May 27, 2024

LAS VEGAS – HUNTER CAMPBELL WAS in Sydney, Australia, last month for UFC 293. On his final day in the city before heading back to the United States, the UFC’s chief business officer sat down for drinks with Alexander Volkanovski, the UFC featherweight champion and resident of nearby Wollongong, 58 miles away. Ash Belcastro, Volkanovski’s agent, was also in attendance.

The three men talked for hours, until around 3 a.m., about Volkanovski’s career and future goals. The plan they devised included a return in January to defend his featherweight title, but what stood out to Campbell was Volkanovski’s fixation on a rematch with Islam Makhachev.

“[Volkanovski] kept saying to me, ‘I know that if I get another opportunity, I can beat him,'” Campbell told ESPN. “He was obsessed with it.”

Makhachev, the UFC lightweight champion, beat Volkanovski by unanimous decision in February at UFC 284 in one of the year’s best fights. Volkanovski, the underdog who moved up in weight, had all the momentum by the end of the fight, finishing the bout on top of Makhachev, throwing punches.

Volkanovski and Makhachev are arguably the top two pound-for-pound fighters in the world. ESPN ranks Volkanovski No. 1 and Makhachev No. 2. As champions of two different divisions, they went in other directions after fighting each other. Volkanovski beat Yair Rodriguez to retain his belt in July. Makhachev was scheduled to defend his title against Charles Oliveira in the main event of UFC 294 on Saturday.

But just hours before he was going to fly to Abu Dhabi for the event on Oct. 9, Oliveira suffered a cut in training. While scrambling to find a replacement, Campbell knew one person he had to ask, though it seemed like a long shot: Volkanovski.

Volkanovski, undeterred by the short-notice, accepted the fight. The very best MMA has to offer — Makhachev and Volkanovski — will meet again Saturday (2 p.m ET on ESPN+ PPV).

“The world is literally spinning for me, you know what I mean?” Volkanovski said. “This is my world right now and everybody’s just a part of it.”

That wasn’t the end of the card’s changes. Just 11 days out of the event, the UFC had to pull another rabbit out of a hat and find a replacement for Paulo Costa who was scheduled to fight Khamzat Chimaev in the co-main event. The solution for that fight — former UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman — was a surprise to many.

Somehow, UFC 294 has become a bigger card than it was originally constituted, a testament to the nimble-on-its-feet UFC matchmaking team, the mental fortitude of some of the world’s best fighters and the impact of a meeting over cocktails that went deep into the morning Down Under.

“If anything happens, hit me up,” Volkanovski told Campbell last month. “Don’t leave me hanging. Because, you never know.”


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1:11

Why DC wouldn’t have advised Volkanovski to take Makhachev fight

Daniel Cormier admits he would’ve told Alexander Volkanovski to hold off on taking the fight against Islam Makhachev on short notice.

CAMPBELL IS IN a group text chain with UFC CEO Dana White and matchmakers Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard. On the night of Oct. 9, Shelby had gotten word out of Brazil that something was up with the former former UFC lightweight champion, and texted over a photo to their chat. It was Oliveira with a nasty cut over his right eyebrow.

Campbell called Oliveira and his coach, Diego Lima, right away. He told Lima he could have a plastic surgeon on a plane to where Oliveira trains near Sao Paulo within the hour. Lima told Campbell it was a very bad cut, and when Campbell got on the phone with a dejected Oliveira, he knew the fight wouldn’t be salvageable.

“The dude is the toughest guy on Earth,” Campbell said of Oliveira. “That guy would fight with a broken arm and a blown ACL.”

White and Campbell were in the matchmaking room at the UFC headquarters in Las Vegas when they got the news. They started reviewing a list of the potentially available replacements for Oliveira. They needed someone who could fight for the 155-pound title 12 days later. The first question Campbell said he always asks in these short-notice situations is about weight. If a fighter can’t make the weight in the timeframe available, they can’t fill in.

That was the issue for top UFC lightweight contender Justin Gaethje, who Campbell said was his first choice to take the fight. Gaethje’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, told ESPN that Gaethje weighed 188 pounds and couldn’t cut down in time. However, the plan is still for him to get the next title shot after this weekend, Abdelaziz said.

The UFC also made calls to lightweights Dustin Poirier and Mateusz Gamrot, just to see where they were at. Gamrot was slated to be the fight-week backup for Makhachev vs. Oliveira. Poirier posted on X that he told the UFC he would fight Makhachev, which Campbell corroborated. The fight was never officially offered to either him or Gamrot, though.

