Just a few weeks shy of the 13th anniversary of the first UFC card held on Australian soil, the promotion will return Down Under on Saturday for the 16th time overall when it presents UFC 284 from RAC Arena in Perth.
The top-heavy fight card offers a pair of can't-miss title bouts atop the marquee as Islam Makhachev makes the first defense of his lightweight title against reigning featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski. In the co-main event, Yair Rodriguez and Josh Emmett will square off for the interim title at 145 pounds.
As fight night draws near, let's take a closer look at the biggest storylines to watch for.
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1. Was Islam Makhachev right in criticizing promotional effort of UFC, Dana White?
Makhachev, whose 11-fight win streak entering Saturday is only topped among active UFC fighters by the 12 consecutive that Volkanovski has won, has been highly critical about the lack of buzz surrounding the pay-per-view promotion. Considering the full-court press White, the UFC's president, has done in promoting his offshoot Power Slap league since the start of 2023, using every arm of the UFC's promotional machine to do so, Makhachev might have a strong point. (White forgetting Makhachev's name when trying to hype the card on Saturday didn't help matters, either.) But such is the larger reality for the promotion in the aftermath of the landmark ESPN output deal it signed in 2019, which puts less pressure on UFC to build PPV stars or aggressively promote individual events because of how large the default fee per card that is being paid by the network. Instead of focusing on building vertically in recent years, UFC has put much of its financial efforts into fulfilling its minimum guarantee of annual events, which explains White's aggressiveness amid the coronavirus outbreak in 2020.
UFC also appears much more focused on horizontal expansion, particularly on the global level, which includes the creation of Performance Institutes in both China and Mexico. The fallout of the ESPN deal has meant somewhat weaker cards, which is a polite way of describing UFC 284's lack of depth. This event, with the Australian native Volkanovski in the main event, also appears to focused almost exclusively on the Oceanic region, not too dissimilar to last Saturday's Fight Night card, which was filled with South Korean fighters and aired in the middle of the night in the U.S. so it could air in prime time in Asia.
2. Makhachev-Volkanovski is on the short list of best fights UFC could make
With a combined record of 37-2 (including 24-1 in the UFC) and critical recognition from the promotion as the top two pound-for-pound fighters in the sport today, this is a matchup that includes two of the most talented fighters in the sport's history. It's also a perfect contrast in styles between the grappling-based Makhachev and the sublime striking skills of Volkanovski. The fact that Makhchev's No. 2 P4P ranking by UFC might be a tad bit generous at this point is overshadowed by the fact that it would be hard to keep him out of the top spot with a victory over Volkanovski, the reigning P4P king, even with the size difference between them. Volkanovski, who previously weighed as high as 215 pounds in his rugby league days, will need to prove his physicality from a wrestling standpoint is enough to keep his back off the canvas for long stretches. Makhachev, meanwhile, will need to overcome the loss of trainer/mentor Khabib Nurmagomedov, who will reportedly not make the trip to Perth while taking time off from coaching to be with his family. Makhachev has already gone on record saying he's going for the knockout, as a way to prove he's anything but a one-dimensional fighter. Either way, the fight is a hard-core fan's dream.
3. Volkanovski could be closing in on immortality with an upset win
One of the more underreported quandaries entering this 155-pound title bout is what to do with Volkanovski's growing legacy should he capture a title in a second weight class. At 34, with universal acclaim as the P4P king, Volkanovski is already closing in on rarefied air historically. He hasn't lost in 22 fights, dating back to a third-round TKO defeat in 2013 in just his fourth pro fight. And his consecutive win streak within the UFC would leave him just three shy of Anderson Silva's vaunted mark should he defeat Makhachev this weekend. But if does pull the upset and slow down the one-sided dominance that has been executed by Makhachev since he first became a threat to the lightweight crown, it would also add yet another monster conquest for Volkanovski over his last eight fights, which would be comparable to any other streak of its kind in UFC history. Beginning in December 2018, Volkanovski has put together a streak of wins over a who's who in contemporary history: Chad Mendes, Jose Aldo, Brian Ortega, "The Korean Zombie" Chan-Sung Jung and three times against Max Holloway. What Volkanovski has already accomplished would easily be deemed Hall-of-Fame worthy. But by potentially entering an even loftier club of simultaneous two-division champions in UFC history, "Alexander the Great" might be entering inclusion in the upper room among the best fighters to ever compete in the sport. Granted, it's an idea that might seem premature to some upon reading. Volkanovski, however, has proven along the way that he can win a fight using virtually any style. And the way in which he rallied to overcome Holloway in their disputed rematch or the toughness he showed in fighting off a deep choke against Ortega simply can't be overlooked when comparing him to those he's creeping up on in history.
4. Josh Emmett's long road to the top has one more violent hurdle to clear
Considering he was starting to look like the odd man out in the overall title picture despite such a hard-earned, five-fight win streak, Emmett's inclusion in Saturday's interim title bout represents the culmination of an incredible journey. Utilizing a taxing style of straight ahead striking, Emmett has endured an extreme amount of damage in order to win one difficult fight after another. He has overcome countless cuts and bruising, as well as a horrific facial injury suffered in his last loss in 2018 against Jeremy Stephens that would have sent many fighters to an early retirement. Emmett simply refuses to quit and that hard-hat mentality was finally rewarded. But he gets no handout in terms of matchmaking when it comes to the violently skilled Yair Rodriguez, who is expected to light up Emmett with devastating strikes, regardless of what the outcome of the five-round fight turns out to be. Should Emmett finally scale the mountain and secure a full shot at UFC gold, he will need to overcome his most dangerous opponent yet. Nothing is ever guaranteed in this sport and even Emmett was forced to hold his breath as the scores were being read in two of his biggest wins on this journey where close calls against Calvin Kattar and Shane Burgos felt like they truly could've gone either way. But if there's any guarantee entering UFC 284, it's that Emmett will go down swinging and is willing to risk it all, every time out, to fulfill his dreams.
5. It's time for rising welterweight Jack Della Maddalena's close-up
After winning an impressive decision and being rewarded a UFC contract on "Dana White's Contender Series" in 2021, the Perth-born Della Maddalena looked like a future 170-pound prospect to watch. Last year, Della Maddalena seemed to only double down (or should we say tripled?) on his bright potential by recording a trio of first-round TKO wins to further get the attention of UFC matchmakers. On Saturday, in his home city, Della Maddalena will get one heck of showcase opportunity on the PPV main card when he takes on Randy Brown, who is riding a four-fight win streak. Unlike a similarly hyped prospect in lightweight Paddy Pimblett, the heavy handed Della Maddalena seems to be a sure thing. After suffering stoppage losses in his first two pro fights in 2016, has now won 13 straight and has only gone to the scorecards once. A victory over Brown would likely lead a fast-track opportunity toward the top of the rankings.