazier things have happened.

Positive – Style Points

The withdrawal of Nassourdine Imavov from UFC 294 was a disappointment, and the replacement opponent for Ikram Aliskerov left the Dagestani’s matchup much less intriguing.

But although the highly touted former Brave CF veteran was widely expected to comfortably defeat Warlley Alves on Saturday, the manner with which he had his hand raised was certainly still a positive.

Less than halfway through the first round, Aliskerov shut the lights out on his Brazilian opponent. The damage was largely done by a vicious flying switch knee that landed flush to Alves’ chin, and the writing was already on the wall when the 32-year-old was slumped by an onslaught of follow-up shots.

Earlier, I mentioned the debuting Magomedov as an intriguing addition to the middleweight division. But if that Dagestani looks set to provide an extra barrel of excitement, his compatriot Aliskerov could soon add a tanker of it…

Negative – Are You Serious, Doc? (2.0)

I’m not sure whether ‘Dr. Quick Trigger’ remembered that he accidentally left the oven on at home or what, but boy was he quick to call off Magomed Ankalaev and Johnny Walker’s fight.

Already, UFC 294 had been an interesting ride with a host of negatives. That was compounded in a big way on the main card, when a crucial clash in the context of the light heavyweight division ended in anticlimactic fashion.

With less than two minutes of the first round remaining, Ankalaev threw a clearly illegal knee to the head of Walker while he was a grounded opponent. The shot landed flush to the Brazilian’s head and certainly warranted a pause in the action and a concussion test.

I’m not sure where the cageside doctor is from, but they evidently treat concussion tests like a time trial there…

Just a few months on from the ABC’s implementation of new advice designed to prevent fights being called off prematurely, including doctors waiting for more recovery time to be used before asking if an athlete can continue after an eye poke, Walker was ruled too hurt to fight in an instant.

The doc seemingly asked the light heavyweight contender which country he was in. Now, the Brazilian’s apparent inability to answer and reported ‘in the desert’ remark is clearly concerning. But to immediately make the call without giving Walker time to recover and compose himself, and without even utilizing a translator to ensure the questions were understood, was bizarre.

And as if the result wasn’t enough of a negative, the unsavory scene inside the cage between the two competitors made this one to forget.

UFC 294: Johnny Walker

Image: Craig Kidwell/USA TODAY Sports

Positive – Unstoppable 

While UFC 294 wasn’t short on disappointment and negative moments at times, it ended in style courtesy of home country favorite Islam Makhachev.

The reigning UFC lightweight champion had his victory over Alexander Volkanovski this past February questioned by some who believe the Australian did enough to deserve a second belt being added to his collection.

Second time around, though, there was to be no doubt about the result.

Inside the first round, the Dagestani brutally rocked the challenger with a picture-perfect head kick. As the Aussie fell to the ground, Makhachev pounced on him with some vicious ground-and-pound that left the featherweight champ unconscious.

Understandably, much of the attention on Makhachev’s dominance surrounds his smothering, elite wrestling game. But having wobbled an elite striker like Volkanovski in Perth and knocked him out in Abu Dhabi, the lightweight kingpin has proved his threat in all realms of the mixed martial arts game.

Negative – Staphville

There were a lot of things in the Abu Dhabi air on Saturday; fouls, questionable refereeing, bizarre medical assessments, and even worse… staph.

Staph infections are caused by staphylococcus bacteria and are contagious, being spread on objects or from person to person. With that in mind, combat sports isn’t an environment to compete in if a fighter is suffering from it.

Someway, somehow, that much wasn’t considered by either Victoria Dudakova or Mike Breeden, two fighters who both admitted to having the infection following their bouts at UFC 294.

While the American lightweight revealed his health issues to MMA reporter Mike Bohn backstage, the Russian strawweight brazenly disclosed her’s during an appearance at the post-fight press conference. Dudakova even revealed that she avoided taking antibiotics to treat it in order to avoid her performance being affected.

The 24-year-old justified the hidden infection, which she noted angered physicians upon its discovery post-fight, so that she wasn’t taken off the card. While most can sympathize with the need for athletes to keep active in order to make a living in the sport, putting the health of an opponent and others at risk in such a way is entirely unacceptable and is rightly being branded selfish and irresponsible across the community.

Late last year, Ilir Latifi was handed a suspension and fine after he competed against Aleksei Oleinik while failing to disclose a staph infection. At the time, the Nevada State Athletic Commission threatened more severe punishments should fighters replicate Latifi’s indiscretion. 

With UFC 294 taking place outside of NSAC’s jurisdiction, it remains to be seen what will come of Dudakova and Breeden’s admissions. Given the severity, a release from the promotion shouldn’t be off the cards.

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