The path to the UFC lightweight title has gone through Dagestan for some time. And now so does the road to the No. 1 pound-for-pound ranking, once again.
In a classic back-and-forth battle, Islam Makhachev pulled out a unanimous decision (48-47, 48-47, 49-46) over Alexander Volkanovski to retain the lightweight title in the main event of UFC 284 on Saturday in Perth, Australia.
Makhachev will now be considered the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world, just like his longtime teammate and friend Khabib Nurmagomedov, the retired former UFC lightweight champion, once was.
UFC featherweight champion Volkanovski, fighting in his home country, came in ranked No. 1 pound-for-pound in the world by ESPN. He was moving up to fight Makhachev, who came in ranked No. 2. It was one of the rare times in MMA history that the two best fighters in the world regardless of weight class fought each other.
"You like or you don't like, I am [the] best fighter in the world right now," Makhachev said to boos from the Australia crowd. "Thank you."
Volkanovski was a solid underdog but performed extremely well, keeping the fight close and mostly nullifying Makhachev's vaunted wrestling. However, Makhachev had a lot of success in the striking, where Volkanovski was supposed to have the advantage.
"He didn't respect my wrestling, grappling," Volkanovski said. "Maybe I didn't respect his striking enough, either. He landed some shots. Fair play to both of us."
Makhachev hurt Volkanovski several times on the feet with left hands, including in the first and second rounds. Volkanovski, meanwhile, was confident enough in the third round to go for several takedowns on the bigger Makhachev.
In the fourth, Makhachev halted Volkanovski's momentum by taking him down and keeping control for a long stretch as a frustrated Volkanovski tried to egg on the crowd.
"This guy [is] so strong," Makhachev told ESPN's Brett Okamoto. "He always try to push you. His style is a little bit different, how he moves fast and how he's strong. He improved a lot in the ground, his defense. But it was good fight, and for sure it's big experience for me."
Volkanovski dropped Makhachev with a right hand in the fifth round and landed ground-and-pound as the seconds ticked off the clock and ultimately the fight was over.
"I prepared for a hard fight," Makhachev said. "Last round, he landed good shot, good punch. All other rounds, in my opinion, I won."
Volkanovski landed 70 significant strikes against Makhachev, which was more than Makhachev's six previous opponents combined (62).
"I felt like maybe I could have done that earlier," Volkanovski said of the final minutes of the bout. "It's pretty clear I could have won that fight. That's why I'm hard on myself."
Judges Ben Cartlidge and Dave Lethaby had Makhachev winning the first, second and fourth rounds. Judge Derek Cleary had Makhachev winning the first, second, third and fourth rounds.
"I definitely want that fight back," Volkanovski said. "I f---ing want that lightweight belt."
Makhachev said he wouldn't turn down a rematch if the UFC offered it to him.
"Why not?" Makhachev said. "If UFC wants, let's go. Let's do this again."
Makhachev (24-1) beat Charles Oliveira at UFC 280 in September via second-round submission to win the lightweight title. This was his first title defense. The Dagestan, Russia, native has won 12 straight fights, the longest active streak in the UFC. Makhachev, 31, has not lost since his second UFC fight in 2015.
"I show why I'm No. 1," Makhachev said. "They have to improve more."
Volkanovski (25-2) was 12-0 in the UFC coming in and had won 22 straight overall. The Australian-born fighter beat Max Holloway to win the UFC featherweight belt at UFC 245 in December 2019.
Volkanovski, 34, has four successful title defenses, most recently a unanimous decision over Holloway last July at UFC 276, his third victory against the 145-pound great. He remains the UFC featherweight champ and will likely fight new interim champion Yair Rodriguez next.
"Featherweights, you better f---ing watch out," Volkanovski said.