Michael Jones - @keepingitrealmma &
Dave Manley - @mmabobblehead
Very rare are those who bare the capacity to venture onward, climb the mountain and gaze upon the horizon. Of those brave enough, only a few will wonder what lies beyond, craving the endless journey, a glory out of reach. Of those few, only two will scoff at legacy, motivated not by accolades, but by reaching a plane where their accomplishment surpasses any previously established understanding of what's possible.
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Those two men are about to collide. Not for our entertainment, but for a chance at eternal glory. This Saturday night, Alexander Volkanovski will attempt to cement his place amongst the gods.
1. Alexander Volkanovski (25-1) vs. Islam Makhachev (23-1)
I refuse to entertain the idea that Islam is the A-side in this contest. I'm not sure how many people are towing that line, but people are acting like his win is a forgone conclusion. In almost any other scenario where a smaller striker is moving up to fight a larger grappler I would agree, but Alex is built different. He approaches seemingly unattainable goals with a mindset and work ethic most people will never know. Alexander is by far the more accomplished fighter, he's defended his featherweight title 4 times to cap his current 21 fight win streak. In the last few years he beat the featherweight GOAT in Max Holloway 3 damn times. The guy hasn't lost since 2013, just one loss, and that was at welterweight, 170 pounds, 15 damn lbs. above the weight he's going up to. He's basically a hall of famer only halfway through painting his legacy. Sure, a fighter's resume doesn't dictate how they will do against future opponents, but it does show us what improbable odds they overcame to get where they are. In Alex's case, it shows us how he beat the former kings of his division, Jose Aldo included. He always rises to the occasion, he takes every match dead serious. You never hear about Alex getting caught up with partying or screwing around, he's a certified professional. As I'm writing this he sort of reminds me of GSP (Don't @ me bro).
As for his opponent Islam Makhachev, he's in an interesting spot. He won the title on what we might consider his home court, surrounded by a sea of Islam fans and a team as loyal as they come. At the helm of this grinding team was his "big brother" and former coach Khabib Nurmagomedov, he paved the path for Islam's success and all Islam needed to do was take the baton. He did that and then some when he defeated former lightweight champ Charles Oliveira. October of last year he finished Charles by 2nd round submission in a mostly one-sided beat down. He showed decent striking, exceptional defense and suffocating ground control. Don't misunderstand, he did that himself, but one can't deny the influence of his corner and most notably his "big brother" Khabib. On Saturday he won't be there as Khabib has retired to spend more time with his family. This time Islam will be swimming in enemy territory, amongst a sea of hungry Australians, hungry to see their guy accomplish the feat of a life time. As mentioned previously, most people think he will simply squash the smaller Alexander. I understand their belief in Islam, he really is that good.
However, MMA exists on a very different plane than its mainstream counterparts, in team sports the favorite will almost always rise above the competition, but in this sport built on x-factors where the will of one man not only can but will completely change the outcome, predicting a winner tends to be more difficult. The primary difference maker in this contest might be Alex's experience dealing with heavier competitors, he played rugby against guys twice his current size and won fights 2 weight divisions above his own. Yeah Islam is taller and will weigh about 15 pounds more on fight day, but Alex is no stranger to that adversity. Another factor is Alex's reach advantage, 1.5 inches over Islam. Maybe I'm grasping at straws here, but as they say "every fight starts on the feet" and Alex is definitely the superior striker. In simple terms, this is your classic grappler vs striker matchup. Can Alex stuff the early takedown attempts and outpoint Islam on route to a decision? Or will Islam take him down early, establish dominance and drown him in deep waters? While the latter is more probable, I just don't find it worth it to discount what Alex is capable of. Not at +300 odds, a fighter of his caliber might never see odds like that again.
