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Just a shade over a dozen years ago, before he started his MMA career, opponents would snicker when they would see Alexander Volkanovski step onto the rugby field.
Standing 5’6”, Volkanovski was undersized, especially in his position as a front-rower.
“I’m the smallest on the field playing the position of a heavyweight,” Volkanovski says. “I saw their smirks. I heard the comments.”
Before they could finish laughing at the little fella, Volkanovski rewrote the script. He pushed around bigger, badder, and more talented players–sound familiar?–imposing his will on opponents.
“Once the game started, all of a sudden, I’m putting on the biggest hits,” Volkanovski says. “Then they’re game-planning on how to slow me down, this little guy who is wrecking their team. That molded me into who I am. I thought I was 10 feet tall, even though I was just over half that size.
“I’ve always been undersized, I’ve always been the underdog. I’ve always been proving people wrong.”
Volkanovski is still undersized, though it can be harder to notice with the distraction of the gold around his waist. He is the UFC’s reigning featherweight champion, and he looks to become the sport’s newest champ. Volkanovski challenges lightweight champion Islam Makhachev on Saturday at UFC 284, seeking to hand Makhachev only his second loss.
“I’m planning on breaking on his will,” says Volkanovski (25-1). “I’ve put in the preparation to get this job done.”
Makhachev (23-1) enters this bout on a run few have ever matched. He has obliterated opponents, most recently making quick work of the explosive Charles Oliveira. But many of Makhachev’s conquests have come on his terms—where travel was not an issue, or occasions where he fought opponents with minimal time to prepare. He is great, no doubt, but he does not have a built-in advantage against Volkanovski, who possesses the speed, ground defense, and ability to scramble that could all cause significant problems.
“I know Islam’s beat all those other guys, but he hasn’t beat me,” Volkanovski says. “I’m different. I believe in my preparation, my team, my knowledge. I’m the guy to take out a guy like this.”
The fight is a real gamble for Volkanovski. He had been running rampant through the featherweight division, even dominating longtime divisional lynchpin Max Holloway last summer. But Volkanovski is not content to be the best featherweight in the world.
“I could protect my winning streak and take easier fights, but that’s not who I am,” Volkanovski says. “I’m taking a risk. I’m fighting a dangerous opponent.
“I hope people learn from this. People should challenge themselves more often.”
There is no questioning Volkanovski’s fight IQ, problem-solving, or execution. It is just that Makhachev is a bigger opponent with near-flawless technique. This looming challenge has only served as further motivation.
Another unique element at play is the rare chance that Volkanovski is being underestimated. As unlikely as it is that a fighter the elite caliber of Makhachev would ever overlook the challenge in front of him, it is not out of the realm of possibility. If that turns out to be the case, Volkanovski promises that Makhachev will pay for it.
“If he thinks I’m too short and he’s just going to walk through me, then that just makes my job even easier,” Volkanovski says. “I believe he is preparing properly. If he’s not, he’s in for a rude awakening.”
No longer on the rugby field, Volkanovski still hears that he is too short. And that his opponent is bigger and tougher. Come Saturday, he looks to silence all those doubters as he climbs to an entirely new level of success.
“I see an object in front of me, that’s a problem I’m going to solve,” Volkanovski says. “I’m going to get through it. There’s been a repetition of that my whole life.
“I’ve embraced it. I love a challenge. I’m not only getting a second belt. I’m also taking out Islam.”