UFC 294: Makhachev v Volkanovski 'will be one of the sport's greatest rematches'

Dagestani’s long-time coach Javier Mendez speaks to The National ahead of Saturday's bout in Abu Dhabi

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Javier Mendez says he expects the headline bout between his fighter Islam Makhachev and Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi will be one of the greatest rematches in the sport’s history.

Makhachev, the current lightweight champion, defends his title against the featherweight belt-holder on Saturday night for the second time in eight months after Volkanovski stepped in for the injured Charles Oliveira on 11 days’ notice.

Both champions in their respective divisions, the two met in February at UFC 284 in Perth, when Makhachev prevailed by unanimous decision. The victory stretched Makhachev’s win streak to 12, while the defeat marked Volkanovski’s first loss in 23 fights.

However, the bout was hugely competitive, with some considering Volkanovski unfortunate not to get his hand raised.

And Mendez, Makhachev’s long-time coach, anticipates the second instalment of the rivalry will be even better to the first.

“Make no mistake about it, this is going to be one of the greatest champion-versus-champion match-ups,” Mendez told The National. “There’s never one that delivered like the first one did. Now we’re going to have the second one that’s going to deliver more than the first.

“Because fighters make fights. And these two guys colliding, they’re so well rounded, they complement each other. I see this as a great, great fight. I don’t see this as a one-sided affair; this is going to go back and forth again.

“It just depends who stays on their ‘A’ Game. Whether we can get Islam motivated and to stay on track, or they can get Alex motivated and to stay on track. One thing I do know, what I feel in my heart, is that we’re going to win.”

Mendez echoed Makhachev’s sentiment this week that Volkanovski has nothing to lose on Saturday, given he accepted the rematch on such short notice.

Oliveira, whom Makhachev defeated last October in Abu Dhabi to clinch the lightweight title for the first time, had to withdraw earlier this month having sustained a serious cut above his eye.

Volkanovski, 26-2 as a professional, has publicly stated all week that he is coming to take the fight to Makhachev from the opening bell.

“He’s definitely more dangerous, for sure,” Mendez said. “But also, we’ll be more dangerous. His game plan could potentially work, it could not. And it depends on how Islam can adjust to the new him. And I believe he will. Islam’s a sharpshooter.”

Asked why he believes Makhachev, 24-1, carries more of a threat now than he did in the initial encounter, Mendez said: “It’s growth. Islam’s got the grappling, the submissions, and he proved in the first fight he can strike. He out-struck him. To me he’s more dangerous.

“The other guy definitely has knockout power, and he’s definitely one of the greatest featherweights of all-time, and one of the best pound-for-pound fighters of all time also. He’s a great fighter, don’t get me wrong.

“But I’m just stating my beliefs. And I believe my guy is better.”

Mendez, who understandably is convinced Makhachev won the first fight in February, said the late change in opponent will not affect his principal charge.

“Islam is ready to defend his title against whoever is put in front of him,” he said. “As [former champion and teammate] Khabib [Nurmagomedov] said, it doesn’t matter if King Kong makes 155lbs, Islam will fight King Kong. That’s the mentality the whole team has, and that’s 100 per cent the mentality Islam has.

“Would he have liked the rematch with Alex? Absolutely. But he wasn’t searching for it either. If you ask Islam what he ideally wants, it’s to be a two-division champion.

“So if he can be successful here, go up to 170lbs [welterweight] at some point, it’s an ideal situation.

“He’s searching for legacy. And I believe legacy is what he’s going to attain. I just comes down to what the UFC allow him to attain.”

February’s fight pitted against one another the top two in the UFC’s pound-for-pound rankings. Makhachev went into that bout second only to Volkanovski, but despite getting the win, he did not leapfrog his opponent at the summit.

Mendez says that has formed another driver factor heading into UFC294.

“Islam's motivation is to show everyone he is the pound-for-pound No 1,” Mendez said. “And this will show it. ‘You guys robbed me of it the last time; this time I’ll put a stamp on it’.

“That’s what he’s going to do, he’s going to put a stamp on it. He should’ve been No 1. It made zero sense.”

Meanwhile, Nurmagomedov has provided the camp with a lift in the build-up. The former champion, who transitioned to coach after retiring undefeated in 2020 in Abu Dhabi but stopped to commit more time to his family, trained with Makhachev and team in Dubai in preparation for UFC 294.

“Khabib has been here training, helping him,” Mendez said. “He’s leading the team, which is a big plus. Before he was always on the phone talking to him, but his physical presence is huge, talking to the guys, rolling with the guys, giving inspirational speeches.

“He has been here, motivating everybody, encouraging them. He’s running the team like his father did.

“And that has a huge impact. There’s nothing I can do as a coach that can be bigger than what Khabib can do as a coach. Not with these guys, no way.

“There’s nothing more motivating than a guy from your region, who’s made it to the top, who you respect immensely. No coach can come in and overtake that. He’s the leader of these guys.”

Similarly, Mendez says the fact the title bout is taking place in Abu Dhabi, somewhere Makhachev has won three times previously and calls his second home, will proved hugely beneficial in his quest to defeat Volkanovski once more.

“It has a big impact,” Mendez said. “Confidence level, adrenalin, everything. Because most people are going to be there for you. He got a lot of boos in Australia, and whenever Alex did something that didn’t land the crowd still cheered.

“And that can have an impact in the perception of the fight. It definitely can influence the fight, but it doesn’t mean it’s right. But all three judges scored it Islam’s fight. Simple as that.

“Islam’s going to be pumped up. He’s a true champion, and a true champion fights whoever is put in front of him. He doesn’t pick and choose. If you’re the best in the world, it doesn’t matter who they put in front of you. And Islam’s the best.”

Updated: October 21, 2023, 11:39 AM