By the fifth round, it was no longer Islam Makhachev I was fighting. The opponent standing across the living room was myself, extreme exhaustion creating hairline fractures in my psyche. Between words of encouragement, my four-year-old son held the Ziploc bag of ice to my face as my two-year-old daughter paraded the number five Coco Melon flashcard around the couches. The second round ended against the fireplace, with Makhachev taking my back. I knew I had to make up for lost time, and in the third, I managed to stay in the center where the coffee table used to be and shadowboxed my way back into the fight. By the fourth, I knew I had already exceeded expectations and was playing with house money. I let my hands go, sweat spattering the TV and leaving soggy puddles on the carpet.
My corner and I were convinced Makhachev would go for broke and try to secure an early takedown and salt away the final round, that we were likely looking at 2-2 on the scorecards. My mistake was not going for broke sooner and emptying the gas tank before the last minute and a half. The fight ended with me in full mount, raining down punches on a couch cushion and hoping I had done enough in the closing seconds to steal the round and, subsequently, the fight. Ten... fifteen more seconds, and I would have gotten the TKO finish.
In the end, I came up short. You could cut off my tongue, but it wouldn’t eliminate the taste of defeat that has lingered ever since. Destiny stood me up that night, but I didn’t waste any time feeling sorry for myself. I turned around and took a fight against Israel Adesanya in my one-car garage and pulled off the upset. Once again on the winning track, I got right back in the Thunderdome and stayed ready, so I wouldn’t have to... you already know. Then, last week, my shot at redemption blew up my timeline. Soon after, the phone rang; it was my wife’s voice.
"Do you want—"
"Yes," I said.
"I want the fight."
I hung up and grabbed the egg weights.
Alexander Volkanovski vs. Islam Makhachev 2
I don’t know how we ended up here, but I’m glad we took that left in Albuquerque. I love me some Charles Oliveira, but this is the rematch the world really wanted. The first fight had me gassed up in my living room, going blow for blow with Makhachev, trying to will Volkanovski to the upset. If you don’t know, my one-car garage doubles as a world-class training facility called the Thunderdome, an ode to the 80s classic Mad Max. I hit the bag and roll with the Jitz dummy every day, and every day, I picture myself fighting the same opponent, Islam Makhachev. Before Islam, it was his pappy, Khabib. I have a real phobia of fighters with last names ending in "ov/ev," and right meow, Makhachev is the baddest of them all. I sprawl and brawl for my life, and after an hour, sometimes I win, and sometimes I lose.
I guess you can say, I pretend I’m Alexander Volkanovski in that bish. He is legend. After the first Makhachev fight, Volk ascended to a mythical status. There are pantheons to this shit, and Alexander Volkanovski sits among MMA’s greatest idols. I think we all pretend to have a little Alexander Volkanovski in us. Why? Because he’s cooler than a polar bear’s toenail. Oh hell, there he go again, talking that shit. What’s cooler than being cool? Ice cold! Alright, alright, alright, alright... Alexander was outta f**ks to give the day he was born and fights like he has already lost. Like the possibility of losing holds no dominion over him. You don’t have to tell Alexander Volkanovski that life’s a risk, carnal. And taking this rematch on ten days' notice in Abu Dhabi is the mother of them all. Makhachev was already preparing for a five-round war against another savage, Charles Oliveira. Volk didn’t have a fight on the books and will, for all intents and purposes, be rolling off the futon and into a five-round championship scrap against one of the baddest mother-shut-your-mouths in the game.
Both fighters underestimated each other in the first fight. Volkanovski underestimated Makhachev’s striking, and Makhachev underestimated Volk’s grappling. Volk officially gave up four takedowns and gave up his back twice but was never in serious trouble. All things considered, Volk’s takedown defense held up like Mormon underoos, and his sub-defense, well, the CIA couldn’t even choke him. David Carradine’s fishnets couldn’t choke Alexander Volkanovski. And in the stand-up, Makhachev found a home for his left hand all night long and often had Volk stumbling backward. At a quick glance, Makhchev’s striking doesn’t look intimidating; he’s flat-footed and rarely extends strikes into combinations. But his left hand is satellite-guided and more accurate than conspiracy theories over the last three years. He also has a Leon Edwards sneaky left high kick that will, sooner or later, lead to a highlight reel KO.