“Not just said he would do it,” Campbell said of Poirier. “But bugging me – ‘what’s up, man? C’mon, brother. Tell me.'”

Later that same night on Oct. 9, Campbell said he had another thought. He called White and asked him what he thought about Makhachev vs. Volkanovski. Campbell said he initially hesitated with concern over Volkanovski’s status, as Volkanovski had a minor surgery on his right elbow over the summer. But as far as Campbell knew since their chat over drinks and further communication with Belcastro, including gym videos, Volkanovski was recovering and back in training. So, he laid the idea of the big rematch on White, who loved it.

“No f—ing way,” White told him. “Let’s go. Get it done, c’mon.”

Campbell called Belcastro and informed him of what was going on with the main event. He offered the idea of Volkanovski replacing Oliveira, but said there was no pressure. Volkanovski was supposed to fight in January against Ilia Topuria.

“So, you do what’s right for you, but I gave you my word,” Campbell said he told Belcastro. “If anything happened, I would call. I think it’s incredible. It’s the fight that I would love to see. Think about it.”

Belcastro immediately called Volkanovski and said this “probably isn’t going to happen, but I’ve just got to tell you anyway.” It was already Tuesday, Oct. 10, in Australia. Volkanovski didn’t even give it much thought.

“I reckon we pretty much do it,” Volkanovski told his agent.

He told Belcastro to do his part with the negotiations and start putting his team together for an absurdly short training camp. Volkanovski revealed later on his YouTube page that he was 181 pounds a day before he accepted the 155-pound bout.

“We’ll put it this way,” Volkanovski told ESPN. “I probably already said yes before they knew [Oliveira] was definitely out. Like that’s how quick that whole thing pretty much went.”

Belcastro had some negotiating to do with Campbell. And Volkanovski started texting Campbell, as well.

“Honestly, I’m looking forward to it,” Volkanovski wrote to the UFC exec. “I was really getting a little bored, to be honest. So, the timing of this has me super excited. I get to show the world my big cojones and prove once again that I don’t just talk the talk.”

The only thing left to do was ask Makhachev if he would accept. Abdelaziz, Makhachev’s manager, said his first call was to former UFC lightweight champion and Makhachev’s mentor Khabib Nurmagomedov.

“I always call Khabib first,” Abdelaziz told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto. “And he said, ‘It doesn’t matter, man. Anybody. Who cares?'”

Makhachev was sleeping at the time, so Abdelaziz texted him.

“Whenever Khabib says yes, it’s yes,” Abdelaziz said Makhachev wrote back. “If King Kong can make 155, bring him here and we’ll fight him.”

Gamrot will remain as the fight-week backup for the UFC 294 main event. Campbell said that role is designed for a fight that gets lost due to an issue at or after weigh-ins or something else very close to the fight. If someone falls out, the UFC cannot just expect someone like Poirier to fly to Abu Dhabi from the United States and be there in time to weigh in and fight within 24 or 36 hours of the bout.

“The reality is Gamrot is a gamer and he’s still the backup at this stage,” Campbell said. “But we had enough time where we had an opportunity to make one of the greatest fights of this generation. Champ versus champ.”


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0:40

How UFC294 main and co-main event were saved

Dana White joins Pat McAfee and praises the mentality of the fighters who helped save the main and co-main event bouts of UFC294.

AFTER THE OCT. 10 edition of Dana White’s Contender Series at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, White confirmed reports that Oliveira was out and the new UFC 294 main event would be Makhachev vs. Volkanovski 2.

That was not supposed to be the UFC’s first messaging about the main event change. White taped an announcement video with the UFC social media team that afternoon that was supposed to be dropped on YouTube, Instagram and X that evening. But it ended up on the cutting-room floor — for good reason. Oliveira was not the only major player from UFC 294 that had to withdraw.

On Oct. 8, Costa posted on his Instagram that he needed surgery on his elbow due to an infection three weeks earlier. This was an alarming admission to the public, considering Costa was already in Abu Dhabi and was scheduled to fight Chimaev in the pay-per-view co-main event.

It was not news to Campbell. Costa actually called him from the hospital bed when it happened, nearly a month before the fight, and implored Campbell to keep him in the match. Costa had just signed a long-term contract with the UFC and got to Abu Dhabi about a month before the scheduled bout to adequately prepare himself, staying at the home of legend Renzo Gracie.

