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It’s time to stop sleeping on Alexander Volkanovski.
Since the current featherweight titleholder first became known to the Ultimate Fighting Championship fan base, it has been a long battle to earn the respect and admiration he deserves. In a number of ways, that’s understandable. Volkanovski came up through Oceania MMA circuit, which has produced plenty of quality fighters but doesn’t have the same notoriety as other regions. Even when he made it to the UFC, he continued to fight exclusively in his home region on cards that drew little attention from the average fan.
Eventually, Volkanovski’s steady stream of victories earned him more high-profile slots. Starting with his bout against Chad Mendes underneath Jon Jones-Alexander Gustafsson 2, he has fought exclusively on the main cards of pay-per-view events. However, there’s still something about Volkanovski that makes people tend to underestimate him. His self-effacing demeanor stands in contrast to the swagger of other star fighters. He is short and stocky, racking up wins against opponents who sometimes tower over him. There is widespread recognition that he is good, but it has been a longer path towards recognition that this is a great fighter.
The biggest obstacle denying Volkanovski his credit ironically was the man he defeated in the most notable wins of his career: Max Holloway. Unlike Volkanovski, who wins with a workmanlike precision, there’s a mythos about Holloway that developed from the way he fights and wins. To many, it just didn’t feel like Holloway should be losing to Volkanovski. So when Volkanovski defeated Holloway the first time, he didn’t get his full credit. There was acknowledgement that Volkanovski had won the fight by landing more, but Holloway was still the fighter that had the aura and was perceived as the special one. Their second fight reinforced this sentiment even more. Volkanovski actually outlanded Holloway by a wider margin in the second fight than the first, but there was widespread dismissal of the decision in his favor. Rather than being treated as the close decision between two great fighters that could have gone either way—which it was—many greeted it as some sort of robbery. Even after Volkanovski beat Holloway twice, it was as if he was just the man keeping the Hawaiian’s throne warm.
While Holloway and current Bellator MMA champion A.J. McKee still lurk as challenges to Volkanovski’s supremacy in an excellent crop of 145-pound fighters, the UFC 266 main event between “Alexander The Great” and Brian Ortega on Saturday in Las Vegas will hopefully go a long way to reinforcing recognition of the Australian as one of the sport’s elite pound-for-pound competitors. It was the perfect storm from that standpoint—an exciting fight where Volkanovski showed not only championship mettle in weathering trouble but also dangerous offensive firepower against a formidable challenger.
The talk of the MMA world rightly focused on the third round, five minutes of action that will be talked about for years to come. A Rener Gracie black belt, Ortega threatened with a variety of submissions but the two that stood out the most were the mounted guillotine and the triangle choke. In each instance, Volkanovski was in deep jeopardy but managed to survive through a combination of excellent technique and overwhelming force of will.
Volkanovski’s miraculous escapes were made more impressive still by the way he responded by immediately putting a beating on Ortega. In spite of the danger Ortega put Volkanovski in, the champion left no doubt about who was winning the fight. It’s rare for a champion to score his most dominant championship victory in the fight where he was also put in the greatest jeopardy.
The big question now centers on what Volkanovski will do next to further bolster his stature in the sport. Holloway lingers, and a third fight with the Hawaiian seems inevitable. Volkanovski hasn’t fought Yair Rodriguez or Chan Sung Jung, leaving them as other potential options. Henry Cejudo has been barking about a fight with Volkanovski and would be a major name, provided the Olympic gold medalist is serious and the UFC is open to the idea. The juiciest possibility might be McKee, who could be a free agent next year and has built the most impressive resume of any fighter outside the UFC in quite some time.
Regardless of what comes next, Volkanovski has hopefully graduated to a different stage of his career. This is not a fortunate champion who benefitted from judges’ decisions. This is one of the best champions in the sport, proven against top-level competition. It’s going to take a great opponent to wrest away his title, and that may not happen for some time to come.