Volkanovski had his best success on the feet when he extended first and second-level strikes into third and fourth-level strikes. Punches one and two didn’t always land, but three and four found the mark often. Volk’s special move is the switch-step-right hook out of the orthodox stance. It provides a sleight of hand distraction and a crafty way to enter the pocket. Early in the fight, Volk sat Islam down with the switch-right hook, but he fell in love with it and went to the well too often, allowing Makhachev to start countering with left hands. Halfway through the fight, Volk realized he could hang with Islam on the mat and started initiating the clinch himself, and even took down Makhachev in the fifth.
But the biggest surprise of the fight was that Makhachev seemed to fade late. Had Volk gone straight Big Boi and Andre 3000 and crumbled all his herb in one Swisher and sparked up at the start of the fifth round instead of waiting until the last two minutes, I think he could have stopped Makhachev. This time around, and given the short notice circumstances, I think Volk will go for broke a lot sooner. He won’t come out reckless from the jump, but he will build momentum in the first round or so and risk it all somewhere in the middle. The biggest adjustment Islam needs to make is creating damage and taking submission risks when he gets Volk down. If he gets Volk’s back again, he has to finish the fight. He can’t let Volk gain confidence like in the first fight. You could see Volk start to Hulk up as the fight progressed, and he survived Islam’s best positions.
In the first bout, Volkanovski came in as the (+300) dog; this time, he will be the (+210) dog on short notice. Islam was the (-375) favorite the first time and will be (-260) this time. The bummer about this rematch is that it’s a short-notice fight. A full training camp for both preparing for each other would be ideal, but there is one x-factor to keep in mind. When it came to the fourth Brandon Moreno/Deiveson Figueiredo fight, I thought it was a big advantage that Moreno had a fight against Kai Kara-France in between the third and fourth bout. Volk successfully defended his featherweight title a few months ago against Yair Rodriguez, whereas Islam hasn’t fought since the first Volk fight. In the Yair fight, wrestling/grappling was a big part of Volk’s game plan, and the extensive wrestling prep for that fight will also translate in this one.
Fantasy-wise, I like the possibility of a finish more than I did in the first one. I think Volk will go HAM sooner than he did in the first match, and Islam will be more aggressive on the mat and look to create damage and hunt for subs instead of playing for position as much. Volk out-landed Islam seventy to fifty-seven, but Islam recorded four takedowns and seven and a half minutes of control time. I think there’s a good chance the striking stats will be higher for each fighter, as familiarity breeds confidence.
Last weekend, I was high-steppin'' to the endzone in the first round when Sodiq Yusuff had Edson Barboza skating around the mall in a pair of Heelys. But then Yusuff proceeded to gas and lost the rest of the fight, and I Desean Jackson’d a main event dub at the one-yard line. At this point, I couldn’t buy a main event dub even if I had Elon’s bankroll. I’d love to take the dog here, but damn... Volkanovski is facing crazy odds, coming in on short notice against a champ with a full training camp. Best believe I’ll have a crispy Andy Jack on Volkanovski, but I have to play this one chalk. I have to. Islam Makhachev via decision. On wax.
Makhachev: TKO/KO (+400) Sub (+300) Dec (+140)
Volkanovski: TKO/KO (+550) Sub (+2000) Dec (+500)
Kamaru Usman vs. Khamzat Chimaev
When this fight was announced, I entered a catatonic fugue; my mind broke. Like that weird movie Momento, I’m still trying to piece this together. We went from dope main and co-main events to two super fights, and I’ve been woozy ever since. Cue "Slippin’" by DMX: "A yo, I’m slippin’, I’m fallin’, I can’t get up." I’m Homer after eating a spoonful of Chief Wiggum’s Five Alarm chili, wandering a desert with a talking coyote as a travel companion. How do you even begin to break this shit down? It’s a monumental task like building the pyramids without the help of extraterrestrials. But like 50 and the Game said, "This is how we do."
