Following one of the more dramatic fights the sport of MMA has seen, there are still plenty of unanswered questions after an instant classic over the weekend at UFC 284 between Islam Makhachev and Alexander Volkanovski for the UFC lightweight title and the pound-for-pound crown.
Who or what stole that show in Perth this past weekend? What should we expect in a UFC men's featherweight title unification bout between Volkanovski and new interim champ Yair Rodriguez? Did Rodriguez show he's ready to take on the 145-pound GOAT?
Jack Della Maddalena entered UFC 284 as a prospect on the rise and left it as one deserving of a ranking and a major fight later this year. Can fellow rising stars Erin Blanchfield, Bo Nickal or Muhammad Mokaev follow in Della Maddalena's footsteps and become must-see TV in the next few months?
Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim answer these questions and more as the UFC departs Australia.
Who or what impressed you most from UFC 284?
Raimondi: Alexander Volkanovski. He did lose the main event against Islam Makhachev and I agreed with the decision, though it was a close fight. But I'm not sure anyone's stock can get much higher following a loss than Volkanovski's did after Saturday. We already knew he was a great champion at featherweight. Then, he went toe-to-toe with the bigger Makhachev, nearly nullified his wrestling the whole way, dropped him in the fifth round and finished the bout landing ground-and-pound from top position. Makhachev is elite and showed it. But Volkanovski's performance as a +310 underdog was downright inspiring. The guy is a much bigger star today than he was a week ago.
Okamoto: Volkanovski turning the main event into a nail-biter has to be the most impressive thing. It's an easy one to answer in that regard. I do want to show love to Makhachev's striking, though. I know Makhachev has been looking forward to the day he would show that he's not just a wrestler, and it's cool that day happened to be against the previous No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Wrestling did not win Makhachev that fight. His striking did. And who in the world saw that coming? You're telling me that in addition to the dominant wrestling game of Makhachev, he can stand with a guy like Volkanovski and come away a winner? That's scary.
Wagenheim: The "what" that impressed was the crowd in Perth, Western Australia, which brought big-night energy befitting a monumental champ-vs.-champ fight. And the "who" was Makhachev, the winner of that superfight. He had zero people rooting for him against Volkanovski, an Australian, at RAC Arena, and he seemed to relish the challenge of performing on his opponent's raucous home turf. On top of that, Makhachev enhanced his work-in-progress legacy by showing a willingness to veer from his dominant ground game and get things done in a bout contested largely in stand-up fighting.
What percentage chance do you give Rodriguez to beat Volkanovski in a unification bout?
Yair Rodriguez sets up a title shot opportunity vs. Alexander Volkanovski by defeating Josh Emmett to win the interim featherweight title.
Wagenheim: Nine percent. I can't give any featherweight a double-digit chance to knock off Volkanovski after watching how the champ handled Max Holloway three times and beat his predecessor as 145-pound GOAT, Jose Aldo. On top of that, Volkanovski gave Makhachev the toughest fight of his career over the weekend. Rodriguez was dazzling at UFC 284 as well, but Josh Emmett is not Makhachev.
Okamoto: I'm guessing Volkanovski opens a betting favorite of minus-290. We'll see how I do. Those are implied odds of about 75%. What chance do I give Rodriguez? I give him one. Right now, when you're talking about Volkanovski as one of the greatest and most skilled fighters of all time, simply giving a challenger a chance means something. I love Rodriguez's confidence. He has finishing ability, which is important if you're talking about someone pulling off an upset.
Raimondi: Rodriguez is incredibly dangerous and creative, capable of finishing anyone with various weapons. Add a triangle choke from the bottom to that list after his win over Emmett. But Volkanovski is different, which he showed Saturday. He should be a heavy favorite against Rodriguez.
What is your favorite upcoming main event?
Ciryl Gane takes home a KO victory over Tai Tuivasa in front of the raucous Parisian crowd.
Raimondi: Jon Jones, the greatest fighter we have ever seen, has not fought in more than three years. How can his big return fight against Ciryl Gane not be my favorite? It's not just the layoff, either. Jones has never fought at heavyweight before and now he's facing Gane for the vacant UFC heavyweight title. Jones can become a two-division champion and make history again with a win. He has 14 wins and no losses in UFC title fights, which is a ridiculous statistic. Gane, meanwhile, can become the face of the division with Francis Ngannou departing, if he beats Jones.
