This Saturday night, the Ultimate Fighting Championship returns to Fight Island in Abu Dhabi for UFC 294. In the final dozen days leading up to the show, there were massive changes to the top of the card with the main and co-main event fights being completely overhauled.

Once Charles Oliveira sustained a cut in training and was deemed unable to compete in the rematch with Islam Makhachev, in stepped a savage little Australian with giant brass balls for a chance at his own redemption. Makhachev vs Alexander Volkanovski II is arguably a bigger fight than the originally scheduled Oliveira bout. It is not to say that Makhachev vs Oliveira II wasn’t a huge fight that fans worldwide wanted to see, but Islam finished Oliveira by submission in a definitive performance. The first fight with Volk on the other hand, was a complete barn-burner that had the fight world split in half 

The co-main event saw the shift from the Chechen-born superstar Khamzat Chimaev taking on  Paulo Costa to the former welterweight champion Kamaru Usman stepping in for Costa. Costa revealed that he had to have an operation to address a staph infection in his elbow, but he did not want to pull out. However, there is a gaping hole in his elbow that had to be treated with a wound-vac. The Chimaev vs Usman matchup was highly anticipated at welterweight when Usman was the champion. Now, we get this matchup at middleweight in a No. 1 contender’s matchup.

Let’s take a look at some fights on the card.

Main Card:

(C) Islam Makhachev vs Alexander Volkanovski II

The biggest question coming into this fight is where is Volk’s conditioning at? Sources have said that he has been preparing for this opportunity since August, and he is always in shape, but has his programming led him to peak come Saturday night? 

If the rumors about him training as if he were fighting for the last 8 weeks are true, then we are in for a rematch of the ages. However, if this is all just a rumor and not true, then an Islam Makhachev who has prepared for a 5 round fight is certainly at an advantage.

Islam has shown us that he is a better striker than he gets credit for, he did clip Volk in the first round last fight, but we can be sure that he will be looking to shoot and get the fight to the ground where his overall skillset puts him in the best position to win.

For Volk, it’s all about the angles. He needs to stay moving and utilize his footwork to keep his angles in a position where he can either downblock, evade, or at worst, create an immediate scramble off of the takedown attempt. With Craig Jones being a part of his camp over the last few fights, Volk has shown us that he has quite possibly the best submission defense in all of MMA. Islam spent the majority of the fourth round in the first fight on Volk’s back and he managed to survive the round while talking to Islam the whole time. Literally no one else has ever done that to Islam.

Based on the uncertainty surrounding the conditioning, this is a pick ‘em for me. If it is a fully conditioned Volk, then we may very well see him become the fifth ever double champ in UFC history.

Kamaru Usman vs Khamzat Chimaev

The same questions about Volk’s level of conditioning pertain to this matchup for Kamaru Usman since he took this fight on basically equal short notice time. Another noteworthy aspect of this pairing is that Khamzat is larger than Usman. We know that Kamaru was a force to be reckoned with at 170 lbs with a resume as a champion that cemented him as one of the greatest welterweights to ever do it. However, how does this translate for him at 185 lbs against a younger, faster Chimaev who has shown that he has knockout power at 185 lbs at the UFC level when he one-hitter-quitter’d Gerald Meerschaert.

In his younger years, Kamaru was a national champion wrestler who could grapple with the best of the best in MMA, but it is widely known that his knees are bad at this stage of his career. Can the knees of ‘The Nigerian Nightmare’ hold up if Khamzat comes shooting out of a cannon with a wrestle-heavy attack like he did against Li Jingliang and Kevin Holland? Granted, it was following a knockout loss to Leon Edwards to lose his title, but the subsequent loss to Leon last spring gives me concern about how much spring is left in those knees to be able to wrestle the way that he used to.

There is also the question of what really happened and what did he really tell Justin Gaethje after the takedown during open workouts this week? It sounded like he said something popped, but both Usman and Gaethje have refuted the claim. They could be making this public of a stance because it is true, or it really might not have been what he said. In a room full of a thousand people, it is easy to understand how there can be a misinterpretation of something said between two isolated individuals.

Khamzat has a never-ending gas tank, so this being a 3 round fight helps Kamaru, especially with the short notice. The best route to victory for Kamaru will be through his boxing and creating a car crash from Khamzat’s forward pressure because I just don’t see him out-grappling or submitting Chimaev.

#2 Magomed Ankalaev vs #7 Johnny Walker

We have a feature fight in the light heavyweight division between the #2 Magomed Ankalaev taking on #7 Johnny Walker. With Ankalaev being a former title challenger, a fight which resulted in a Draw against Jan Blachowicz, he will be looking to get that nasty taste out of his mouth. He’s a nasty striker with a Dagestani wrestling background and Johnny Walker has been chinned for losses four times in his career.

Once upon a time, Johnny was an explosive and wild striker that had an unpredictable style, which had many hailing him as the future champion at 205. Following shoulder reconstruction surgery after a failed worm-dance celebration and a couple of camp changes, the former male stripper from Brazil has found a new home at SBG Ireland with a more conservative approach under Coach John Kavanaugh.

He obviously still has dangerous and fight-ending power (just ask Paul Craig) but he does have more predictable patterns in his game, which will likely work against him with a fighter of Ankalaev’s caliber.

In his 18 professional wins, Ankalaev has finished more than half of them by knockout with both punches and kicks. I like Ankalaev inside the distance by KO/TKO in this matchup.

Ikram Aliskerov vs Warlley Alves

In this middleweight matchup, the hot prospect Aliskerov takes on former The Ultimate Fighter Brazil 3 champion Alves. With only one fight in his UFC career (a first round knockout win over Phil Hawes), Aliskerov certainly does not have the experience or resume that the 14x UFC vet Alves has, although Alves is coming off of back-to-back losses.