I’m old enough to remember when Khamzat Chimaev fought on every card. He entered the UFC and opened up a colossal can of whoop ass on the middleweight and welterweight divisions. We had seen great wrestlers before, but this guy was different. His takedowns look like Shark Week and a Great White breaching the water as it attacks a foam seal. Air Chimaev. Chimmy is a Ghost in the Darkness lion, and when he gets hold of you, it looks like a deleted scene from a Nat Geo documentary edited for viewer discretion. Pound for pound, Chimaev may have the best wrestling and top game in the UFC and maybe in all of MMA. As soon as the bell rings, expect Chimaev to come out shooting a double leg. It doesn’t matter if it’s another elite wrestler standing across from him like Kamaru Usman; he will come out, throw a right hand, and immediately level change. He will likely test the wrestling waters early; there’s something about getting hold of your opponent and feeling his physical makeup that can settle you down as a fighter and shed light on your path to victory.
Wrestling acumen aside, this fight will come down to stand-up, much like Chimaev’s only true test in the UFC against Gil Burns. On the feet, Chimaev is beatable. Gil sat down Chimaev at the end of the second round, and Chimaev may have been able to recover, but he won’t be able to recover from a similar shot from Usman. Usman has blackout power; when Usman lands, there is a total power grid failure across the country; everything goes dark. Zero Dark Thirty. Chimaev is the smoother striker, putting together cleaner combinations with better hand speed than Usman, but Usman will have the pure power advantage on his side. Defensively, Chimmy has holes like Spongebob. He relies solely on a hand guard and lacks footwork and lateral movement. Chimaev only attacks up the middle, and his striking without the aid of the takedown threat is relatively mid. Without takedowns, his striking is like peanut butter with no jelly. Kool-Aid with no sugar.
"You guys never have two things that match."
"You better put some water on that damn shit!"
But Chimaev’s biggest flaw is that he fights with his ego; he fights emotionally and reacts like the Hulk whenever you touch him. There are two keys to beating Chimaev on the feet: committing to combinations and going to the body. Chimaev cannot defend more than one shot. He CANNOT. And Usman is a notorious body snatcher who targets the body consistently.
Chimaev by the numbers: He averages over seven SLpM with a high of one hundred-eight in a three-round scrap against Gil Burns. Chimmy also averages four takedowns per fifteen minutes, and usually, when he gets you down, you aren’t getting back up. For his career, Chimaev is 12-0 with six TKO/KOs and five subs. The only problem with this fight is that it is only three rounds; I’d like to see what Chimaev looks like in the championship rounds. I think a finish will be a long shot for Chimaev; he will have to outpoint Usman on the feet using volume to make up for Usman’s higher-impact strikes.
Kamaru Usman has the nuke codes in his fists like the president. Ol’ Chloroform hands. This fight suits Usman better than the Leon Edwards matchup. Leon is a savvy point fighter who is good at avoiding prolonged exchanges, whereas Chimaev is a firefighter who prefers chaos. A fight against Chimaev is closer to a street fight and will provide Usman more opportunities to land a fight-changer. I think this fight will look more like the Colby Covington vs. Usman fights than the Leon vs. Usman fights. Khamzat’s volume and propensity to throw combinations will force Usman to increase his volume and take more risks than he was willing to against Leon. I think the wrestling will cancel each other out, and we will be left with a kickboxing match for close to fifteen minutes. Usman rocks a noinety-seven percent takedown defense like a three-piece suit and has only been taken down once in his career. Chimaev could steal a takedown here and there, but he won’t get Usman down consistently or be able to keep Usman on the mat.
Usman by the numbers: He averages four and a half SLpM, but I think we could see a higher output as Usman will be fighting in a three-round bout for the first time in his last ten bouts. He won’t have to pace himself for the championship rounds. The key for Usman will be his bodywork. Usman is good at sandwiching body attacks between head attacks, and if he can get Chimmy to drop his hands... Boom! Mushroom clouds.
Chimaev will be the (-260) favorite, and Usman will be the (+210) live-ass dog. If Usman wasn’t taking this fight on short notice, I think the odds would be a lot closer. To me, this is a toss-up. When creating your Fantasy rosters, have one with a Usman/Volkanovski stack. Although the odds are stacked against them, it’s not inconceivable that they could both pull off upsets. And even in a loss, they will provide solid striking stats for your buck. The only thing that would surprise me in this one is if one fighter gets the finish. I think this will look like the Gil Burns fight for Chimaev and will go the distance. The only reason I’m taking Chimaev is because he is fresh and has been sitting on the shelf seething to get in the cage and fighting him on short notice is a tough task, even for a legend like Kamaru Usman. Khamzat Chimaev via decision. Put that ish on wax.
