Best bets for UFC 294: Makhachev vs. Volkanovski
UFC 294 from Abu Dhabi, the Arab Emirates, comprises thirteen MMA bouts featuring athletes from India, Afghanistan, England, Tajikistan, Nigeria, and Dagestan, not to mention staples like Brazil, Russia and the US.
Prelims for UFC 294 begin at 7 a.m. PT, with the main card kicking off at 11 a.m. PT. This week, we’ll enjoy KOs with our coffee.
Both the main and co-main events have been altered with new opponents in the last couple of weeks, compounding the interest and intrigue for each bout.
Paramount in profiting from UFC events on foreign soil is understanding that the UFC is primarily interested in its growth. The expansion of its brand comes from igniting interest in every corner of the world. The most effective way to accomplish that is to grant regional athletes somewhat favorable matchups when these foreign cards are held.
Local talent succeeding fuels regional growth, and with athletes from remote countries like Afghanistan and India featured on this card, it takes a little more scrutiny to determine if the regional athlete is set up favorably or not.
Islam Makhachev -260 vs. Alexander Volkanovski +210
Lightweight Championship (155 pounds) Main Event
Finocchiaro: Several months after their original tussle, this rematch is much different this time because current featherweight champion Volkanovski takes this challenge on about two weeks’ notice.
Australian Volkanovski, the current featherweight title holder and acknowledged “pound-for-pound” champion in the UFC, moves up a weight class again to challenge Russian grappling savant Makhachev.
Makhachev holds the lightweight title. The late notice change of opponent will challenge him, for he was preparing for a completely different fighting challenge, one he surely felt more comfortable with.
Instead of a long, lanky Brazilian foe, he gets an unrelenting Aussie buzzsaw who had Makhachev on the ropes in the fifth round of their razor-close split decision fight this past February.
Makhachev is four inches taller, but he’ll have no reach advantage. At 32, he’s three years younger and is the competitor used to facing larger, heavier athletes in competition. His striking is serviceable, and his grappling/sambo/wrestling is world-class dominant.
In Volkanovski, we get a uniquely constructed athlete who, in his youth, played championship team rugby at 205 pounds! Volkanovski uses discipline, fortitude, and grit to attain the 145-pound limit, let alone dominate there.
Based on his performance in their first bout, Volkanovski should have no issues competing at lightweight, but how much does this bout change from the first based on the short notice nature for each athlete and the lack of camp time for Volkanovski?
Volkanovski’s footwork and striking proved to be superior to Makhachev’s in the first bout. While he’s not the grappling threat that Makhachev is, his wrestling base, coupled with his short, stout frame, presented Makhachev with a tremendous challenge, especially as the fight wore on and the Russian began to slow.
Once the bell for this rematch rings, I’ll be lasered in on how Volkanovski approaches champion Makhachev. Will he use patience and try to go deep into the fight, showing more potential conditioning than many may give him credit for? Or, will Volk attack and try to get the belt wrested from the champion early based again on the short notice nature of this fight?
For Makhachev, nothing changes. He will wrestle early and often, for that’s the best way to usurp Volkanovski’s energy and make him vulnerable in the later rounds. I must say that while Makhachev’s had the benefit of a full camp, he’s undoubtedly feeling the anxiety in this switch of opponents because Volkanovski is THE most viable threat to Makhachev.
Volkanovski’s mentality, coupled with that compact frame, incredible strength, and Greco-Roman wrestling base, are his weaponry. Something tells me a professional like Volkanovski, while not actively training, is never far from top conditioning. I believe that.
Makhachev opened at -330 in the first bout and closed at -400.
In this one, Makhachev opened -200 and has been bet up to the current -260, most likely because he’s the legitimate lightweight titleholder with a full training camp behind him.
Total in this fight: 4.5 Rds. Over -125
I’ll have more to say about this fight as the week progresses.
Kuhn: This rematch is arguably better than the other rematch that was initially planned. Charles Oliveira was approaching a +300 underdog while getting his rematch. But the new opponent of Alexander Volkanovski has drawn a tighter line in the area of +200, despite making only his second move up to Lightweight.
That may be because Volkanovski put in a much closer fight than Oliveira did, with the Aussie forcing Makhachev to a close decision, compared to Oliveira getting finished within two rounds. In his first fight against Makhachev, Volkanovski won two rounds on two cards by minimizing time spent getting wrestled for three out of five rounds and also landing the more damaging strikes throughout, including a knockdown in the fifth.
Having shown up so well despite being an overwhelming underdog in their first meeting, one might expect Volkanovski to bring greater confidence in his striking to this rematch. Per current market odds, apparently, the public agrees, hence a much different betting line this second time around.
But the dynamics haven’t changed much. Volkanovski is still arguably the superior technical striker, while Makhachev can steal any round by getting just one takedown and milking it for all its worth. Last time out, Makhachev was the more hesitant striker but landed one takedown in rounds one through four, which put him in cruise control before he nearly lost everything in the final round.
I don’t expect too much different. While Volkanovski may have resurgent confidence to test his opponent’s chin, we can’t ignore the fact that Makhachev is still likely to spend extended minutes in ground or clinch control, which is unlikely to draw any boos from a favorable audience. And he, too, has the benefit of hindsight from the last performance.
Ultimately, this feels like a pass. Volkanovski needs to land something big and early to score the upset, while Makhachev, playing it conservatively, should lead the fight into the championship rounds. Props and parlays might be the only way to find value in this matchup.
