This one’s a big one for Alexander Volkanovski; no doubt about it.
But even as the top featherweight in the world — and consensus pound-for-pound No. 1 — chases Islam Makhachev’s lightweight title and the rare “champ-champ” distinction, Volkanovski concedes he’s beaten bigger names in the sport.
“If you’re talking about actual opponents, Max Holloway, it doesn’t get much bigger than your Max Holloways,” Volkanovski recently told The Post via Zoom. “But I think just the whole everything around this one, going up a division, ‘champ-champ’ and all that type of stuff makes this one huge as well for the legacy.”
Legacy is big for Volkanovski (25-1, 15 finishes), who faces Makhachev in the pay-per-view headliner of UFC 284 from Perth, Australia (10 p.m. ET Saturday). Similar to the source of his nickname, Alexander “The Great” is chasing the opportunity to go down in the annals of history, and he’s doing all the right things to make that happen. His reign over the UFC 145-pound division crossed the three-year mark in December. He’s 3-0 over the aforementioned Holloway and holds a victory over Jose Aldo — the only other two men to hold the UFC featherweight crown. He’s unbeaten in his typical weight class, with the lone loss of his career coming at 170 pounds nearly 10 years ago.
Makhachev (23-1, 15 finishes) infamously referred to the 5-foot-6 Volkanovksi as “the short guy” in the moments after claiming the 155-pound crown from Charles Oliveira in October. The Aussie entered the cage for a staredown with the new champ, all but punching his ticket for a fight he’d been calling for since early last year.
Though Volkanovski isn’t tall — the defending champ from Dagestan, Russia will have a 4-inch height edge — he’s not exactly “small” either. A squat ex-rugby player, he used to compete in that sport at greater than 200 pounds. And he’s spoken in the leadup to this fight about adding “bulk” to deal with the larger Makhachev, a move he wouldn’t necessarily have done if Oliveira had regained his title last fall and gone on to face the Aussie.
“I wouldn’t have bulked up as much,” Volkanovski says. “That’s just me being serious.”
The added mass for this fight isn’t meant to be permanent, and Volkanovski doesn’t expect to be adding it every time he competes at lightweight. The bulk is meant to help deal with the dogged grappling of Makhachev, who like his “brother” and longtime friend Khabib Nurmagomedov does his best work on the mat and is adept at bringing the fight into his world. Volkanovski’s skill set is quite well-rounded, but he’s done his best work during this championship run as an active striker.
Many a striker have been taken out of their game by the mere threat of a takedown from takedown artists of Makhachev’s ilk. They don’t throw hands and feet, and they don’t fight their fight. It’s a pitfall of which Volkanovski is keenly aware, and one he figures he can avoid.
“At the end of the day, we know where my advantages are, we know where his advantages are, so I can’t be hesitant,” Volkanovski explained. “I can’t be second-guessing myself on the feet, so you’re gonna see me do what I always do. Obviously, we’re going to have some structure to make things hard for them. But at the same time, I can’t be just boring and looking just for his takedown to stuff. I’ll worry about that if he can even get square on me, even if he can get in onto my hips. I’ll worry about that when it happens.”
“First thing I need to worry about [is] my movement and me punching him in the face. That’s where I’m gonna an advantage. A lot of people can’t really do that. They do worry too much about the takedown; they freeze. You won’t be seeing me freeze in there.”
Should Saturday — that’s Sunday morning local time — go his way, Volkanovski’s next title fight could still be at 145 pounds against the winner of the UFC 284 co-main event, an interim title fight between Yair Rodriguez and Josh Emmett that’s essentially a puffed up No. 1 contender bout.
But Volkanovski has every intention of holding down the fort at both 145 and 155, even if that means fighting three or four times in a year. UFC champions typically max out at three fights in a calendar year, and none have ever won four championship fights in the same year.
For a legacy-minded man like Volkanovski, that’s the type of jewel he’d like to add to his growingly-impressive crown.
“Oh, they haven’t? OK, that’s good to know,” said Volkanovski upon learning of the yet-to-be accomplished feat. “That’s something I wouldn’t mind doing. So, there you go. That might be my next goal, so we’ll see what we can do.”