Alexander Volkanovski has heard it before.
They said he couldn’t beat Max Holloway. He did it three times.
They said he can’t surpass the legacies of Holloway and Aldo, and while that may be true, he’s comfortably earned a place next to those names on the list of all-time great featherweights.
They said he couldn’t beat lightweight champion Islam Makhachev. He didn’t, but he came darn close the first time they fought. (The less said about the rematch, the better.)
Now, they’re saying he’s too old, and given the recent history of title fight competitors 170 pounds and under, you can’t blame critics for predicting Volkanovski’s downfall at UFC 298. Heck, Volkanovski himself is having a laugh about it at this point. So is Ilia Topuria about to become the next dominant featherweight champion?
MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Alexander K. Lee, and Steven Marrocco ponder the possibility that one of the UFC’s longest reigning titleholders could soon be relinquishing his belt, plus more pressing questions from this Saturday’s pay-per-view in Anaheim, Calif.
1. Does the Alexander Volkanovski era end on Saturday?
Al-Shatti: My gut tells me yes.
Look, all good things end badly, otherwise they wouldn’t end at all. That axiom rings especially true in combat sports. Alexander Volkanovski is one of the greatest talents of this era of MMA. His reign of 1,500-plus days atop the featherweight division is already the fifth-longest consecutive title reign in UFC men’s history, behind only four all-timers: Jose Aldo (1,848 days), Georges St-Pierre (2,064 days), Demetrious Johnson (2,142 days), and Anderson Silva (2,457 days). Any time you can wind up among that kind of company, you know you’ve left an indelible mark on the game.
But just as the reaper eventually came for those legends (or at least three of them, St-Pierre was prescient enough to leave when he felt that reckoning nearing), history is now also working against Volkanovski. We all know the stat at this point: At age 35, Volkanovski is the oldest champion under 170 pounds in UFC history. He is already flagrantly defying Father Time in a way no lighter-weight champion has before him. Less than four months ago, he was brutally knocked out with a shinbone to the dome. Eight months before that, he watched his 10-year winning streak meet its inevitable end. All great champions are invincible until the night arrives when they suddenly aren’t, and everything we’ve learned over centuries of pugilistic history points toward Volkanovski’s time fast approaching.
Is Ilia Topuria the guy to do it? That’s a much tougher question.
The 27-year-old Spaniard is everything you’d want if you were Weird Science-ing a changing-of-the-guard contender in a lab. Young and hungry, powerful and athletic, charismatic and dripping with confidence, Topuria appears to have the skill set and aura to be the UFC’s next great featherweight champion. Volkanovski has already accomplished something no others have done, so it shouldn’t surprise if he manages to pull it off again. I just have a sneaking suspicion we’ll be hearing “and new” once Saturday rolls around.
Marrocco: How unfair is it that Volkanovski dares to be great by capturing the lightweight title from Islam Makhachev and loses his featherweight credibility when he twice fails? This is the guy who beat all the best featherweights of his era, the true kings of 145 pounds, and we’re already writing him off to the newest lion on the block. I feel like that’s a function of Topuria’s aura as much as his résumé, as the young Spaniard appears to have the X-factor that stars are made of in addition to a fantastic set of fighting skills.
Timing is everything in this sport, as are the short memories of the fighting public, and both are not working in Volkanovski’s favor. As mentioned, he’s 35 and he’s coming off a brutal knockout loss to a man much bigger than him just four months ago. How much of his camp was merely recovering from a concussion? Did he get enough time to spar and work on his timing, or was training just about getting in shape? All reasonable questions, and the likely answers again don’t look good for Volk.
Me personally? I can’t write the guy off. The guy is the oldest champion in the division’s history for a reason. His flagrant denials of Father Time are part of his greatness, and I need to see more evidence in his own division to start writing his obituary. At UFC 284, he was turning the tide against Makhachev in the later rounds and ran out of time. At UFC 294, he got caught — like everyone does — on a short-notice rematch.
