Alex Volkanovski laughs heartily. Even though he came to the decision to try to compete in mixed martial arts late in life, he has never had second thoughts. He’s never wondered if he should have stuck with rugby or contemplated going back.
It seems like a lifetime ago that he was a big deal in one of the few sports that can legitimately be considered on the same level as MMA in terms of toughness required.
He was barely recognizable in the yellow and blue of the Warilla Gorillas, barreling down the field as a professional rugby player in New Zealand. Volkanovski was a 5-foot-6, 214-pounder who would take the ball and rocket downfield, running over men 50, 60 and even 80 pounds heavier than himself.
He was a national champion wrestler in Australia as a 12-year-old, but at 14 took up rugby. In 2010, he was chosen as the South Coast Rugby League’s best player.
While he loved rugby, it dawned on him one day that he loved martial arts even more. And so in 2012, he made what could be seen as a controversial choice when he was 24 and opted to try MMA.
If people criticized him at the time, they have long since conceded the error of their ways.
He’s preparing to make the first defense of the title he won from Max Holloway at UFC 245 in December when they meet in a rematch Saturday at Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi in the co-main event of UFC 251.
A second consecutive win over Holloway would mean that since 2018, he’s beaten, in succession, Darren Elkins, Chad Mendes, Jose Aldo and Holloway twice and firmly proved he made the right choice to take up MMA.
He’s on the verge of stardom, a fearless, heavy-handed fighter whose fan-friendly style and willingness to take on anyone at any size and at any time makes him a perfect fit in Dana White’s UFC.
Featherweight may be the best and certainly the deepest division in the UFC, with Holloway, Zabit Magomedsharipov, Brian Ortega, Chan Sung Jung, Yair Rodriguez, Calvin Kattar and Josh Emmett among many others as dangerous opponents.
“You look at all the killers in that division, it says a lot about you when you’re at the top,” White said.
Volkanovski won a unanimous decision the first time around. He swept the first three rounds on all three judges’ cards, but two of the three judges gave Holloway Rounds 4 and 5.
Holloway felt he’d done enough to win and so White gave him the rematch.
“I can see why Max thinks he won that fight,” White said. “But I can also understand why people thought Alex won it. It was a great fight and it was razor-thin. You could make a legitimate case for either of them having won that. The only thing that made sense after a fight like that was for them to do it again.”
Volkanovski will bring an 18-fight winning streak into the bout, including a perfect 8-0 mark in the UFC.
His only loss came in 2013, about a year after he turned pro when he was stopped by Corey Nelson in Melbourne, Australia.
Though he lost that fight, it let Volkanovski know he’d made the right decision to abandon rugby and pursue MMA. Nelson was considered the top fighter in Australia and the fight was held at welterweight.
“I wasn’t anywhere near the fighter I am today,” Volkanovski said. “If I’m being honest, I probably shouldn’t have taken that fight, but that’s not me. If there is a challenge there, I accept it. I have even fought at middleweight and those boys towered over me. But you learn as you go and you develop the skills you need to compete.”
Volkanovski’s success in the first fight came by chopping at Holloway’s leg repeatedly. He landed calf kicks early and often, and was willing to eat a punch if need be in order to attack the leg.
It reduced Holloway’s mobility and piled up points for Volkanovski. He thinks the adjustments in the rematch will be subtle, but believes there will be one significant difference between their first contest.
“You’re going to see the same winner, but the result may be different,” Volkanovski said. “I feel he’s going to do a little more and that will leave him open and give me more opportunities to land my big shots. I know he’s durable, but I really believe I can put him away, especially if he’s going to come at me and take more risks.
“I think he’ll attack more and not try to counter me and make me miss, because he knows that didn’t work. Now, he’s just going to go, go, go. He’s going to run straight into my game. That’s where I am dangerous, and so I think the difference is I have the opportunity to get the finish.”
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