Khazmat Chimaev -275 vs. Kamaru Usman +230
Middleweight (185 pounds) co-main event
Finocchiaro: Like Volkanovski above, former welterweight champion Kamaru Usman steps into this 185-pound Middleweight bout on very short notice, while his opponent, fourth-ranked welterweight Chimaev, has had the benefit of a full camp.
Chimaev has been preparing to compete in the 185-pound weight class for months now, but for Usman, this will be his first foray into competing at Middleweight.
Russian Chimaev sports a world-class freestyle wrestling base, a purple belt in BJJ, a developing striking acumen, and a cardiovascular capability that was regarded as elite until his bout with Gil Burns. Many say it was the cut; thus, we’ll learn plenty from watching these vie at 185.
Chimaev’s last bout was a cakewalk finish against Kevin Holland, an athlete with little wrestling acumen. Before that, he overpowered gatekeeper Li Jingliang and Gerald Meerschaert before he was truly tested by top-ten talent Gil Burns, a fighter that Usman pulverized in a recent fight.
Until the Burns fight, Chimaev’s momentum was skyrocketing. He then walked through a singularly equipped Kevin Holland and arrives at this bout after being inactive for over a year.
Chimaev, up in weight and coming in somewhat inactive, facing off against a legitimate title contender in Usman, is surely a test that, should Chimaev pass, will push him right into title contention.
Usman’s motives for taking this bout revolve around the same motivations as Chmaev’s. By daring to be great on short notice, Usman himself will be propelled into the top contender status (in the welterweight division) should he be able to get his hand raised against a guy in Chimaev that few are willing to face, no matter the weight class.
Chimaev opened -310 for this bout.
Total for this bout: 2.5 Rds. Under -160
Kuhn: Another last-minute switch-up and another new opponent moving up a weight class. Chimaev has made short work of plenty of solid fighters, but in many cases, they weren’t very multi-dimensional ones. When he faced Gilbert Burns, he had to deal with a dual-level fighter, and Chimaev finally went the distance and even gave up a round.
Usman is similar to Burns in that he, too, can strike and grapple, and Usman has far superior experience against elite talent. He’s the underdog for a reason, coming off two losses and facing a larger opponent, but Usman still has the DNA and skills of an elite champion.
The check marks on the ground may favor Chimaev, but only because he hasn’t faced a true wrestler. It’s the striking that is more interesting. Chimaev has seen success with his fast hands, but he has also shown horrible defense. That liability could open great risk against Usman, who has more knockdowns scored than any fighter on this card and is fully capable of shutting the lights out of opponents in a firefight.
If you can get Usman around +200, that’s the value play.
Anshul Jubli -300 vs. Mike Breeden +250
Lightweight (155 pounds)
Finocchiaro: This appears to be a perfect example of the organization’s zeal to seep deep into every corner of the athletic world to capture both talent and fans.
Jubli is 6’0”, 28 years old, and he arrives with plenty of hype as he’s the first fighter of Indian descent in the UFC.
When reviewing his record, it’s hard to hold his work against local talent against him, understanding that India is still relatively novice when it comes to MMA.
Jubli is a refined boxer with a stiff, straight jab, and he holds a solid wrestling base. Still, until I see him against legitimate UFC-caliber talent, I’ll consider this young man someone the UFC can cash in on if only he can execute Saturday and beyond.
Jubli earned a win in the Road to the UFC production via split decision, then won impressively in his UFC debut this past February against Jeka Saragih, a singularly dimensioned debuting fighter himself.
In Mike Breeden, we get a fighter who’s 0-3 in the UFC and has lost two of those in the first round. However, we must peel the handicap back a bit to understand that Breeden is the athlete who has competed against a far more elite level of talent than Jubli.
Breeden’s loss to Alex Hernandez was his debut. He then took Natan Levy to a decision loss and, in his last, was stopped in the first against firebomber Terrence McKinney in what many consider to be an early stoppage.
Breeden is focused on this fourth fight because he knows most fighters only get three losses before they’re booted.
He’s got his back against the wall. He’s desperate to remain in the UFC, especially since he feels his last fight ended unfairly. He has much more experience, and he’s been in with better fighters. He’s coming to award young Mr. Jubli his Ph.D. in MMA.
Pick: Breeden +250
Total in this fight: 1.5 Over -200
Breeden must get this fight into the second round at all costs. The longer this bout goes, the more dominant he’ll become.
Magomed Ankalaev -365 vs. Johnny Walker +300
Light Heavyweight (205 pounds)
Kuhn: Lots of finishing potential at light heavyweight, but what’s new? These two can dish out power, but the chin of Walker is much more suspect. Ankalaev has superior accuracy and a tendency to use kicks from distance, which could help him overcome the reach differential.
On the ground, the contrasts continue. Ankalaev is a dominant wrestler, and Walker’s takedown defense is below average, with his ground control metrics even worse. The wild card is Walker’s submission game, which could post threats if Ankalaev is too eager to force the fight to the ground. But between Ankalaev’s impressive weapons and Walker’s underlying liabilities, there are enough paths to victory to warrant playing a heavy favorite. Consider him inside the distance or for parlays on this chalky card or the FDNGTD to hedge against a wild Walker upset.
The GambLou ‘Bout Business Podcast is searing through 2023. The Podcast drops early Friday morning PST because of the early Saturday start time.
Enjoy the bouts, and thank you for reading!