UFC 284: Alexander Volkanovski, Islam Makhachev to make history in first No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup
A small grin creased Alexander Volkanovski's face, and he nodded his head affirmatively. The UFC featherweight champion has surged to the top of the UFC's mythical pound-for-pound list by winning 22 consecutive bouts over a nearly 10-year span. Among those were three victories over former champion Max Holloway and wins over Jose Aldo, Brian Ortega and Chan Sung Jung, among many others.
He soared past the featherweight division and would be a healthy favorite over anyone he might face at 145. And so his ambitions and competitive spirit led him to eye a second division and a second world championship at lightweight.
His hopes and dreams — most of them, anyway — have already come true. On Saturday, he'll meet lightweight champion Islam Makhachev for the 155-pound title and the mythical status as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world in the main event of UFC 284 in Perth, Australia.
"This is the way it should be, mate," Volkanovski said, cheerfully. "If you're not looking to test yourself and fight the best, what are you really doing?"
When the fight was finally made, though, it took on added significance. Volkanovski became the UFC's No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter after Kamaru Usman was knocked out by Leon Edwards in August at UFC 278 in their bout for the welterweight title. And Makhachev shot up to No. 2 after he dominated Charles Oliveira and took the lightweight title from him when they fought at UFC 280 in October in Abu Dhabi.
In terms of significance within the sport, there has never been a bigger one. Never before has the UFC had the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world fight the universally recognized No. 2 fighter in a bout with a championship at stake. Now, to be fair, pound-for-pound ratings didn't gain widespread acceptance in MMA until the last few years, and the rankings are the result of an opinion poll and carry only the weight and respect the public is willing to give them.
That said, while there were fights that garnered far more headlines than this one will and sold many more pay-per-views than Saturday's card is likely to do, the fact that the two best fighters in the world are meeting for supremacy in the Octagon is a seminal moment for the sport.
"Well, we're always trying to put on the best versus the best, but when you get No. 1 versus No. 2 pound-for-pound and both are current world champions, it literally can't get any better than that," UFC president Dana White told Yahoo Sports.
Josh Emmett, who is facing Yair Rodriguez in Saturday's co-main event for the interim featherweight title that Volkanovski might or might not, vacate, concurred. Putting on a show with the two best in the world going head-to-head carries a lot of significance for the sport and its athletes, he said.
A fan doesn't need to know much about the athletes care when the stakes are so high.
"It's huge for the sport," Emmett told Yahoo Sports. "Islam and Volkanovski are both bringing a lot more eyes to the sport and their divisions by doing this. They're both great people and phenomenal fighters, and so when they take this kind of risk and fight each other, it does a lot. So many people are going to tune in because they've heard about this great fight. And it's going to be of huge interest in Russia [where Makhachev is from] and Australia [where Volkanovski is from], and of course, everyone in America will be into it.
"And then in all these other countries, the word gets out there that, 'Hey, watch this fight, and you're going to see the two best go at it and do their thing.' It's going to be so many more eyes."
Emmett is excited because not only will Saturday's bout be his first world title shot, but it's also the first time he has fought on the main card of a PPV show. The extra attention the show is getting as a result of the Volkanovski-Makhachev battle on top of the bill will help get him needed exposure.
There have been other fights in UFC history that have carried huge significance. The trio of bouts for the light heavyweight title from 2003 through 2006 between Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell might have been No. 1 versus No. 2 had the pound-for-pound rankings been in widespread use at the time.
The same is true of the 2015 bout between Conor McGregor and Jose Aldo in 2015. Aldo had long been the dominant featherweight and was the UFC's only featherweight champion to that point. McGregor won the interim belt in his previous bout when Aldo suffered a late injury and had to withdraw. When they fought, it well could have been one versus two, but it was a significant bout in the sport, and Aldo brought an 18-fight winning streak into the match.
In 2018, McGregor fought longtime rival Khabib Nurmagomedov for the lightweight title at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, and that was the first and only UFC bout to sell more than two million pay-per-views.
It's unlikely — highly unlikely, as the great wrestling announcer Gorilla Monsoon would often say to cohort Bobby "The Brain" Heenan — that Volkanovski-Makhachev will do anywhere close to two million sales.
Volkanovski, though, said he believes the pairing sends a message.
"The culture of this sport is to seek out those difficult challenges and to push yourself to try to reach for the stars," he said. "We're not sitting back protecting our [titles] and looking to take safe fights. We're trying to fight the best we can and make history. That, to me, is the way it should be done."