Hardcore History: Alexander "The Great" Volkanovski. Born not of flesh and bone, but of insatiable hunger and radical gall. The brain scrambler will return home to Australia. He will spit on societally agreed upon limitations and put his momentum on the line, in a grand attempt to do what Israel couldn't. The difference being level of competition. Where GSP defeated an aging Michael Bisping (who had one damn eye) and Israel lost to a replacement champion not named Jon Jones, Alex will be fighting the cream of the crop still in his early prime, a younger version of the former champion with arguably more refined striking. History will show that Islam was by far the biggest threat to a champion moving up in weight, even Conor Mac defeated an aging Eddie Alvarez burdened by years of wars against the best lightweight history had to offer. There is no comparison for what Alex is about to attempt, if he wins he will very much be in the conversation for best fighter to ever live. GSP, Silva and Jones will still run the conversation for all time GOAT, but in my humble opinion beating Islam will absolutely trounce anything they ever accomplished. I probably sound like a broken record, but Silva never fought the light heavyweight champion, GSP didn't beat the consensus best middleweight and Jones unfortunately won't have the chance to challenge Francis. This is it, this the current #1 challenging the current #2. This is the ultimate... *sighs heavy knowing the level of cringe he's about to mutter* super-fight. There, I said it. Sorry I'm not sorry, someone had to.
As for his opponent Islam Makhachev, talk about insane discipline, his entire team is built from a culture that thrives on hard work and absolute sacrifice. The grinding life of a wrestler is exactly what they embody. Islam Makhachev grew up in poverty, with little choice but to grind hard if he wanted to win. Born amongst the giants of Makhachkala, Islam grew up in the remote mountain village of Burshi, modern day Republic of Dagestan, Russia. Like many Russian MMA fighters, Islam started his competitive sports journey with Sambo, a grappling based combat sport. He made his professional MMA debut at 18, was promoted to M-1 less than 3 years later and eventually made his UFC debut in 2015. He won that fight via 2nd round rear naked choke, but got K.O.'d in his second bout. Shortly after that he was booked for his third UFC fight, before that got canceled due to a failed drug test, he tested positive for meldonium, a drug designed to treat lack of blood flow but also commonly used to enhance your stamina and increase energy.
Dave’s Pick: Not to sound hyperbolic, but simply put, these are the types of fights that I live for. This fight is a legit Superfight, and the stakes couldn’t be any higher. Islam is the -350 favorite with Alex coming back at +300. The total rounds is 2.5 with the over coming in at -165. Islam is good.Islam is great. But does Islam deserve to be this high of a favorite against a guy who’s won 21 fights in a row? No. Islam is the legit lightweight champion and he submitted the guy who has the most submissions in the UFC to get the belt, but let’s take a peak beyond that. His last opponents before Olivera were Bobby Green (short notice) Dan Hooker, Thiago Moises, and Drew Dober. Not a single wrestler in the bunch. That’s not the case with Alex Volkanovski, who himself is a National Champion wrestler. Coming off 21 wins in a row, with his last loss being almost 10 years ago, Alex is a special kind of athlete that will not be afraid to take it to the mat with Islam. Albeit, I don’t think that he’ll welcome the fight going to the ground, but he won’t be afraid . Alex’s striking is crisp and he will have the advantage on the feet. He has a 1.5 inch reach advantage, and he’s proved time after time that he’s as gritty as they come. One thing of note is that one of Alex’s main weapons of choice, his devastating leg strikes, may be abandoned, as I don’t believe that he’ll want to take any chances with giving Islam a window of opportunity for a clean take down. He will need to use those leg strikes though. He just needs to be sneaky and hide them behind some great combinations. Another quick note.all this talk about “short guy” or “not strong enough”, that’s all A #1 Bullshit. Alex has been a elite competitor his entire life being shorter than most of his opponents, and he’s also competed at WELTERWEIGHT before. So don’t believe the hype. +300 is a gift, and yes, there is a solid chance that this fight never hears the callout of round 3….but if it does, I love Alex in this match. I’m taking Alex at +300 and if you have the opportunity, take him in a prop play to win by decision at +650 as well. This Alex Volkanovski is legit. Even at Lightweight.