Chimaev: TKO/KO (+200) Sub (+275) Dec (+275)
Usman: TKO/KO (+550) Sub (+2200) Dec (+550)
Magomed Ankalaev vs. Johnny Walker
This guy Mahomed Ankalaev... I don’t know about this guy. I’ve never seen a fighter with a lower fight IQ. This guy has short bus fight IQ. His fight IQ is a negative number. This guy wouldn’t even get points for spelling his name correctly on the SATs. In damn near every fight, Ankalaev has a G7 private jet path to victory using his wrestling but chooses to stand and bang and take the Oregon Trail horse and buggy going through the Rocky Mountains in the winter path. This guy is one (if not THE) best wrestler/grappler in the light heavyweight division, but he doesn’t like to wrestle until the fight is nearly over or his legs look like Adrian Yanez’s.
Speaking of legs, Jan Blachowicz had Ankalaev crawling out of the cage like Rick James, "Jan Blachowicz, my legs!" Jan had Anakalaev coming back from between rounds with goat legs like a rapper with a gimmick named Black Sheep. "This some good-ass cheese!" If I’m Johnny Darko Walker, ALL I’m doing in this fight is kicking the shit outta Ankalaev’s legs. Go full Jonathan Martinez on this guy. Ankalaev was out there walking on hot sand at the beach, trying to get to his towel. I say all that to say this: Magomed Ankalaev is an elite-level striker. I get why he has such confidence in his striking. For a big man, he has excellent leg dexterity, using his rear leg to attack with teeps and round kicks. And his hands are Original Recipe crispy, deep fried like shit at the fair. He can fight out of both stances and puts together smooth combinations. Besides not defending leg kicks, Ankalaev’s biggest issue on the feet is that he counters too much. He lays back in the cut like whut. He suffers from that Valentina syndrome and doesn’t lead the dance enough.
In his last bout, a title fight against Blachowicz, Ankalaev went straight B Rabbit: "F**k this title fight, I don’t wanna win, I’m outtie. Here, tell these people something they don’t know about me." He didn’t take down Jan until the fourth round, only after his legs looked like James Dean’s car. And he dominated the fight from the top position from that moment on. Had he wrestled sooner, he would have been the Champion. I went hoarse yelling, "Take! Him! Down!" His easiest path to victory against Johnny Walker will once again be on the mat. Ankalaev is a much better striker than Walker, but why take the chance? Ankalaev is 17-1-1 for his career with noine TKO/KOs and zero subs. For a guy with his wrestling, Ankalaev has no submission game. Somebody teach this guy a rear-naked choke. The biggest reason is that Ankalaev doesn’t look to transition; he likes to deal damage from half guard or side mount.
Johnny Donnie Brasco Walker is a moron, an oxymoron. In one fight, he could be the King Size Michel Pereira, and in another, he could be the King Size (insert boring fighter here). He’s like a conjoined twin when one is a ten and the other is a four. Bring back the old Johnny Walker. I want that old-school boom-bap Johnny Walker and not the new-school trap Johnny Walker. I want Ice Cube Johnny and not Migos Johnny. Cue the Globe Trotters whistling song. Walker is a specialty striker, a Harlem Globetrotter striker. At least when he’s at his best, he is. When he tries to engage in a traditional back-and-forth kickboxing match, he doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t have the technical fundamentals to close the distance and work behind a jab or the footwork to set up angles. Walker is at his best when he is spinning and flying and generally creating chaos like someone pulled the fire alarm.
Johnny can’t win this fight anywhere other than catching Ankalaev with some wild-ish. He’s not a better striker or wrestler/grappler than Ankalaev. He will get pieced up on the feet and dominated on the mat. So why even show up, huh? Well, it is pretty cool fighting on a PPV in the UFC and all. But Johnny doesn’t have to go out like a b***h. He can come out and short-play this fight, throw hands and feets against the wall, and see if they stick. His numbers are actually crazy impressive. He is 21-7 for his career with sixteen TKO/KOs and three subs. I have said recently that I think his grappling is underrated; he has long arms, which are good for D’arce/Anaconda chokes, which are natural takedown deterrents. Johnny has to come out like Jorge Masvidal and let the Ben Askren's fall where they may.
