Alexander Volkanovski raises the bar in the featherweight division, ranks pound-for-pound with Max Holloway shutout

LAS VEGAS — Alexander Volkanovsky didn’t get into MMA as some sort of blue-chip, heavily hyped prospect. After a career as a 214-pound rugby player, Volkanovski turned to mixed martial arts without fanfare, worldwide or in Australia, where he comes from.

He lost his fourth pro fight to Corey Nelson, now a crane operator in Sydney, in a welterweight bout.

Just over nine years since that night, Volkanovski is pretty much at the top of the MMA world. He put in another brilliant performance on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 276essentially not hitting the awesome Max Holloway

The rivals met on Saturday for the featherweight title for the third time after Volkanovski racked up close decision wins at UFC 245 in 2019 and UFC 251 in 2020.

This time it was almost no contest from the start. Volkanovski, two inches shorter and with a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, was outboxing Holloway. He said he thinks he broke his left hand in the second, but no one who didn’t hear the conversation in the corner would have ever known.

Holloway has dominated the featherweight division except for Volkanovski. In his last 16 featherweight fights, excluding the one against Volkanovski, Holloway was 16-0 with 10 finishes. He has clearly conquered the field in the division. But against Volkanovski on Saturday, he looked like little more than a WWE jobber and was defeated unilaterally and decisively.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 02: Alexander Volkanovski of Australia punches Max Holloway in the UFC Featherweight Championship fight during the UFC 276 event at the T-Mobile Arena on July 2, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski conceived Max Holloway en route to a unanimous decision win. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973 by winning the Belmont Stakes by a whopping 31 lengths. In fighting terms, Volkanovski is at least that far ahead of the featherweight field.

“He answered all the questions of all the doubters tonight,” UFC president Dana White told Yahoo Sports. “He took that fight and he looked incredible. It’s time for him to move on and do whatever he wants to do next. Will he continue to defend that title? Does he want to go higher? Whatever he wants to do, the world is open to him. Very impressive what he did tonight.”

It was impressive to say the least.

Volkanovski opened a hollow cut above Holloway’s left eye and blood seeped from his eye, nose and mouth in the latter part of the fight. Holloway, one of the greatest and most stylish fighters in the sport, landed little of importance and couldn’t think of an attack that was even moderately successful.

Volkanovski is the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter on the UFC pound-for-pound list, but after that feat, it’s fair to ask if he has No. 1 welterweight champion Kamaru Usman. surpassed.

Usman has been equally dominant, taking 19 consecutive wins.

But Volkanovski won for the 21st time in a row on Saturday and won his 12th in a row in the UFC. No one has been near him except Holloway and there was no game on Saturday.

In his last six fights, he has taken three wins over Holloway and one over Jose Aldo, the two men other than himself who went on to win the greatest featherweight in UFC history.

There is no doubt about that now. Volkanovski is the man without a doubt, joining the conversation as one of the greatest fighters ever. That’s a place occupied by the likes of Jon Jones, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre, but it’s hard to deny Volkanovski’s access to that discussion.

“To win three title fights against someone like Max instead of another man, of course [that means more to me]’ said Volkanovsky. “He was the number 1 contender the whole time. He was considered the greatest featherweight of all time. That’s incredible to me. … They are much bigger wins than your average defense.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 02: Alexander Volkanovski of Australia celebrates his unanimous decision win over Max Holloway in their featherweight title fight during UFC 276 at the T-Mobile Arena on July 2, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Alexander Volkanovski may have surpassed welterweight champion Kamaru Usman (not pictured) as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

He has been largely undisputed throughout his UFC career. The second fight with Holloway was close, but Volkanovski had some issues. USADA drug testers woke him up four hours before he was supposed to wake up. It threw him off and he was slow and not nearly at his best in combat. He took melatonin tablets to try and get back to sleep, but the net result was that they made him feel sluggish and unwell in the cage.

He won the fight, largely by using his wits, and immediately began requesting another fight with Holloway. He had to prove something and prove on Saturday that he did.

“I called for the [third fight] because I wanted to show myself,” Volkanovski said. “I Know I Didn’t Show Up” [for the second Holloway fight]†

He made his way to the top. He believed completely in himself and never wavered, even when critics would. He kindly reprimanded two reporters at the post-fight press conference who he said had doubted him in the past.

He turned himself into a fighter and continued to improve day after day. He fights often – Saturday was his third fight in nine months – and few, if any, are better on a consistent basis.

It was enough to amaze his new teammate, middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, who blew out Jared Cannonier in the main event in what he called the worst performance of his career.

“F***ing inspiring,” Adesanya said of Volkanovski’s victory. “I also had a 5-nil shutout, but his was much cooler and more impressive. … When he came to CKB for this camp, he raised the bar for this camp.”

He’s definitely raised the bar for other 145-pound fighters, that’s for sure.

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