What I’m trying to say is, The Volkanovski Era is not over at featherweight. Less than one year ago, he dispatched one of the fastest, most creative 145-pound fighters in recent history with Yair Rodriguez. He’s still got it, and if you want a stat to back that up, take a look at the one Aaron Bronsteter pulled out. This isn’t Volk’s first rodeo.
Fun fact: The younger fighter is 15-6 in featherweight (interim or undisputed) championship bouts in UFC history.
— Aaron Bronsteter (@aaronbronsteter) February 9, 2024
Lee: It’s Topuria’s time, and that’s not an indictment of Volkanovski’s skills in the slightest.
It’s definitely premature to start piling dirt on Volkanovski’s run while the body is still warm, especially when you consider that as far as competing at 145 pounds goes, he’s still never lost. There have been close calls with Holloway and Brian Ortega, but Volkanovski’s ability to battle through adversity is one of the main reasons we hold him in such high regard. Even when he’s not pitching a perfect game, he still has enough tricks in his bag to step off the mound with his head held high.
I just think Topuria is that damn good. Sure, youth and athleticism are on his side, but it’s the advanced technique and versatility that has me picking him to become the next champion come Saturday. This feels like two great fighters passing each other at a pivotal point in their careers, a point that signals the rise of Topuria and the decline of Volkanovski. You can’t rule out Volkanovski remaining a player in the division even in defeat, but given the depth of 145, it’s easy to see how his best days might be behind him.
So yeah, we’re about to witness the end of an era, just like we saw with Holloway and just like we saw with Aldo. All good things come to an end, as they say, and Volkanovski’s championship reign was as good as it gets. Now it’s Topuria’s turn to carry the torch.
2. Which would-be contender will punch their ticket to a title shot?
Marrocco: I’m going to go long on this one and say Paulo Costa. That wouldn’t be my pick if things hadn’t gone so south for the Brazilian in the past year, but I think there are few middleweights more terrifying than Costa when he’s on. And after the disaster that was his UFC 294 booking against Khamzat Chimaev, he should be as motivated as ever to prove he’s still a legitimate middleweight contender. He knows that as long as Dricus du Plessis is at the top, he has a good shot at winning the title he failed to capture against Israel Adesanya. So I expect he comes out in top form, thumps the aging Whittaker, and sets himself up as the next challenger after du Plessis and Adesanya meet later this year.
Al-Shatti: I know fancy terms like résumé and meritocracy are irrelevant in today’s broader UFC matchmaking structure, but I simply don’t see how Merab Dvalishvili can continue to be denied if he’s able to get past Henry Cejudo and rip through his ninth straight win on Saturday. That’d pull him into a tie with Aljamain Sterling (2018-2023) for the longest win streak in the history of the UFC bantamweight division, and Sterling was competing in freakin’ title fights for nearly half of his own streak.
The two biggest impediments to Dvalishvili’s path to the belt were always, 1) his relationship with Sterling, which is no longer applicable, and, 2) the fact that he tends to put on somewhat boring fights. That second little detail still stands true, but at a certain point a résumé is inarguable, and we likely should’ve already gotten there with the Georgian takedown machine. There’s even a pre-built story that’d be easy for the UFC to sell between Dvalishvili and bantamweight champ Sean O’Malley (the jacket, Sterling’s revenge, etc.).
Simply put, if Dvalishvili beats Cejudo and doesn’t fight for the belt in his next bout, all bets are off for how dumb and ridiculous we’re going to get in the O’Malley era at 135 pounds.
Lee: Sure, we could go with the guy who’s fought for the title before or the guy who *checks notes* hasn’t lost a fight in almost six years, but where’s the fun in that? If we’re talking the most compelling option, then it’s a fresh face at welterweight that goes by the three-name moniker Ian Machado Garry.
