UFC 294 staff picks and predictions: Islam Makhachev by a hair
Check out who we think will win in the Octagon this weekend.
UFC 294 goes down live from the desert on Saturday afternoon with a main card that has been flipped on its head. Just a few weeks ago we were ready for Islam Makhachev vs. Charles Oliveira 2 and Paulo Costa vs. Khamzat Chimaev. Thanks to a deep cut and a strangely timed surgery, we now have Islam Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski 2 and Khamzat Chimaev vs. Kamaru Usman.
Outside of those compelling match-ups, UFC 294 leaves a lot to be desired. But Johnny Walker vs. Magomed Ankalaev and Tim Elliott vs. Muhammad Mokaev should be interesting.
Whether the card is a banger or a damp squib we still pour over the match-ups and give you who we think will win each and every fight.
For the UFC 294 main event, we’re pretty torn. Plenty of us see paths to victory for both Makhachev and Volkanovski. Hopefully that means we’re in for a thrilling contest come Saturday.
In the co-main, almost all of us think Usman is marching into a wood-chipper in Abu Dhabi. Maybe the former welterweight champion can prove us wrong, though.
Keep scrolling for the rest of our UFC 294 picks. Hit us with yours in the comments.
It’s hard running an independent combat sports site. If you like what we’re doing, and want to help out, the best way to support us is with a paid subscription on Substack.
Islam Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski
Anton Tabuena: After their very competitive first match, I felt like Volkanovski would be the one able to make more valuable adjustments that could take him over the top in a rematch. Volkanovski’s team can make those small but crucial adjustments on the feet that they’re known for, and he’s already felt Islam’s wrestling game as well, making him more equipped to solve this puzzle.
That can all still happen, but I’m not that confident it can all be achieved with Volkanovski returning from surgery and coming in on extremely short notice. I’m not sure if that’s enough time to drill and prepare their counters to Islam’s game, plus his vaunted cardio, pressure game, and scrambling ability could be compromised over the course of 25 minutes as he’s not in optimal shape. I would probably make a different pick under better circumstances, but the logical pick here on short notice is Islam Makhachev by decision.
Chris: Much has been made about Volkanovski’s limitations in this rematch. He’s coming off surgery, might not be at full cardio capacity, and is less rested than Makhachev. However, I think Makhachev is a tiny bit nervous about this pairing. At the highest levels of fighting the mental game might be the most important aspect. Perhaps it was the proficiency of Volk’s wrestling or the way he won the 5th round, or just the overall laudatory response to Volk’s performance that fans and media gave, I detected a note of anxiousness in Makachev’s pre-fight talk. Volkanovski already won the narrative by saving the card, something Islam Makhachev must grudgingly be grateful for. He’s coming in as the man with nothing to lose and may step into the cage with an air of freedom that sets his hands loose in a way that was missing in the first fight. Look for a Volkanovski finish within the distance because the coin flip says Alex is Great.
Dayne: So much is in the favor of Makhachev. He won the first contest between these two, a sentiment I agree with. He’s been preparing for a contest on this day for a while now whereas this is a last minute thing for Volkanovski. Thus, Volkanovski doesn’t have the time to sufficiently bulk up his frame in a proper manner. Makhachev will be on his home turf in Abu Dhabi. And yet… I have to go with Volkanovski.
The way both men have carried themselves since the first fight is telling to me. Volk may have lost, explaining why he’s been chomping at the bit to get the rematch. However, despite that, he’s gone about business as usual, defending his belt in dominant fashion against Yair Rodriguez, knowing the rematch would come in due time if he just did what he’s supposed to do. Makhachev has largely gone radio silent. I get that he’s naturally a guy who let’s his performance do the talking, but he’s been quiet even for him. Almost like he doesn’t want anything to do with Volk.
I could very well be misreading the situation. There’s only so much I can gather from social media and the like, but I take it as Makhachev knowing he just barely escaped with his belt. Perhaps he’ll regroup and come back with a stronger performance, but few are better at putting together a strategy than Volk and his team. I anticipate they’ll have something up their sleeve for this. Plus, there’s just an aura around Volkanovski right now. It feels like destiny for him to win the belt with the deck stacked against him in the rematch. Volkanovski via submission of RD4
Victor: After being in there and actually getting a feel for Islam, I have faith that Volko takes it this time. He’s got less pressure this time around, and still has time to gameplan and improve off the back of his first performance against Makhachev. Especially breaking the chain sequences and getting some good punches off. Alex Volkanovski by TKO, round 5.