Ankalaev is the (-350) favorite, and Walker is the (+280) dog. The play for both fighters is a finish, but I would also look at a decision for Ankalaev. If he chooses to wrestle, he could dominate control time, and Walker has good enough Jitz to at least survive for the duration. The key will be Ankalaev creating damage from the top and systematically breaking down Johnny Walker. The only play for Johnny Walker is a finish. I don’t think a sub is out of the question, but the TKO/KO is a better option than betting him straight up. Magomed Ankalaev via decision. On wax.
Ankalaev: TKO/KO (+100) Sub (+800) Dec (+225)
Walker: TKO/KO (+600) Sub (+2000) Dec (+750)
Ikram Aliskerov vs. Warlley Alves
Ikram Aliskerov got KO’d by Khamzat Chimaev and lived to tell about it like a VH1 Behind the Music episode. In fact, Aliskerov’s only career loss came to Chimaev. The jury is still out on how good Aliskerov is. He looks like he came off a Dagestani fighter production line, complete with stock-dominant wrestling and sleeper striking. In his debut, he fought a Transformer, a straight-up Megatron in Phil Hawes, and KO’d Hawes in just over two minutes. Nobody gets KO’d and falls to the floor more dramatically than Phil Hawes. He looked like he was giving a Shakespeare protagonist monologue on his way down. "Thou shalt not..." and fade to black. Ikram will get another solid test in WAR-lley Alves, AKA Kratos, the God of War. This one should be a short and sweet little banger before the real fireworks begin.
Ikram Aliskerov looks like he grew up in the gorilla exhibit at the zoo. He has long, looping punches and likes to punctuate combinations with flying knees. Aliskerov fights like you have to pull a string on his back. He fights in Tourettes-like outbursts of aggression. He fights like he holds in his emotions and lets the pain build up until he can’t take it anymore and finally lashes out. He will sit back and look calm, then, out of nowhere, explode with wide hooks and overhands. If you survive the onslaught, he takes you down and does whatever he wants to you. I hate to stereotype, but this guy is your typical "ov/ev" Dagestani fighter with unpredictable stand-up and dominant wrestling. Aliskerov is 14-1 with five TKO/KOs and five subs and is 1-0 in the UFC with a win on the Contender Series.
Warlley Alves is like the Mayor in The Nightmare Before Christmas; he has two personalities. In one fight he will look like a barbaric savage with bloodstained teef ,and in another, like a passive plastic straw protester obstructing the drink dispensers at McDonald’s, creating a traffic jam backed up all the way to the registers.
"Hey, buddy! I gotta get to work!"
"Hey, guy! I ain’t your buddy!"
He kicked the shit out of Mounir Lazzez like Super Dog’s origin story, then dropped back-to-back fights against Jeremiah Wells and Nicolas Dalby. I’ll give him a pass on the Dalby fight because Dalby’s breathing sounded like turtles mating, and Warlley was probably confused. Alves was the Brazilian Ultimate Fighter Champion in 2014 and has faced some stiff competition over the years, including Kamaru Usman. He has cannon balls for fists and throws them like a closer brought in to close out the ninth. Warlley throws everything with hate, malice, and contempt. This guy puts everything he has into every shot and will literally leave his feet leaping into punches. However, he has problems maintaining a coherent pace. He will explode for a stretch, then go passive for a stretch. Warlley is 14-6 for his career with four TKO/KOs and six subs. Check it: one of his two career UFC submissions was against Colby Covington. That was the only submission loss in Colby’s career.
Ikram hasn’t logged enough Octagon time to get a good gauge on his output, but he officially averages over six SLpM and three-and-a-half takedowns per fifteen minutes. And Alves averages just over three SLpM and nearly one and a half takedowns per fifteen minutes. Aliskerov is the heavy (-550) favorite, and Alves is the (+400) mangy dog. Alves could be a wild card. He has fight-changing power and excellent submissions, and he initiates a lot of dangerous exchanges. Ikram is far from a polished defensive striker and can get got on his feet. But I think Ikram has more options; he can land something heavy on the feet and take the fight to the mat. But Alves has an eighty percent takedown defense, and this will likely stay standing for the majority. Ikram Aliskerov via TKO, round two. Wax on, wax off.
