In just 48 hours, UFC 294’s card went from good to great

Maybe every major UFC card should be left blank until a couple of weeks before fight night. Last-minute matchmaking sure has worked wonders for UFC 294.

For months, the promotion had been building a potent lineup for Saturday’s return to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The main event would be a rematch between UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev and Charles Oliveira, who owned the belt until Makhachev took it away the last time the UFC was in Abu Dhabi, a year ago at UFC 280. The co-main would be the first appearance in over a year for once-skyrocketing-but-lately-grounded-not-in-the-good-way Khamzat Chimaev, moving up to middleweight to face onetime title challenger Paulo Costa. It appeared we were in for an entertaining conclusion to an evening of fisticuffs.

But last Wednesday, 11 days before the first punch was to be thrown, both headlining fights evaporated into thin air. Oliveira revealed he had suffered a bad cut above his right eye in training. Costa reported that he had undergone surgery on his right elbow. Both were out. So much for building our hopes up.

Never fear, fight fans. UFC matchmakers went right to work with their patch-up-the-holes kit. And within hours, they had pieced together an even mightier 1-2 punch for the top of the UFC 294 marquee (ESPN+ PPV, 2 p.m. ET; prelims on ESPN+, 10 a.m.).

Makhachev will move from one rematch to another, this time with a far more competitive two-to-tango partner, Alexander Volkanovski. The last fight ended with the featherweight champ on top of a knocked-down, tuckered-out Makhachev, dropping punches as the horn sounded to end Round 5 of their lightweight superfight at UFC 284 in February. Moments later, Makhachev was the one getting his hand raised as the winner of a unanimous decision to retain his title. But Volkanovski had been so impressive that he, not Makhachev, sits on top of the ESPN men’s pound-for-pound rankings. Can’t wait to see Round 6 and beyond from No. 1 and No. 2.

This weekend’s co-main event experienced an even grander upgrade, as it now features a fighter who spent a considerable time in that No. 1 pound-for-pound slot. Kamaru Usman, the former longtime welterweight champ, stepped in to offer Chimaev what looks like the stiffest test of his undefeated career. And Chimaev vehemently accepted the challenge. Much respect to both of them for agreeing to a last-minute matchup against an unknown, in a clash that seems sure to redirect at least one of their careers abruptly.

And also much respect to the matchmakers who overcame not one, but two, major fight cancellations. Talk about battling through adversity and coming up big.

Let’s break down this weekend’s narratives:

Makhachev vs. Volkanovski 2: A better main event

Makhachev-Oliveira 2 could have been exciting. Before losing his belt to Makhachev, Oliveira had won 11 fights in a row and was coming off finishes of Michael Chandler, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje. The former champ has more UFC submissions (16) than anyone ever, making him among the most dangerous grapplers in the game. But we cannot ignore what we saw when he tussled with Makhachev. The Dagestani took Oliveira down repeatedly, battered him bloody, and finished him via make-it-look-easy submission.

By contrast, Makhachev’s fight with Volkanovski ended with the Aussie looking like a winner. Don’t get me wrong: Makhachev deserved to be the one getting his hand raised. He was in command for most of the fight’s 25 minutes, building a lead on the judges’ scorecards with takedowns in each of the first four rounds and much-accumulated control time. But Volkanovski kept coming. And here’s the visual that lingers from the fight’s conclusion: a heavy-breathing Makhachev holding on to survive an onslaught by his tireless challenger. No sooner did the final horn sound when social media lit up with “Encore! Encore!” And now we’ll have it.

Usman vs. Chimaev: A way better co-main

Even if Costa were at full strength, instead of being just a few weeks removed from surgery, Usman still would be a significant upgrade. He is MMA history’s greatest 170-pounder this side of Georges St-Pierre. Before losing his title to Leon Edwards last year, Usman had won 15 fights in a row, the longest streak ever for a UFC welterweight and the second longest overall in promotion history. He can strike and grapple. Just like Chimaev.

They’re fighting at middleweight, a division Chimaev has fought several times. The strapping Costa, who competed at light heavyweight just two fights ago, would have put Chimaev to a heftier test. But Usman, a career welterweight, also has a good measure of physicality in him. And he has the skills and savvy to put Chimaev in deeper waters than he’s ever swam in.

Glass half-empty: Short notice could make performances come up short

Eleven days’ notice does not mean fighters have nearly two weeks to prepare. Serious gym time came down to five days, ending Monday morning. From here on out, fighters will devote much of their time to carrying around huge jugs of water as part of a weight cut while they fulfill fight-hyping obligations in interviews with MMA media and news conferences. I wouldn’t wish either of those duties on anyone.

Makhachev and Volkanovski have tangled before, so there’s reason to believe — and hope — they can pick up where they left off. But there’s a lingering concern that a short-notice booking might not offer us the best encore we could get. Are we wasting one of the great rematches of our time by not allowing it to fully marinate? Or by not letting the fighters prepare accordingly for such a fierce contest?

The stakes for Chimaev and Usman, even with no belt on the line, could be more dramatic. Will Chimaev’s full-tilt rise toward what seemed an inevitable title shot run into a brick wall? Will Usman, who dropped his belt to Edwards in August 2022 and also lost the rematch in March, see his skid reach three in a row? Settling such pivotal matters with little preparation seems ill-advised, even foolhardy. But the show must go on.

Glass half-full: Short-notice variables ramp up the intrigue

The purist in me wants every title fight to pit No. 1 in a weight class against No. 2 in that same division, for them to fight at a neutral site that’s not far above sea level, and for each participant to enter the cage having had a fruitful, incident-free training camp.

Yep, that’s what I want. Secure both guys in bubble wrap during fight week just to make sure.

If I held to my standards, though, do you know how many big fights I’d see? Zero.

Stuff happens. Practically every major fight has some sort of playing-field-tilting X-factor. And I reluctantly must acknowledge that unexpected twists add to the drama of the sport.

I’m no fan of the manufactured, WWE-style melodrama of weigh-in shoving and press conference verbal sparring, especially when the insults veer in ugly directions. I’m more interested in the drama that unfolds organically, such as what we’ve already seen with UFC 294. Nothing was scripted about Oliveira’s eyebrow cut during a regular sparring session, Costa’s elbow surgery, the chest-thumping step-ups by Volkanovski and Usman, the never-say-no welcoming by Makhachev and Chimaev.

The drama surrounding these two fights transcends the matchups and how they rate against the original ones. The drama surrounding these two fights is intensified by the circumstances of four athletes, each taking on a career-defining challenge with little time to prepare for it.

If these were typical fights with typical readiness, those of us who follow the sport could have reasonably informed opinions about who will win. But the last-minute matchmaking has added a disorienting variable.

Will the ill effects of the short notice become apparent during either fight? In whose performance? And who will own the night?

We might think we know, but we don’t. We can only stand back and watch, ready to be surprised.

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