“I’m not pulling out, brother,” Campbell said Costa told him afterward. “Don’t listen to anybody. No one cares about the elbow — elbow’s fine. I’m just not gonna move it for a few days. But don’t take me off.”

Campbell said OK, but he wanted to see a photo of the injury, an infected bursa (fluid-filled sac) on Costa’s right elbow. Costa’s team sent Campbell the photo a week later — around three weeks out of the fight — and Campbell described it as “20 stitches in a complete circle around his elbow where it literally looked like they removed the entire skin and tissue around his elbow – and they had to sew it back on.”

The image was horrifying, Campbell said, but Costa wanted to continue and fight Chimaev. At that point, the UFC did not remove Costa, but began exploring alternatives. Campbell contacted Maynard and asked him to start looking into a replacement opponent. New UFC middleweight champion Sean Strickland was called, sources said, and offered the fight against Chimaev. However, it was just about a week after he beat Israel Adesanya to win the title in Australia and the timing did not make sense for him.

Top contender Jared Cannonier, the backup for the middleweight title fight last month at UFC 293, was tabbed as the replacement-in-waiting. Cannonier’s team told Maynard that he would be ready in the very likely event that Costa could not compete.

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0:46

Usman explains taking fight with Chimaev on short notice

Kamaru Usman talks about his mentality on fighting Khamzat Chimaev with short notice.

Costa’s elbow, Campbell said, got better. Until it didn’t. A little less than two weeks before UFC 294, it took a turn for the worse. Costa needed two more surgeries and was hospitalized in Abu Dhabi for several days.

“It’s as bad as it gets,” Campbell said.

There was no way Costa could fight. So, Campbell reached out to Maynard again the night of Oct. 9, around the same time they were dealing with Oliveira’s cut, and asked him to make sure Cannonier was ready. Maynard got back to him and said Cannonier was good to go. On Oct. 10, White filmed the announcement for social media: Makhachev vs. Volkanovski 2 and Chimaev vs. Cannonier were the two new headliners for UFC 294.

While at Dana White’s Contender Series, Maynard dropped more bad news on Campbell. Cannonier had just sustained an injury. He was out now, too. Chimaev had no opponent for the card just 11 days out. The one thing Campbell was not concerned about was Chimaev accepting a replacement.

“This is like a caged lion who’s ready,” Campbell said. “And he’s another one who would fight anybody.”

Abdelaziz called the UFC’s matchmaking team and told them that his client, Roman Dolidze, would be ready to step in with Costa out. Dolidze was originally scheduled to fight Cannonier on Dec. 2. But Campbell had another idea.

A few months ago, White and Campbell sat down with Usman for a check-in meeting — similar to the one Campbell had with Volkanovski — in Las Vegas. At that meeting, Usman told them the opponent he wanted most was Chimaev. It didn’t make a ton of sense at the time. Chimaev had moved up a weight class, out of the welterweight division where Usman reigned for three years. Moreover, if Usman won the fight, it could make him the No. 1 contender for the middleweight belt, and Usman’s close friend Israel Adesanya was the champion then.

With Costa and Cannonier out, Usman popped back into Campbell’s head. Adesanya was no longer the UFC middleweight champion. With White and Shelby in the room, Campbell called Abdelaziz, who is also Usman’s manager, with the idea. Abdelaziz got on a video call with Usman, who had already seen Costa’s Instagram post.

“Kamaru — his eyes lit up like a Christmas tree,” Abdelaziz said. “I was like, ‘This guy knows something I don’t know.’ And he’s like, ‘Hey, they’re gonna take care of me [financially]?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘Let’s do it.'”

Abdelaziz then went to Campbell’s Vegas home and stayed until around 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 11, negotiating the deal and playing ping pong.

“He thought he could beat me,” Abdelaziz said of the ping-pong game. “And he didn’t.”

One of the stipulations that Abdelaziz requested, Campbell said, was the Chimaev vs. Usman winner would fight Strickland next for the middleweight title. Usman had to be comfortable with that, despite his friendship with Adesanya. Usman, who has a 2017 win over Strickland, agreed.

“I think since that fight [Strickland has] grown a lot,” Usman told ESPN’s Chael Sonnen. “He’s gotten a lot better and I think he’s just settled into who he is as a fighter. And I look forward to that matchup because as he’s grown, as have I. I’ve grown a lot as well. So, I think that’s gonna be a highly anticipated matchup for everyone to see. And I can’t wait.”