In his 14-1 career, Aliskerov has 10 finishes with an even split of KO/TKOs and submissions; 3 submissions via kimura. His one loss? A knockout against none other than Khamzat Chimaev back in 2019. 

While veteran experience can certainly be a factor favoring Alves, I’m not sure that will be enough against Aliskerov.

Said Nurmagomedov vs Muin Gafarov

This bantamweight matchup has a lot of unknowns on Gafarov’s side in relation to the known commodity in Nurmagomedov. Yes, in 18 fights Gafarov has only went to the cards one time, however, all of his 17 finishes (including two highlight reel KOs in the LFA) came outside of the UFC. In his lone trip to the UFC octagon, he dropped a decision to John Castañeda.

Nurmagomedov is on the heels of a Unanimous Decision loss to Jonathan Martinez, but has half a dozen wins in the UFC coming into this fight. I’m calling this a pick ‘em as Gafarov certainly has the tools to get the job done, but so does Said. Flip a coin here.

Preliminary Card 

#10 Tim Elliott vs #11 Muhammad Mokaev

We have a top ranked matchup in the flyweight division between number #10 Tim Elliott taking on #11 Muhammad Mokaev. This is essentially the tale of an OG taking on the young bull. You have someone like Mokaev who is a rising prospect who is not shy to voice his opinion or to share his thoughts on social media. But for the first time, the 23-year-old is taking on someone who has been around the block a time or two.

Tim Elliott, 36, had his first run in the UFC back in 2012. During that time he lost a couple of fights, was released, then rallied back as a regional champ to earn a spot on to the Ultimate Fighter 24 season where he won the entire thing. This earned him the opportunity to fight for the UFC flyweight title against Demetrious ‘Mighty Mouse’ Johnson back in 2016 (a decision loss), but he’s been able to stay in the thick of things and has been a ranked fighter ever since.

Elliott is one of the toughest guys in the division just because he’s as his nickname suggests, he’s very awkward and he has that Midwest grit.

Whenever Mokaev has had issues on the feet, he’s turned to his wrestling and has out-grappled everyone so far in his young, undefeated career. Elliott has the wrestling chops that is going to have some problems for Mokaev. This is certainly the biggest test in Mokaev’s career and his showing against the tried and true veteran, Elliott, will be a good measuring stick for where his development and status within the division truly is.

Javid Basharat vs Victor Henry

In the bantamweight division, you have Javid Basharat taking on Victor Henry. Basharat is undefeated at 14-0 with 11 finishes, 8 of them coming by way of the first round. Victor Henry is a pupil of the ‘War Master’ Josh Barnett. Henry’s a well rounded fighter who competed all over the world prior to making his way into the UFC. He looked like a serious threat in his debut against Raoni Barcellos. He’s had mixed results since the Barcelos fight. However, his near 30 pro fights of experience could pay dividends for the 36-year-old multiple regional level champion.

Bantamweight has become the toughest division in MMA. No matter who it is, bouts scheduled at 135 lbs. have my eye.

Sedriques Dumas vs Abu Azaitar

If there were a battle for the worst human on the UFC roster, this might be it. Each of these fighters has multiple violent crimes on their arrest record. Azaitar has a string of convictions that include: theft, extortion, fraud, physical gang violence, domestic violence, drug trafficking, forgery, and resistance to authority. Dumas has multiple arrests including but not limited to gun charges, bringing weapons onto school grounds, domestic violence, and resisting arrest.

Is a double knockout too much to ask for here?

Anshul Jubli vs Mike Breeden

Who did Mike Breeden piss off? Basically everyone that Breeden has fought in the UFC is either a knockout artist or a highly touted prospect. He got knocked out in his UFC debut just past a minute into the first round against Alex Hernandez and is coming off of a knockout loss to Terrance McKinney in August. At UFC 294, he will be facing the undefeated Anshul Jubil. 

Nathaniel Wood vs Muhammad Naimov

Nathaniel Wood has been one of the UFC’s rising prospects since the former Cage Warriors champion signed to the promotion back in 2018. 

Naimov, who spends time in Denver training with Elevation Fight Team, looked extremely impressive in his UFC debut. This was a fight that he took up a weight class at 155 lbs on short notice to get signed. He earned a $50k performance bonus for his knockout against the veteran Jamie Mullarkey.

Watch the prelims. This one has banger written all over it.

Jinh Yu Frey vs Viktoriia Dudakova

In the lone women’s fight on the card, the 38-year-old, 20-fight vet, and former Invicta Atomweight champion Frey takes on the undefeated 24-year-old Russian Dudakova. Dudakova has gone to the cards just once in her young career. I would not be surprised if she finds a finish inside distance here.

Shara Magomedov vs Bruno Silva

Finally, the highly anticipated debut of the highly controversial Shara Magomedov taking on Bruno Silva in a middleweight bout to jerk the curtain. Shara is the undefeated, one-eyed ginger Dagestani fighter with a history of violent public outbursts who made waves for striking an opponent at a jiu-jitsu tournament and assaulting a couple for a public display of affection at a mall earlier this year.

He’s 11-0 with 10 KOs and is someone that a lot of people have been waiting to see make his way into the UFC. Right out of the gate, he faces a stiff test in the 23-9 Silva who not even the former champion Alex Pereira (pound-for-pound hardest hitting human alive) could knockout. 

With knockouts all coming from knees, kicks, elbows, and punches, the question here is, what happens when he does not find that kill-shot against the battle-tested veteran, Silva? Does he have the tools and endurance to go the full 15 minutes?

With his aggressive style and crazy appearance, if Magomedov is able to finish Silva, we may just be seeing the next big star out of Dagestan.