2. Yair Rodriguez (15-3-1NC) vs. Josh Emmett (18-2)
AKA crucially underrated Josh Emmett vs. The long strange history of Yair Rodriguez: The UFC would like you to believe this is #1 and #2 fighting for the interim *coughs* title.. interim, meaning made up, not real, inconsequential, okay glad that's out of the way. When in reality this isn't Max Holloway or Calvin Kattar, this is more like #4 vs #5. None of this to take away from their skills, but lets take a look at Yair's last 5 fights. In 2018 he was getting beat pillar to post for 24.59 minutes of a 25 minute affair before throwing a very awkward back-elbow hailmary that Chan Sung Jung never could have seen coming. Most fighters would have coasted when they were so far ahead, but TKZ didn't, he wanted to cement his win and paid for it. Okay, thats his loss and Yair's win... sort of. Then we fast forward to 2019 and Yair is up against an aging Jeremy Stephens who was ranked around #9 at the time. That ended within 15 seconds after Yair all but stabbed Jeremy in his damn eye. They run it back later that year and Yair takes home a decent decision win, okay well give him that win over a bottom 10 opponent. The next 2 years are relatively uneventful as Yair gets a USADA suspension for failing to tell the warden where he was. We can't say he was taking performance enhancing drugs, but we can't say he wasn't, because he never tested during that time. Then finally in the last quarter of 2021 he gets scheduled to fight Max Holloway. At the time every MMA pundit and there mom thought this was a mistake or possibly UFC brass was tired of waiting for Yair to arrive so they gave him a make or break fight. Ultimately he lost a very inspired performance, landing 186 "significant strikes" to Max's 250. To tell the tale honestly, the fight was very close, but a few key takedowns for Max most likely gave him the judges nod.
To summarize the last 4 years of his career up to this point; 1. Yair had a no contest, rematched and got the win over #9 ranked Jeremy Stephens, 2. won (but mostly lost) a one-sided fight against Chan Sung Jung, 3. evaded the 'drug-police' for what seemed like 2 years, 4. had a brilliant war with Max Holloway (in hindsight his best performance to date, and it was a loss). Phew, we're caught up. Enter 2022 and Yair is scheduled to fight Brian Ortega, fresh off his own hard fought loss to Alexander Volkanovski (the true hero of our story). Brian dislocates his shoulder in the very first round. And now were giving Yair a "title" shot. *Record scratches* wait what?! To be fair, half of this nonsense was out his control, but he hasn't done much in the way of putting together a streak to earn a title shot.
This is all circumstance brought to you by the fact that Alex and Max have beaten nearly everyone in the division, this fight is being propped up because well, theres no one who hasn't fought and lost to the top 2 dogs, except Josh Emmett. So here we are, Josh is coming off a war against Kattar where he narrowly escaped with a split decision win, up to that point he had won his last 4 in a row, yeah that's called a streak, good on ya Josh. Before this his last loss was a very controversial head butt led knockout at the hands of Jeremy Stephens, (maybe the most unsuspecting foil in our story). Josh's only other "loss" was a split decision against a guy you've 120% never heard of. All that to say, Josh is my pick in this fight. Not just because he's earned it, but because the guy hits like a damn mack truck. Virtually none of the top featherweights are knocking people out, enter Josh Emmett. Dude is a modern day (pre-USADA) Johnny Hendricks. He has great takedown defense and a monstrous over hand. This fight will be fun, but in 25 minutes I find it hard to believe that he doesn't find Yair's chin at least a few times. And to be clear, Yair is by no means a grappler, so that's one huge threat Josh won't have to consider. Josh can throw at will and leave his hips wide open... wait are we still talking about fist fighting? Yikes.
Dave’s Pick: Yair Rodriguez is coming in as the -180 favorite with Josh Emmett coming back at +150. The total rounds is 2.5 OVER -280. Yair Rodriguez kinda reminds me of the Philadelphia Eagles going to the Super Bowl this year. Do they deserve to be there? Yes. yes, they do. But was their path to play for glory at all challenging? Not at all. Yair zigged when he need to zig and zag when he needed to zag. The MMA Gods have smiled down upon Yair. So here we are. Yair is fast and he’s flashy. His twitch speed is off the charts. But that won’t be enough here. Josh Emmett is a wrestler. He’s a grinder. He will show extreme pressure. There will be zero fear of a takedown from Yair, so Josh should be hyper focused with dem hands. If Josh can get past 1st round, this thing may be a wrap. I think Josh will wear Yair around the cage like a glove, not giving Yair any space to maneuver. The key in this fight will be the wrestling. Josh Emmett, coming out of Team Alpha Male, will be taking this one to the ground. You can take that to the bank. I’m all over Josh Emmett here at +150. He’s recently beat Calvin Kattar, Shane Burgos (on one leg), knocked out Bektic and Johnson…Josh is going to be a problem for Yair Rodriguez. Emmett all day.