Following their recent title wins, Saturday’s headliners could have been content to stick to their divisions and spend the year fending off a set of lively challengers; instead, Makhachev called out the UFC featherweight champion — who just so happens to be the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world — and Volkanovski answered with vigor, eager to stifle what was supposed to be the beginning of a dominant lightweight title run for Makhachev.
So that’s really all that’s on the line in the UFC 284 main event: Pound-for-pound greatness. The longest current unbeaten streak in the UFC (Volkanovski leads the way with 12 straight wins, Makhachev is just shy with 11). Immortality.
A loss shouldn’t damage either fighter’s career prospects too much. Makhachev just turned 31 and he’s a prime candidate to compete for UFC titles in the future, whether it be at 155 or 170 pounds. Volkanovski can always return to 145 pounds and continue what has already been an outstanding championship reign, with Yair Rodriguez, Josh Emmett, Arnold Allen, Ilia Topuria and jockeying for their shot at “The Great.”
Beyond all that, we’re being treated to a rare delight in combat sports: Two of the undisputed best in their respective weight classes throwing caution to the wind for the chance to prove themselves on the biggest stage, consequences be damned. It will be a long time before we see such a unique test again.
In other main card action, Rodriguez and Emmett battle for an interim featherweight title, Jack Della Maddalena looks to continue his scorching UFC start against veteran Randy Brown, heavyweights Justin Tafa and Parker Porter hunt for a highlight, and Jimmy Crute returns to face Alonzo Menifield in a light heavyweight bout.
What: UFC 284
Where: RAC Arena in Perth, Australia
When: Saturday, Feb. 11. The card begins with a five-fight early prelims portion on ESPN+ at 6 p.m. ET, with continuing coverage of the four-fight prelim card on ESPN and ESPN+ beginning at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Islam Makhachev (1) vs. Alexander Volkanovski (1, FW)
When this fight was first announced, an Islam Makhachev win was clear in my mind. He’s larger and Alexander Volkanovski can’t stop his takedowns for five rounds. There’s no one at lightweight right now who I’d pick to beat him, so how is a featherweight going to do it, even if it is arguably the best featherweight I’ve ever seen?
Then I considered Volkanovski’s strengths. Beyond his elite striking, unreal speed, and heavy hands, he’s one of the best at adapting on the fly. We’ve seen him weather the slings and arrows of Max Holloway, Brian Ortega, Jose Aldo, and Chad Mendes, and each time he’s fired back with unmatched intelligence and ferocity. It’s easy to picture him surviving Makhachev’s early rush and then pulling away in the later rounds.
Maybe it’s Makhachev who has more to prove here, as he’s rarely taken a misstep since suffering the lone loss of his career, a first-round knockout at the hands of Adriano Martins that reads more like a trivia question answer than a blueprint on how to deal with him. After all, there’s a downside to domination: No one knows how you’ll react when it doesn’t look so simple. And nothing about fighting Volkanovski is simple.
Over and over, various permutations of these arguments swirled in my mind, and you’ve probably watched other pundits agonize over these same questions. So I absolved myself of this internal struggle. I reminded myself that fighting can be elementary.
I came back to this: Makhachev is larger. Volkanovski can’t stop his takedowns for five rounds. There’s no one at lightweight that can beat him and I doubt any featherweight can either. Most importantly, no matter what, this fight will be awesome.
That’s how I’ve arrived at Makhachev by decision in a tense five-rounder that will leave the door open for a rematch, even though it’s unlikely to happen.
Yair Rodriguez (4) vs. Josh Emmett (7)
Like the main event, I’m taking this one at face value.
On paper, the you have the creativity and technique of Yair Rodriguez vs. the power and grit of Josh Emmett. That’s not to say that Rodriguez doesn’t have one-shot finish potential nor that Emmett is lacking in the technical department, but each man has a distinct path to victory and we know this based on recent performances.
