Boxing

Alex Volkanovski and Kamaru Usman pay the price after risking a lot to save UFC 294

Alex Volkanovski and Kamaru Usman pay the price after risking a lot to save UFC 294

It’s back to the drawing board for Alexander Volkanovski, who has now lost two fights to lightweight champion Islam Makhachev. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Kamaru Usman was resplendent in a beautiful, white double-breasted suit as he stepped to the ESPN set to be interviewed by Megan Olivi following his No. 1 contender’s bout Saturday at Etihad Arena against Khamzat Chimaev in the co-main event of UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Chimaev dominated Usman in the first round, winning it 10-8, and that was the difference between winning and losing for Usman, the former welterweight champion who took the bout on 11 days’ notice. Chimaev won a majority decision by scores of 29-27 twice and 28-28.

Usman took an unusually long pause before speaking after Olivi asked her first question. Usman fought hard to ward off tears, prompting Olivi to reach up and console him by rubbing him on the left shoulder.

A few minutes later, Alexander Volkanovski showed up at the post-fight news conference after he’d been knocked out by a perfectly placed kick to the head by Islam Makhachev in their rematch for the lightweight title. Volkanovski, too, took the bout on 11 days’ notice, a rematch of a bout at UFC 284 that he lost by decision but felt he deserved to win.

He was attempting to become just the fifth fighter in UFC history to hold two titles simultaneously, following Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier, Amanda Nunes and Henry Cejudo.

Volkanovski was discussing what went wrong when he, too, drew a deep breath and took a long pause. His lip quivered but he managed to hold back the tears.

Both Usman and Volkanovski believed they could, to use Usman’s words, come off the couch and win the fight. Usman might have won had it been a five-rounder. Chimaev said he felt he broke his hand in the first round and if the fight had gone to Rounds 4 and then 5, who knows what might have happened? Chimaev got out just in time, though. Usman had been offered a five-rounder before the fight, but because of a limited training camp, decided against it.

No doubt, he rues that decision now.

Volkanovski’s situation was different given he got knocked out Saturday, but there’s an argument to be made that it was the same. He proved when he lost in February that he was good enough to defeat Makhachev. At the highest level of any sport, the differences between winning and losing are minute and Volkanovski didn’t need to change a lot from February to have things go in his favor Saturday.

That they didn’t, well, is kind of the story that at least needs to be discussed.

Volkanovski and Usman turned what looked like a good card on paper into a great one when they accepted the bouts on short notice. But they did so at great risk to themselves, and that was obvious by the results Saturday. Makhachev entered the bout No. 3 on the Yahoo Sports pound-for-pound list. Chimaev was No. 5. Volkanovski was No. 2 before the fight according to the Yahoo Sports’ ratings, while Usman was No. 7.

It was four of the 10 best fighters in the world going at each other for massive stakes.

Former UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman has now lost three fights in a row after Saturday’s majority decision defeat to Khamzat Chimaev. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

It’s one thing to take a fight against a mid-carder on 11 days’ notice than it is against one of the greatest fighters in the world, regardless of weight. It’s like not swinging a golf club for two months, and then chipping and putting for a couple of days before taking a golf match with a prime Tiger Woods.

More often that not, that’s not going to turn out well.

In MMA, the fighter is celebrated, rightly, for saving the show. And they’re paid handsomely for stepping up. But Volkanovski noted it was not about money; it was about establishing a legacy, and he lost a chance to do that.

Maybe Makhachev would have won regardless of whether Volkanovski had three months or 11 days, but the fact that Volkanovski won’t know for sure is certain to haunt him for a while.

Asked what went wrong and why he was hesitant to let his hands go, Volkanovski’s emotions overtook him.

“Man, I’m not … Yeah, I’m not going to … You know, I don’t want to sit here and obviously make excuses,” Volkanovski said. “I’m a big believer in preparation and stuff like that, um, you know, I back myself. So that’s the decision I made, you know what I mean? You know, it is, you know, I’ve probably made better decisions.

“I could have made a better decision, but you know, look, he’s not somebody you should be taking a short-notice fight with.”

Usman talked about not having the opportunity to work hard on his wrestling, given what everyone knew would be Chimaev’s approach.

He rolled the dice in accepting the fight without that, and against this opponent on this night, it didn’t work out. But he and others who have those choices to make need to think if it’s ever going to work on a consistent basis when you’re facing one of the greats in the sport.

“I mean, it’s miscalculations for me,” Usman said. “I mean, you know, that’s a part of camp for me. I’m a wrestler and so I love to wrestle. I love to really put that time in in camp and really prepare for those positions. I didn’t necessarily get that time to put the grappling in and really stop those takedowns. You know, I don’t give up positions like that. That’s the part I’m mostly disappointed about, is giving up those positions because I didn’t have adequate time to prepare.”

He knew that before he accepted the fight. So, too, did Volkanovski.

They deserve credit for being willing to step up and save a show. But you make those calls at your own risk.

For the promoter, the show must go on. UFC CEO Dana White always wants to put on the best possible show, so of course he loves situations like this where fighters put their best interests behind them to take on a challenge.

But now, Chimaev will go on to fight Sean Strickland for the middleweight title, assuming his hand is healthy. Makhachev will face either Charles Oliveira or Justin Gaethje.

And both Usman and Volkanovski are going to sit on those long plane rides home and second-guess their choices. As fans, it’s always fine to cheer them when they make a call to step up.

But they also deserve respect when they say no and think that taking a short-notice fight against arguably the best opponent in the world isn’t the smartest decision to make. Don’t forget that next time someone makes a different decision than either Usman or Volkanovski.

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