Undefeated in six UFC appearances, the 26-year-old Garry has effectively been building up his skills while also building his brand. Depending who you ask, the former may be lagging considerably behind the latter, but in the big leagues, what’s most important is that people know who you are, not who you’ve beaten. And Garry already has a name that is frequently being mentioned by his peers, his fans, and a legion of detractors who want to see someone shut up the mouthy Irishman.
I don’t know who the welterweight champion will be when Garry gets his shot, but make no mistake, once he takes out Geoff Neal and inevitably calls for said shot, ticket buyers will line up to see him be humbled by Leon Edwards or Belal Muhammad or Shavkat Rakhmonov or whoever holds the title and is looking for a challenger that will more than carry their share of the promotional load.
Hate Garry all you want, but when he’s making the walk to the octagon for a championship bout without a single top-five win to his name, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
3. What is the sleeper storyline of UFC 298?
Lee: We’ve already discussed the potential end of the line for Alexander Volkanovski, but how about fellow two-division threat Henry Cejudo?
Cejudo had a marvelous first run with the UFC, adding bantamweight and flyweight belts to a trophy case that already included an Olympic gold medal in wrestling. He retired in 2020 but came back last year to challenge then-135-pound-champion Aljamain Sterling at UFC 288. Though Cejudo went on to lose a narrow split decision, he looked like he’d hardly missed a beat following a three-year layoff from competition.
That said, a loss is a loss, and if Cejudo can’t get past Dvalishvili, then he can probably rule out any chance of fighting for a UFC title again. Harsh as it sounds, all of his past accolades won’t mean much to the matchmakers if he falls to 0-2 against current contenders.
Cejudo has accomplished more than most combat sports athletes could ever dream of and he has nothing left to prove, so let’s hope that he’s willing to bow out gracefully if the writing on the wall becomes even more pronounced.
Marrocco: Who gets asked to move up in weight by the California State Athletic Commission? One of the interesting things about UFC events in California is the level of transparency around the regulatory process, and that includes its weight-cutting rules. Fighters who gain more than 10 percent of their body weight between weigh-ins and fight day can be asked to move up, and a 15-percent gain can result in a fight being cancelled.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Costa, an infamous weight-misser, posted some big numbers, prompting the commission to order up a doctor’s note for his future fights. Then there’s Mackenzie Dern, who struggled early in her octagon career to make weight. Justin Tafa has missed weight, incredibly, as a heavyweight. Record-breaking underdog Val Woodburn cut a ton of weight for his debut against Bo Nickal.
Who will run afoul of CSAC and potentially be forced to reconsider their weight division? It’s always an X-factor fighting in The Golden State.
Al-Shatti: Who the hell is Mackenzie Dern?
I genuinely have no idea at this point. The one-time jiu-jitsu phenom is only 30 years old yet somehow feels as if she’s already on her fourth life in the UFC. In a span of a half-decade, Dern has vacillated between being the Rousey-level blue-chipper who was going to be the next women’s MMA superstar, the flawed prospect who refused to get out of her own way, the savvy vet who finally seemed to put it all together, and now the one-trick pony who’s been written off as a failed experiment despite winning eight of her 12 UFC bouts and still possessing a monstrous skill in her toolbox that far outclasses anyone else at 115 pounds.
It’s maddening. I was an early driver of the Dern bandwagon and stubbornly held onto my stock through all of the various weight misses and failed shots at contention, and that persistence appeared to finally pay off this past May when Dern smacked up Angela Hill with shocking efficiency and seemingly turned the very corner we’ve waited for her turn this whole time … only for her to immediately revert back to her old ways in November and get effortlessly walloped by Jessica Andrade. Now we’re seemingly back at square one.
If Dern is ever going to evolve past this “well, if she can figure out a takedown or two, then look out” phase of her career, it needs to start ASAP. I’m still diamond-handing all the stock I’ve bought up, but I’ve already warned my accountant to smash the panic button if her prelim headliner against Amanda Lemos starts looking like a repeat of the Andrade bout.