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2:08

’11-day notice Volk is dangerous’ – Volanovski on preparing for Makhachev

Alexander Volkanovski believes there are hidden benefits of his short notice fight against UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev.

FRANK HICKMAN WAS in Thailand on Oct. 10 when he got a text message from Volkanovski. Hickman and his brother George are co-owners of Bangtao Muay Thai in Phuket, and Hickman is the wrestling coach for several top fighters, including Volkanovski and Adesanya.

“Hey, we’re on,” Volkanovski wrote to him. “The rematch is gonna be in [11] days. When can you get here?”

Hickman was teaching a wrestling class at the time. Afterward, he showered, packed a bag and headed to the airport.

“When the message came through, I read it and I kind of got the butterflies,” Hickman told ESPN. “You get excited, you get anxious. The first thing I really thought of was, ‘All right, I know we’ve wanted the rematch for a long time.'”

Direct flights from Phuket to Sydney were available, but it wouldn’t be easy. Hickman is an American and needed an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) visa to enter Australia. He needed to fill out some forms online, but was having trouble with the application process on his phone, so he asked his sister-in-law for help. Hickman figured he’d get to the airport for a 10 p.m. flight, show them the application was in process and they would let him on the plane. They did not.

Instead, they put him on a flight for the following night, as Volkanovski was able to get UFC’s travel department involved. But when Hickman went back to the airport on Oct. 11, the same thing happened. Hickman could not get on a flight until the morning of Oct. 12, and that one went to Melbourne, so he had to get on another plane to fly 90 minutes to Sydney. Hickman landed and went straight to Volkanovski’s Freestyle Fighter gym, arriving at about 5 p.m. local time.

Craig Jones, an ace Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitor and Volkanovski’s grappling coach, was already there, flying in from Austin, Texas. Jones was in Bali, Indonesia, just a day prior and had to turn around and head back to that part of the world the next morning. Volkanovski said within a few hours of Belcastro talking to Campbell, he was already doing workouts that simulated the fight.

“Everyone just went, ‘OK, let’s go,'” Volkanovski said. … “It just shows you the team support I have behind me.”

Volkanovski’s weight wasn’t a huge concern for him. His nutrition team had the food for his diet on his doorstep the morning of Oct. 11, he said. And he knew that being 181 pounds was a lot of water weight. Two days later, Volkanovski said on his YouTube channel that he was down to 172 pounds and by Monday, he was 168 after multiple training sessions. He even broke his jumping records at the gym, despite being a bit heavier than normal.

The pressure, Volkanovski admitted, is on Makhachev. Volkanovski is the one coming in on short notice. Abdelaziz said he believes Makhachev should be considered the “hero” in this equation, because he was preparing for Oliveira — stylistically a much different opponent — and has already beaten Volkanovski.

It’s difficult not to give Volkanovski props, though. Some memes Volkanovski shared on Instagram referred to his courage in taking the bout against an elite opponent like Makhachev on such short notice. Volkanovski acknowledged that if he doesn’t win Saturday, he’ll be 0-2 against Makhachev and will likely never get another opportunity. But he is “loving” the idea of getting right back into another fight and showing that he’s not just talking the talk when it comes to wanting to stay active and fight anyone at any time.

“I’m coming for that finish,” Volkanovski said. “I can’t wait to go out there and shock the world. This is my time.”

Makhachev said in an interview with ESPN’s Daniel Cormier that he didn’t have time to change anything to prepare specifically for Volkanovski. And he’s comfortable with that.

“I’m just in shape, and I am the best fighter in the world,” Makhachev said. “I am the 155[-pound] champion. That’s why you have to show people who is the best and it doesn’t matter who comes.”

The UFC and the four fighters at the top of the card put the whole thing together on less than two weeks’ notice, saving a good pay-per-view card on the verge of falling apart and making it into an even stronger one. But the seeds were planted at a bar in Sydney last month when Volkanovski, Campbell and Belcastro sat down for drinks.

“I guess he knows me too well,” Volkanovski said of Campbell. “He knows that I’m that type of guy, that high-risk, high-reward. I guess it’s easy to play into my ego.

“I’m so excited and just like a kid in a candy store with this whole situation. I don’t know how I’m thriving so much with this. A lot of people would probably be [anxious]. But I’m absolutely loving it.”


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