The UFC dips its toes back in the superfight waters for the first time in three years on Saturday night when featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski challenges lightweight kingpin Islam Makhachev for the 155-pound title at UFC 284. It’s a momentous contest with stakes galore, but where does UFC 284’s main event rank among MMA’s best superfights?
MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Damon Martin, and Jed Meshew sidle back up to the roundtable to debate where Makhachev vs. Volkanovski stands among superfights of yore.
Al-Shatti: The answer to this one really depends on what the word superfight means to you. Some people seem to use the term as a synonym for any big fight in combat sports, but the generally accepted definition has always been pretty clear: Any bout pitting two champions of different divisions against one another. So let’s use that definition as our guide.
Saturday’s main event marks the seventh instance in UFC history of a legitimate champion vs. champion contest. The other six: Georges St-Pierre vs. B.J. Penn 2 (2009), Conor McGregor vs. Eddie Alvarez (2016), Daniel Cormier vs. Stipe Miocic 1 (2018), Amanda Nunes vs. Cris Cyborg (2018), Henry Cejudo vs. T.J. Dillashaw (2019), and Jan Blachowicz vs. Israel Adesanya (2021). Of those six, Makhachev vs. Volkanovski certainly feels like a bigger deal than Cejudo vs. Dillashaw and Blachowicz vs. Adesanya. Neither of those fights featured a longtime champ (even Dillashaw had only defended his belt against Cody Garbrandt), which automatically lessens the stakes in a bout of this rarity and significance.
In some ways, though, the historical stakes for Volkanovski mirror what Cormier and Nunes experienced. Both were both already surefire Hall of Famers for their accomplishments in their own divisions, but by vaulting up a weight class and knocking out their heavier counterparts, they jumped a level in the pantheon and cemented themselves as legitimate all-timers. That is very much up for grabs for Volkanovski. Makhachev may be a new champion, but he’s still a known quantity at 155 pounds — the man’s been a dominant force for seven years now. Add in the allure of one of MMA’s rarest setups — the sport’s No. 1 and No. 2 pound-for-pound fighters colliding for all the marbles — and UFC 284 has unique set of circumstances that few champ vs. champ contests have ever been able to claim.
St-Pierre vs. Penn 2 remains the gold standard for two all-time greats meeting at the peak of their powers, and McGregor vs. Alvarez falls in its own category as the climactic moment of an incomparable four-year journey from the biggest superstar MMA has ever seen. But strictly in terms of its merits, Makhachev vs. Volkanovski is every bit as good as that next tier of UFC superfights both Cormier vs. Miocic 1 and Nunes vs. Cyborg emboided.
It’s just a shame the UFC seems totally disinterested in giving Makhachev vs. Volkanovski the marketing muscle it deserves.
Martin: It’s all Conor McGregor’s fault.
There was a time when the mere mention of “champion vs. champion” fights in the UFC were met with a loud chorus of guffaws, especially by Dana White, who almost always scoffed at the idea because in his eyes, nobody ever really cleared out their own division. That was his self-made prerequisite for allowing a champion to go up to another division to challenge for a second title. The unicorn was always Anderson Silva vs. Georges St-Pierre, but even that fight, which would have undoubtedly been one of the biggest matchups in the history of the sport, never came together because supposedly there was always another contender waiting in line.
But then McGregor came along with all of his star power, and after knocking out Jose Aldo with one punch, he decided he was going to move up in weight and challenge for a second title. It didn’t seem to matter much that he hadn’t defended the title he just won — McGregor was good for business, and what Conor wants, Conor usually gets.
Fast forward seven years later and there have now been six total champion vs. champion fights in the UFC, and all but one — Georges St-Pierre vs. B.J. Penn — happened in the wake of McGregor’s determination to become a “champ-champ.”
The unique and special quality about these fights have almost universally been ruined because it feels like it happens all the time — or at the very least, one or more champions are constantly calling for it to happen. So in theory the UFC 284 main event between Islam Makhachev and Alexander Volkanovski should feel far more special that it does just days away from the event.
These are two of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, but there’s been no grand build up to this moment. No real interest that multiplied over time.
It just doesn’t feel earned, and that diminishes the magnitude of the fight.
Make no mistake, this is a great matchup between two amazing fighters and it’s certainly better than other “superfights” like Jan Blachowicz vs. Israel Adesanya, which felt even more rushed at the time, but it doesn’t come anywhere near the anticipation that built up for St-Pierre vs. Penn. Sadly, this just doesn’t have that colossal showdown type of appeal — it feels like another pay-per-view that just so happens to feature two champions fighting each other.
Meshew: Is it even a superfight? It’s hard to tell because, to be frank, this seems like just another fight for the UFC.
Don’t get me wrong, this should be a superfight. It’s champion vs. champion, No. 1 vs. No. 2 pound-for-pound, two combined losses in 50 fights, the most recent of which happened during the Obama administration. And yet, as Makhachev pointed out last week, the UFC sure isn’t promoting this like it’s anything special. No, they’re spending all their time relentlessly pumping Dana White’s Power Slap nonsense. So here we sit, six days away from what should be a monumental occasion and bona fide fight fans probably forgot that’s coming up.
I’ve said it a bunch but I’ll say it again: The UFC are abysmal promoters. If it’s not a Conor McGregor fight, it’s not worth making a fuss about beyond normal fight week stuff in their eyes, which genuinely raises the question: Why have superfights to begin with? If something like this isn’t going to be made to feel like the biggest moment of the year, what the hell are we doing? Makhachev vs. Volkanovski is busying up two champions and it’s been promoted no different than the extremely dubious title fight between Jan Blachowicz and Magomed Ankalaev. The UFC is completely checked out and it sucks.
Think about the other legitimate superfights in UFC history. When Georges St-Pierre rematched B.J. Penn at UFC 94, the UFC pulled out all the stops. They did a 24/7 style show (that kicked ass) and made the whole thing feel like a truly historic moment. When Conor McGregor and Jose Aldo fought, there was a 10-day media tour! Rio, Vegas, Boston, New York, three (!) cities in Canada, London, Dublin! They put those men out there and had them talk and interact and answer questions and build interest BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT A PROMOTER IS SUPPOSED TO DO!! Do you think those events would have been as big if it was business as usual, five-day media push on fight week? Of course not. Because if the people whose job is to get you interested in something can’t even feign it themselves, then why the hell would you? And because the UFC isn’t treating it as such, this fight isn’t as big or as important or as good as the others in history. Sorry, but it’s true.
Strictly on the merits, Makhachev vs. Volkanovski is a tremendous fight. Not the best we’ve ever seen, but it’s undeniably excellent and the stakes are massive. That’s two of the key ingredients for world-bending superfight, but they aren’t the most important factor. Interest is, and this fight, right now, appears to be generating the same buzz as any other lightweight title fight — arguably less, given the names who have fought for the lightweight belt recently. And so, while this fight may end up being amazing and career-defining and historic, it won’t join the pantheon of, “Hey, remember when Conor boxed Floyd?” and other superfights. Because it’s not a superfight at all; it’s just a damn good one.