The edge in quality of competition has to go to Rodriguez, who went five fast-paced rounds with Max Holloway in a loss, not to mention having also spent cage time with Brian Ortega, Chan Sung Jung, and Frankie Edgar to wildly varying degrees of success. Even in his more humbling defeats, you can bet that Rodriguez learned a lot and all of those lessons have culminated in forging the contender that you see now. He deserves to be fighting for a title after years of stops and starts.
Emmett has never felt like a favored son of the UFC, maybe due to his tendency to let his fists do the talking rather than cut a scorching post-fight promo. But he’s put together a solid highlight reel and done enough to earn decisions against some hard-nosed scrappers, which is how he finds himself in this position.
Technique and speed is at the top of my list when it comes to picking striking battles, so Rodriguez gets the edge there too especially with his knack for avoiding big punches. Where he’ll really be tested is in the grappling as Emmett has the option of going to his wrestling, which could dramatically change the tone.
I’m confident Rodriguez’s takedown defense will hold up and that his expansive kicking game will be the difference in the standup, so I’m picking him to earn a decision nod.
Jack Della Maddalena vs. Randy Brown
With three outstanding UFC performances under his belt, it’s time for Jack Della Maddalena to step up, and he can’t go much higher than Randy Brown at this stage of his career.
“Rude Boy” presents a number of significant challenges for Della Maddalena. He’s a towering welterweight, he’s comfortable fighting orthodox or southpaw (as is Della Maddelena), and he has offensive grappling in his back pocket if it comes down to it. If Della Maddalena is to make it four straight knockouts, he’s going to have to work for it.
Fortunately for the fast-rising Australian, he’s equipped with some of the crispest boxing in the welterweight division. Della Maddalena’s knockouts aren’t merely the product of raw power. He’s a calculating striker with power in both hands and a feel for finishes. Once he senses his opponent is cracking from his pressure, he unloads and breaks down whatever is left of their defenses.
I’ll be incredibly impressed if he can put Brown away early, because I think it will take at least one full round for Della Maddalena to navigate Brown’s excellent distance striking. Whoever establishes their jab will have a major advantage and I favor Maddalena to eventually win that battle after absorbing some early damage. It’s in the second where he’ll push Brown to the fence, ramp up the volume, and put him away.
Pick: Della Maddalena
Justin Tafa vs. Parker Porter
Parker Porter is a heavyweight grinder and I mean that as a compliment. Not everyone is blessed with dynamite in their hands and Porter shouldn’t be embarrassed that he can’t chuck hammers with the best of the big man division.
That’s in contrast to Justin Tafa, a deceptively shifty fighter who ends fights in a hurry. Tafa is going to use plenty of lateral movement to keep Porter from smothering him, sniping in short shots as he loads up for a rocket down the middle. Where Porter has a significant advantage is in his ability to keep a decent pace for three rounds, something Tafa hasn’t shown he’s capable of yet.
It’s simple: If it goes to the judges, Porter likely wins; if it doesn’t, it’s because Tafa caught him with something in Round 1. I’m leaning towards the latter scenario, with Tafa receiving a big boost from the Anzac crowd.
Jimmy Crute vs. Alonzo Menifield
Jimmy Crute is only 26, but I already have concerns about the injuries he’s dealt with and the damage he’s taken in his fights. On the other hand, he finally had the chance to take some time off to recover and that could be just what he needed to turn things around.
When Crute is at his best, he’s not just standing in the pocket and trading, he’s mixing the martial arts and keeping his opponent guessing. That’s key to getting past Menifield, one of the most potent punchers in the 205-pound division. Can Crute resist the temptation to headhunt and chase a bonus? I’m not so sure.
Even if Crute utilizes takedowns, Menifield is slippery. He’s a plus-athlete and tough to move, so Crute might end up wasting energy trying to turn this into a ground battle. If this goes into the later rounds, Crute will need all the gas he can muster to keep Menifield from connecting.
I’m probably overlooking Crute here, but my gut tells me that Menifield knocks him out.