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UFC 294: A brief history of super short-notice title fights: the great, the awful and the chaotic

How much one can accomplish in just 11 days is entirely dependent on context.

In college, studying for a test? About 1.5 weeks is more than likely adequate time to prepare. Want to improve at something like chess? I would hazard a bet that fully focusing on nothing else but rooks and pawns for that full span would result in measurable improvement for all but the already-excellent.

Athletics are a bit more complicated. For an athlete already half-decent at classic lifts like the bench press or squat, there’s only so much that can be done to improve in a short time. Strength building circuits typically last months to result in substantial improvement.

In fighting, eight-week camps are the norm. That’s enough time to shed weight and attain peak cardiovascular shape, as well as focus on fight-specific techniques and strategies. At UFC 294 this weekend (Oct. 21, 2023) in Abu Dhabi, champions Alexander Volkanovski and Kamaru Usman will forgo the usual preparation and chase greatness on just 11 days worth of preparation. Their opponents, Islam Makhachev and Khamzat Chimaev, will attempt to deny them, but they also have the limitations of having prepared for different opponents with different strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s flash back to some historical success and failures in short-notice UFC title fights.

UFC 199: Rockhold v Bisping 2 Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The Great, Part 1

These are the outcomes that Usman and Volkanovski are aspiring toward.

Is there a better example in mixed martial arts (MMA) history of a fighter achieving something monumental by taking a short-notice chance than Michael Bisping? “The Count” wasn’t supposed to be a champion. For several years, it was a running joke that Bisping couldn’t beat a Top 10 opponent. He’d build a win streak against decent opposition, then come up short against Tim Kennedy, Vitor Belfort or Chael Sonnen.

Luke Rockhold was one on the many contenders to disrupt a would-be Bisping title run. He made it look easy in Nov. 2014, kicking the Englishman around the cage then finishing him with a one-arm guillotine. It was utter domination, a sure-fire sign that the new generation had arrived at 185 pounds. Safe to say, when Bisping accepted a title rematch against the new champion about 18 months later with just about three weeks to prepare, expectations were low.

His own children didn’t even think he’d win.

But, Nobody told the long-in-the-tooth veteran. He was aggressive, and Rockhold was cocky. A combination found the chin of Rockhold, and “Left Hook Larry” was born in the aftermath. Just like that, Bisping’s legacy changes from perennial almost-contender to bonafide champion.

Meanwhile, Rockhold’s career never recovered. After the defeat, Rockhold lost three of his next four fights and retired from MMA — an ominous ending for Khamzat and Makhachev.


UFC 196: McGregor v Diaz Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

The Great, Part 2

The next premier example of short-notice greatness isn’t technically a title fight, but it involved an active champion and the sport’s most massive star, so ... close enough! I am, of course, talking about Nate Diaz stepping off a yacht in Cabo, taking a break from tequila shots (seriously), and beating the pulp out of Conor McGregor (full fight video here).

Remember: this was McGregor at his peak, fresh off dethroning Jose Aldo in 12 seconds. This wasn’t post Mayweather Mac, high on life and $100 million and who knows what else. Instead of facing pressure ace Rafael dos Anjos — a match up that intrigues me to this day — McGregor wound up against a lanky and awkward boxer with a concrete skull. Upping the ante further, McGregor did it at 170 pounds.

Diaz, in classic Diaz fashion, weathered the early storm, put some volume on his opponent, and wrapped up the choke for an all-time great upset win. Unlike Rockhold, however, McGregor was able to parlay that defeat into even more massive stardom via an immediate rematch, and a rivalry that continues to this day.

Two others worth mentioning: TJ Dillashaw upsetting Renan Barao, and Holly Holm shocking the world against Ronda Rousey. In both cases, the challenger was not initially planned to contend, but circumstances changed reasonably at least one month removed from the bout itself. They aren’t quite as extremely short-notice, but they’re historical upsets that were never supposed to happen all the same.

UFC 223: Nurmagomedov v Iaquinta Photo by Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

The Awful

Sometimes, risk-taking and short-notice match ups do not pay off. More often than not, the more prepared fighter pummels the other, and that simple truth extends to title fights.

All-time great Lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov did not win his title by defeating McGregor, Rafael dos Anjos or Eddie Alvarez. He didn’t score the belt by beating a former champion at all. After both Tony Ferguson and then Max Holloway were unable to make the cage at UFC 223, Al Iaquinta was pulled from his “Prelims” match up versus Paul Felder to face “The Eagle.”

Here’s the tricky part of short-notice match ups: Khabib’s gameplan didn’t change much, but Iaquinta’s was flipped upside-down. Is there any doubt that Khabib would’ve tried to wrestle maul “El Cucuy” or Holloway? That’s what he always does! Iaquinta, meanwhile, was getting ready for Paul Felder in a likely kickboxing match. He was also preparing for 15 minutes rather than 25.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t go great.

Nurmagomedov wrestled through Iaquinta’s defenses for a couple rounds, jabbed his face apart, then wrestled him some more. Credit to Iaquinta for surviving, but it would be a lie to say he achieved much offensively.

For another example, let’s reach further back into UFC history, all the way back to UFC 56 in 2005. Welterweight great Matt Hughes was in the midst of his second title reign, having recently beaten Frank Trigg (again) and shooed away some French Canadian upstart named Georges St-Pierre. He was scheduled to defend his belt against Karo Parisyan, the Judoka riding a three-fight win streaks over the likes of Nick Diaz and Chris Lytle.

Unfortunately, Parisyan was injured and replaced at the last second by Joe Riggs. “Diesel” fights to this day, a well-respected iron man in combat sports history. He wasn’t any match for Hughes though, as the All-American wrestler threw him to the floor and submitted him inside a round.

A complication of the short-notice booking was that Riggs missed weight, meaning he wouldn’t have been eligible for the championship even in victory. Which brings us to ...

UFC 221: Romero v Rockhold Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The Chaotic

Poor Luke Rockhold, victim of yet another short-notice booking. It really is interesting to consider the alternate path of his career. Had things played out different, perhaps he wins the belt twice or defends it again.

At any rate, Rockhold was supposed to fight Robert Whittaker for the belt at UFC 221. Whittaker was injured about three weeks removed from the contest, and thus Rockhold instead challenged Yoel Romero for the newly created interim title.

What happens when a man with iffy striking defense takes on one of the most explosive power punchers in history? Rockhold actually showed off the finest boxing of his entire career for about a round, then he tore his shin open on Romero’s concrete frame and got socked straight in the mouth.

As for that interim belt? Nobody walked away with any gold, because Romero missed weight by nearly three pounds. He still got to fight Whittaker next for the undisputed crown, but the match up was pure chaos from start to aftermath.

UFC 294 Press Conference Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Conclusion

Fighting is a wild sport filled with injury and bizarre circumstance, so short-notice match ups have always been a part of competition. Volkanovski and Usman are the latest to gamble on themselves, and there’s precedent for tremendous success and abject failure alike.

We’ll find out in just a few short days.


Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 294 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. ET, before the pay-per-view (PPV) main card start time at 10 p.m. ET (also on ESPN+).

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 294: “Makhachev vs. Volkanovski 2” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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