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Half Baked Thoughts on UFC 294, including wild referee mishaps

UFC 294 was a compilation of mayhem and mishaps that will not be forgotten anytime soon. Before there’s time to fully digest what happened, let’s share some half-baked thoughts about the event.

Super Waste

MMA: UFC 284 Makhachev vs Volkanovski
Jasmin Frank-USA TODAY Sports

With all due respect to extenuating circumstances, a fight between two reigning champions should be a special occasion. The term “super fight” exists for a reason. Those moments should only happen when the timing is right. Both fighters dominating their respective division, clearing the field, and looking for a legacy-defining challenge should be a requirement. With two divisions being left on hold as rightful contenders are excluded from achieving the top prize, rushing into a super fight is rarely a good idea. 

Today’s main event between Islam Makhachev and Alexander Volkanovski did not meet that set of criteria. Makhachev had no trouble dismantling Volkanovski when the featherweight champion filled the void left by Charles Oliveira’s late camp injury. 

While their original clash in February will be mentioned during many of the upcoming “Best Fights of 2023” conversations, this one will not. It could be a product of the Dagestani applying the lessons he learned during the first bout to impressive results, or it could be what happens when a smaller man who was not at his physical best attempted the impossible with minimal preparation. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, but we’ll unfortunately never know. 

As devastating as Oliveira’s withdrawal was at first glance, there was already a backup solution in place that was mysteriously abandoned when it was most needed. Mateusz Gamrot was already tapped as a replacement in case the original plan fell apart.  To add insult to injury, Gamrot was still used a backup fighter against Volkanovski booked. The Polish wrestler even officially weighed in as well.

Sure, Gamrot in the blue corner lacks the sizzle of a champ vs champ showdown that doubles as a rematch to a fan favorite. But we at least would’ve seen a fighter with a full training camp fighting in a five-rounder. It’s far more probable that the outcome would be a far closer representation of what two world-class opponents look like against one another. 

Depending on how much time Makhachev wants off, the lightweight division will be able to pick up and carry along as though nothing happened soon enough. Between Gamrot, Oliveria, and Justin Gaethje, there will be plenty for Makhachev to do.

On the other hand, If Volkanovski takes the appropriate time to get his bearings back after such a devastating knockout loss, the featherweight division will have to pause. This means someone like Ilia Topuria, who has more than earned his chance at undisputed gold, is left to wait alongside the champ or risk his opportunity against someone else. At best this just opens the door for interim titles that only devalue the actual crown.

Even when Volkanovski steps back into the Octagon, there will be an asterisk next to whatever happens. Another loss would instantly devalue his opponent and cast doubt on the next champion’s reign and a win would carry the cloud of Makhachev’s win. Either way, it will take some time for the 145-pound division to truly move on from this hastily put-together fight.  

Related: UFC lightweight rankings: Islam Makhachev defends top spot

Staff Infection

One of the enduring memories of UFC 294 will be the absolute disaster of officiating. The powers that be failed at every step of this event. 

Having a fighter admit that he or she had a staph infection when entering the cage could be a singular oversight. Multiple fighters making that admission show there were serious holes in the pre-fight medical exams. 

After defeating Jinh Yu Frey, Victoria Dudakova even admitted to spreading diseased blood all over the cage floor. Fighters, officials, coaches, and broadcast crew entering the Octagon were all in danger because someone failed at their job. This is a case where irresponsibility could have disastrous results.

Of course, that culture of incompetence bled into the event itself several times.

Referee Lukasz Bosacki gave Muhammad Naimov more than enough leeway against Nathaniel Wood by allowing the Tajikistani to get away with multiple groin strikes, stop takedowns with fence grabs, and grab gloves to gain the upper hand in the clinch. By not handing out any meaningful punishments for the offenses Bosacki essentially paved the way for Naimov to win a decision.

The referee’s nonaction is further evidence that rules are negotiable in mixed martial arts. Other sports have consequences for blatant and repeated disregarding of pre-established rules. But once the action starts in MMA, the point deductions and disqualifications fighters are warned about in pre-fight discussions seem to disappear.

Bosacki also felt that Javid Basharat’s direct kick to Trevor Henry’s groin a few fights later warranted no point deduction. Despite the fact that Henry was on the Octagon floor writhing in pain, the fight would have continued without any penalty to Basharat had his opponent been able to collect himself. At least this was negated by it being declared a no-contest shortly after Henry’s five-minute recovery period passed.

However, the most inexcusable part of that foul was the response of the cage-side physician. Instead of properly attending to Henry, he felt it was prudent to rewrite biology and insist that the kick didn’t land on the groin.

According to the commentary team, Henry was carried out of the Octagon by his team, was vomiting backstage, and underwent testicular ultrasound at a local hospital. Henry was either a method actor cooking up an Oscar-worthy performance while risking his promising career and half of his fight purse or he was kicked in the groin by a world-class fighter and his body responded accordingly. 

Considering this medical team was also on the clock when Dudakova and Mike Breeden competed with staph infections, it’s safe to lean toward Henry’s side of the story. Additionally, the abrupt way that same doctor handled Johnny Walker after he absorbed an illegal blow generates even more questions about who is making crucial decisions about fighter health and safety.

Since the UFC acted as its own regulatory body in Abu Dhabi, it only has itself to blame for the layers of mismanagement. We should expect better from the world’s most prominent and wildly profitable promotion.

Related: Booking UFC 294 main card winners, including Islam Makhachev

Shara Bullet” Thrills but…

It’s rare that the prelim curtain jerker makes a column like this. If the reaction of the crowd wasn’t a clear enough indicator this was not the typical opening bout. The combination of Sharabutdin Magomedov’s highlight reel of dynamic striking, undefeated record, and unique look made his first foray in the Octagon one of the most anticipated UFC debuts in recent memory. 

Magomedov’s unanimous decision win over former M-1 champion Bruno Silva certainly lived up to expectations. The Russian-born kickboxer showed aggression, an array of kicks that were just as destructive as they were crowd-pleasing, and an ability to put together combinations at will.

As is the case with nearly every young fighter entering the UFC roster, Magomedov has improvements to make before he can realistically fulfill his potential. Silva’s well-timed takedowns in the second and third rounds will be points of interest as future opponents tape study and formulate game plans. They’re also likely to have answers for his willingness to strike from his back instead of working for position. 

With the right matchmaking “Shara Bullet” can make a huge impact on the middleweight division.