Aliskerov: TKO/KO (+120) Sub (+175) Dec (+225)
Alves: TKO/KO (+1000) Sub (+1400) Dec (+1400)
Said Nurmagomedov vs. Muin Gafurov
Cue "You Spin Me Round" by Dead of Alive: You spin me right round, baby, right round / Like a record, baby, right round, round, round..."
Dagetani strikers are some of the most unique strikers in the game. Some have unique specialties and flashy techniques that they use as fundamental strikes. Like Umar Nurmagomedov has the question mark kick, Said Nurmagomedov has the spinning backfist. As a counter or as an offensive attack, Said throws the spinning backfist like a jab. And when you start looking for it, he turns it into a back kick. Speaking of kicks: Can I kick it? Yes, you can! I said, can I kick it? Yes, you can! Said’s rear leg is a Swiss Army knife; teeps, round kicks, question mark kicks, he throws all of them with no tell as to which is coming. You will see Said throw more kicks and spinning back fists than he will throw jabs or 1-2s. And in addition to his striking, he can throw in some takedowns and top and control, and before you know it, your head is spinning right round, baby, right round.
But there’s something missing. He’s like a vegan recipe Nurmagomedov. You can bully Said, and he’ll fade like barbershops. Idk what it is, but he’s just not scary, like watching The Exorcist as an adult. He has legit well-rounded skills, but if you extend combinations and stay in his face on the feet, and force scrambles and get back to your feet when it hits the mat, Said will slow down. He often has to crawl across the finish line, which is why he lost a close decision in his last bout against Jonathan Martinez. Fantasy-wise, without a finish, Said is a bust at the higher tier. He averages three and a half SLpM with a high of sixty-five in his debut and one takedown per fifteen minutes. But he finished four of his six career UFC bouts. If you play Said, you’re playing him almost strictly for a finish.
And a finish might be tough to come by against Muin Gafurov. He is 18-5 in his career and has never been finished. Gafurov is making only his second UFC appearance, but he has high-level experience in another elite promotion, One FC. The first thing you’ll notice about Gafurov is that shit on his back has some shit on its back. My man is rocking a Home Depot carpet sample on his back. Is it functional? When you rub against him, you get a static shock. So, yes. This dude’s striking is an hourglass, all curves. Nothing, and I mean nothing but hooks. Gafurov doesn’t throw any straight punches and pushes a heavy pace. He kind of reminds me of a Fun Size Tai Tuivasa. Defense: Fook it. Offense: Maxed out. Gafurov fights like he’s surrounded by his demons and has to swing his way out. Quantity over quality: The Muin Gafurov Money Back Guarantee. This guy’s accuracy is like the Nintendo gun from six feet away. Gafurov turns the whole arena into a splash zone.
Gafurov will be at a disadvantage on the mat and a technical disadvantage on the feet, but he possesses Said’s kryptonite: pace. Muin doesn’t slow down and Said does. Once all the spinning shit fizzles out, Gafurov will still be standing in Nurmagomedov’s face. This will likely have to be a classic come-from-behind effort for Gafurov, but he’s a live dog. He averages just over three SLpM and landed only sixty-one in his debut, but he threw nearly one hundred sixty total strikes. They may not land, but he gets an A for effort.
Said is the (-230) favorite, and Gafurov is the (+190) dog. Gafurov has the style of causing a guy like Said trouble on the feet. When you throw a lot of spinning shit, you tend to run into counters, and Gafurov loves same-time counters. He tries to time your strikes to throw at the same time as you. Check it: Gafurov has ten TKO/KOs and seven subs in eighteen career dubs. He’s a finisher, and a finish will have to be his means of victory. A decision favors Said’s grappling and control time. But in twenty career scraps, Said has never been finished. Said Nurmagomedov via decision. Put that ish on wax.
Nurmagomedov: TKO/KO (+450) Sub (+250) Dec (+180)
Gafurov: TKO/KO (+450) Sub (+1200) Dec (+450)