Okamoto: Jones vs. Gane. This is the obvious answer, but my disappointment in not seeing Jones vs. Ngannou is real. I wanted to see that fight more than any other fight this year. It topped my list of the 12 bouts we want to see in 2023. But good news: Jones vs. Gane was No. 5. Jones is arguably the greatest fighter of all time, but coming off the layoff against a modern breed of heavyweight, who is quick and athletic. Plenty of questions to answer going into this one.
Wagenheim: It's Jones vs. Gane. But since Marc and Brett already waxed poetic on that one, allow me to think outside the box by praising a non-main event. I'm always down to watch Justin Gaethje throw leather, and his March 18 meeting with Rafael Fiziev could steal the show from that night's title fight headliner, Leon Edwards vs. Kamaru Usman 3. Go ahead and write out the fight of the night bonus checks now, UFC.
Real or not: Jon Jones deserves to be the favorite against Ciryl Gane?
According to Caesars Sportsbook, Jones is currently a -155 favorite.
Wagenheim: Real, as far as I know. I hedged my answer because Jones, sparkling resume and all, has not fought in three years. That he's never competed at heavyweight is also a concern, but if this were an active Jones, I'd still favor him over any heavyweight other than Ngannou (remember him?). An inactive "Bones," though? It's unsettling to gaze into a hazy crystal ball, but the one image I can make out is Jones dressed up as a GOAT. I believe he will shake off any rust and do what he always does: win.
Okamoto: Not real. Jones's previous body of work doesn't mean he should be blindly installed as a favorite until he loses. His last few title defenses at light heavyweight weren't as dominant as we'd grown accustomed to, and now he's coming into completely new circumstances. Gane started off as the betting favorite for a reason, and bookmakers made the right call there. Do I doubt Jones' ability to win this fight? No. But I'm not surprised he didn't open as the favorite.
Raimondi: Jones has never truly lost a fight in his career, something that almost no one in the history of MMA can boast. So, why wouldn't he be the favorite? If Jones was the underdog, that means the expectation would be him losing, something nobody has ever seen. Sure, he didn't have his best outing way back in February 2020 against Dominick Reyes, but this is a completely different Jones who has had more than enough time to acclimate to a new weight class. Gane also just got outwrestled and out-grappled in January 2022 by Ngannou, who doesn't have nearly the wrestling chops of Jones.
The prospect you're most interested in seeing fight next is __________?
Erin Blanchfield stuns the Madison Square Garden crowd by forcing Molly McCann to tap out.
Okamoto: Maybe he's too established to be considered a "prospect," but I'm excited to see Adrian Yanez fight Rob Font at UFC 287 April 8 in Miami. Yanez's power is a real problem in any matchup. Font was an unsung hero for a while. He flew under the radar as one of the division's most technically sound and underrated contenders, but the secret is out now. Everyone knows Font is an elite bantamweight, who has come up short against only the best of the weight class (especially lately). This is a huge test for Yanez and an action-packed matchup.
Raimondi: Bo Nickal is one of the best prospects in MMA history. Muhammad Mokaev is potentially a future UFC flyweight champion. But Erin Blanchfield, 23, is closer to the belt than either of those fighters. Plus, she's in a main event fight against Jessica Andrade on Saturday, an important, high-profile bout. Andrade is the former UFC strawweight champion and an excellent flyweight to boot, with wins over top contenders at 125 pounds. Valentina Shevchenko could use some new blood in the challenger corner. Blanchfield is improving with every fight and has perhaps the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu that Shevchenko has encountered. Andrade vs. Blanchfield will be fascinating.
Wagenheim: There are several on the schedule to keep an eye on, and at the top of my list is Blanchfield, who faces an unimaginable step-up in competition against Andrade next weekend. But since Blanchfield has already been cited here, I'll mention Nickal, the three-time NCAA Division I national champion wrestler who makes his UFC debut March 4 against Jamie Pickett. Nickal, one of MMA's most hyped prospects, has three pro bouts under his belt. Is he ready for the big show?
BONUS: Over/Under 1.5 rounds for Masvidal vs. Burns
Raimondi: Over. Both guys are incredibly tough. Masvidal went five rounds in his first fight with Kamaru Usman and his bout with Colby Covington. Burns went the distance with Khamzat Chimaev, which no one else has been able to do.
Wagenheim: Over. Masvidal has always been durable, from bare-knuckle brawls in Miami backyards to Octagon tussles with the 170-pound creme de la creme. I think this is Burns' fight, but he's going to have to put in a night's work to get his hand raised.
Okamoto: Over. Two veterans who know how to pace a fight. This will be a bit of a dance, so I don't expect a quick finish. I expect mutual respect -- aggression, but calculated aggression.