Tim: Taking Alexander Volkanovski here, but not overly confident with the pick. Islam Makhachev has so much of size over the Aussie and sambo keeps showing itself to be BJJ’s kryptonite (which is the area of his game Volkanovski seems to be most intent on improving as of late). The short notice thing doesn’t sway me either way on this. I just have a ‘feeling’ we’re due a big upset and that the little man is going to be the one to pull it off. If he wins I think it will be because of the pace he’s able to push. I don’t think it will wear Makhachev down, but just impress the judges over the long haul. Add a good crack on the chin here and there and we’ve got the makings of close win on the scorecards. Alexander Volkanovski via split decision
Staff picking Makhachev: Jack, Stephie, Kristen, Zane, Ben, Eddie, Anton
Staff picking Volkanovski: Lucas, Chris, Dayne, Victor, Tim
Kamaru Usman vs. Khamzat Chimaev
Anton: They should’ve booked this from the very start, as Usman has been calling for it for months. This normally compelling fight now just ended up feeling like PRIDE style matchmaking to me. Very competitive on paper, with Usman even possibly being a favorite, but with it being on very short notice, it seems like the promotion’s favorite fighter is now just much more likely to get a big name on his resume. Even ignoring the chances that he might be getting further from his prime, or the possible knee injury that he seemed to be ultra defensive about, this is a real uphill battle for Usman given the circumstance. Khamzat Chimaev by TKO.
Chris: I’m going with double underdogs today. Kamaru Usman is at a career crossroads, he’s on the wrong side of 35 years old and has lost twice to the current welterweight champion. The UFC is going into chaos mode in handling the middleweight division, announcing that the winner of this fight will get a title shot against Sean Strickland (pour one out for ol’ DDP). I’m not picking Usman so much as I am the MMA gods to greet this hubris with a fitting punishment.
Dayne: Schedule this fight a year ago and I’d be all over Usman for this contest. However, watching his performance against Leon Edwards earlier this year and I’m singing a different tune. Usman looked unsure of himself in against Edwards. It looked like the head kick that stripped him of the welterweight title replays in his head over and over as he was reluctant to engage Edwards in close quarters outside of attempting takedowns.
It isn’t just the mental side of things for Usman either. While he didn’t hold back on attempting takedowns against Edwards, he was unable to complete them in the physical manner he used to do so. The issues with Usman’s knees have long been documented, but he seemed to work through them while minimizing the ill-effects of them. Not so anymore. Usman’s days as an elite athlete appear to be over. I do believe moving up to middleweight will help some, but not enough for him to reclaim his glory days.
As for Chimaev, he’s a poor matchup for Usman. He’s had more time to grow into fighting at middleweight permanently. He’s younger. There’s no question about his confidence. Plus, the UFC wants to see him succeed. When a fighter gets this close to the sun for the UFC, they tend to succeed. Just look at Sean O’Malley…. Chimaev via decision
Victor: Usman called his shot against Woodley pointing out that their wrestling was very different. And the same applies here, only against him. Chimaev runs a ragged pace and absolutely wallops people with his punches. How much of that can Usman take when we’ve seen his chin’s been tested after all these years? I dunno, but I don’t like them odds, playboy. Khamzat Chimaev by TKO, round 2.
Zane: Down at WW I might pick Usman. On a full camp I might pick Usman. But up a division on short notice as an increasingly cautious fighter heading out of his prime years? This just feels like a setup. Khamzat Chimaev via KO, round 1.
Tim: The situation around this fight feels totally stacked in Khamzat Chimaev’s favour. I’d pick him over a 36-year-old Kamaru Usman regardless of the situation, though. I see Chimaev rocking Usman early and then putting him to sleep with a squeeze. Khamzat Chimaev via technical submission, round 1.
Staff picking Usman: Chris
Staff picking Chimaev: Lucas, Jack, Dayne, Victor, Stephie, Kristen, Zane, Ben, Eddie, Tim, Anton
Magomed Ankalaev vs. Johnny Walker
Anton: Walker is on a nice streak, and has the power and the physical tools to win against anyone. I think I’ve picked against him at least twice in his winning streak, so maybe he proves me wrong again here, but I think this is a bad match up for him. Magomed Ankalaev by decision.
Chris: There is one meme that summarizes my feelings about Magomed Ankalaev. His promise has been undone by Paul Craig and undermined by his own performance against Jan Blachowicz. It only makes sense that the final blow should come against the most unlikely and ridiculous of opponents. Walker by Rolling Thunder.
Dayne: I know a lot of people think Ankalaev crapped the bed against Jan Blachowicz, but I maintain the judges got it wrong and Ankalaev should be the world champion. That isn’t what played out and here we are.
Walker is capable of beating anyone at any time. There may not be a more explosive fighter on the roster. His combination of size, power, and speed is unmatched. However, he’s also learned he can’t run over the best of the division solely with his physical gifts as they’re more than capable of touching up his vulnerable chin with the proper anticipation and timing. Few are better at landing the perfect counter than Ankalaev. It isn’t out of bounds to think Walker might be able to catch him off guard, but I wouldn’t count on it. Throw in Ankalaev’s wrestling and he can grind out a win if he needs to. However, Ankalaev knows he needs an explosive finish if he wants an opportunity to fight for the gold again. He’ll be looking to make a statement. Ankalaev via submission of RD2
Victor: This new and composed version of Walker is good. But is he good enough to beat an Ankalaev that packs this much power and really mixes up his strikes the way he does? Again, it’s about who you trust, and Walker’s still too inconsistent for my tastes. Magomed Ankalaev by TKO, round 3.
Zane: If Walker wins this it will be very funny because he definitely shouldn’t. But if Ankalaev’s output is rock bottom low and Walker pumps in the low kicks, he could get it done. Still, Magomed Ankalaev via TKO round 2.
Tim: I wish there was a way for Johnny Walker to make this a fun fight. But I just don’t see it happening. Ankalaev will grind him down, effectively, but not excitingly. And Walker will tap to something mid-way through the fight. Magomed Ankalaev via submission
Staff picking Ankalaev: Lucas, Jack, Dayne, Victor, Stephie, Kristen, Zane, Ben, Eddie, Tim, Anton
Staff picking Walker: Chris
Ikram Aliskerov vs. Warlley Alves
Dayne: The UFC has given up on Alves. I can’t blame them. It’s been nearly a decade he’s been on the roster and he’s been unable to advance beyond the middle of the welterweight division. Now 32, Alves is moving up to middleweight, a move that seems to be coming more out of late career desperation. He has the talent to beat Aliskerov, but I don’t see the move up in weight solving his real problem: inconsistency.
Some see Aliskerov as a future title contender. I might agree if he was younger, but I can still see him breaking into the top ten. He’s well-rounded and gave Khamzat Chimaev the biggest run for his money prior to breaking into the UFC. He’s far more consistent than Alves too. This feels like one of the easier picks on the card. Aliskerov via TKO of RD2
Zane: I’ve seen Alves melt down too many times in too many ways. Not that impressed by Aliskerov’s game, but he’s got good wrestling and solid speed. If he’s tough he can probably just break Alves over time. Ikram Aliskerov by decision.
Staff picking Aliskerov: Lucas, Jack, Chris, Dayne, Victor, Stephie, Kristen, Ben, Zane, Eddie, Anton
Staff picking Alves: Tim
Said Nurmagomedov vs. Muin Gafurov
Dayne: Nurmagomedov appears to have hit his ceiling. That said, he’s still a hell of a gatekeeper. One of the more opportunistic bantamweights on the roster, Nurmagomedov is slick at finding either the target with a spinning back kick or locking in a tight guillotine. Gafurov is tough as nails – he’s never been finished – but he’s also never faced someone of Nurmagomedov’s talent.
The door is there for Gafurov if he can extend the fight into the halfway point of the second round. Nurmagomedov tends to expend his energy early, meaning Gafurov can outwork Nurmagomedov over the latter stages of the fight. Some may point out Gafurov gassed against John Casteneda, but he also took that fight on short notice. I say he has the toughness to survive early and the energy to take the latter rounds. Gafurov via decision
Zane: Gafurov is so wild and messy. Even if I can see him having big moments of success, I can’t see him maintaining them over someone as dangerous as Nurmagomedov. Said Nurmagomedov by submission, round 2.
Staff picking Nurmagomedov: Lucas, Jack, Kristen, Zane, Eddie, Anton
Staff picking Gafurov: Chris, Dayne, Victor, Stephie, Tim
Tim Elliott vs. Muhammad Mokaev
Dayne: I’ve underestimated Elliott several times over the last few years. That’s due to his history of scrambling himself into trouble and getting submitted. It’s been several years since that has happened. In other words, Elliott is much more mature in his approach than he used to be. In other words, I would be tempted to throw some money on Elliott even though Mokaev is the rightful favorite.
Mokaev proved he isn’t…