Volkanovski vs. Topuria at UFC 298: The Best Fight in MMA

Alexander Volkanovski UFC
Alexander Volkanovski, UFC 276 post-fight Credit: Gabriel Gonzalez/Cageside Press

Alexander Volkanovski’s upcoming title defense against Ilia Topuria at UFC 298 is the best fight that can realistically be made in MMA at the moment.

The clash of a living legend looking to stave off the reaper at the expense of the undefeated phenom has potential for a historic, bloody war. Yet given the confluence of factors – mainly both of their elite skills, Volk’s age disadvantage, and his top level experience advantage – there is potential for the only red spilled by the victor to be that of the masterpiece he could paint on his opponent.

Alexander Volkanovski has unveiled three such virtuoso performances in the last two years alone. Although a post-prime Korean Zombie is not the most elite opponent, the ease with which Volk battered and stopped him astonished everyone. He did the same to Yair Rodriguez last year.

Yet the Zombie fight could prepare no one for what came next. Simply put, Alexander the Great’s masterwork is also the peak performance in the history of our sport. Nobody has ever dismantled a fighter of Max Holloway’s caliber like that over five rounds without coming out on the losing end of almost any exchanges over those twenty-five minutes. Nobody, that is, until Volkanovski.

Volkanovski vs Holloway Fight Decision. UFC 276. Credit: UFC Eurasia YouTube Channel

Ilia Topuria is something different to any of those others, a fresh style for a champ whose division is nearly out of fresh contenders. His dynamic blend of devastating boxing skill, powerful takedown game, and elite submission artistry has flummoxed every single opponent to face him thus far. Fourteen have tried, fourteen have failed, and twelve of those men either tapped or napped. Yet it is one of those two whom survived being locked in a cage with Topuria that is the best example of what he is capable of.

Coming into the Matador’s last fight against Josh Emmett, everyone had grasped that Ilia was dynamic enough to threaten opponents in any phase. His power had first drawn the world’s notice when he left the bodies of Ryan Hall, Damon Jackson, and Jai Herbert motionless in his wake. He has knocked down and/or knocked cold every fighter to step in the cage with him since his short notice UFC debut, one of the two decisions in his career. While the athleticism and power with which he punishes people is just one piece of his toolbelt, it is one which enhances all the rest. What truly devastates foes is that explosive athleticism working in tandem with his body hitting, solid boxing fundamentals, and educated footwork.

The left hook to the body to right hand upstairs combination has always been one of combat sports’ most effective, but in MMA it has popped up more and more in recent years. In a sport where top level body hitters are rare, the effect can be shocking. It’s obvious, really; the body shot brings the hands down, allowing a cleaner path for a power right. It’s almost impossible not to react that way when your liver or stomach absorbs a thud which makes the body want to curl up in the fetal position. Topuria also sets up his siege on the body with a somewhat rarer combination: the uppercut to left hook. Just as the body shot drops an opponent’s hands, an uppercut lifts the entire posture of a foe by the simple science of force. It’s only natural to follow up with a body hook.

Many offensive dynamos in MMA leave themselves wide open for counters. Justin Gaethje has long since represented the archetype of a fighter with all offense and no defense, a title he stole off of Tony Ferguson. They are two of the scariest men to be locked in a cage with, but finding their chin is almost easy at times, though Gaethje’s defense and fight IQ has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years. Ilia Topuria is not that. He intertwines his counterstriking and aggression like the caudecus tattoo on his spine. Having the initiative to bait opponents into swinging at him while staying safe allows him to punish their arrogance, their gall to think they could hit him.

That became even more true as he ascended the ranks and transitioned from pure, overwhelming aggression, to this new, more educated sort of game. His footwork glides him in and out of range, as well as keeps him safe in the pocket and creates angles to better find positions to turn chins around. His shoulder rolls also allow him to stay close enough to opponents to counter without getting hit. The entire fight against Josh Emmett, a one-sided walloping of a good – if lacking in nuance – fighter was Ilia coming after Emmett, V-stepping and/or shoulder rolling away from the expected overswung return fire. Emmett only knows how to throw with all his might. When that overhand right inevitably found only air or hard shoulder bone, Topuria had already positioned himself to pounce on Josh’s own poor positioning, usually with an anvil of a right hand ready to crack that steel chin.

Emmett bent but did not break, lasting all five rounds. In many ways, that was better for ‘El Matador,’ firstly because he had a longer time to showcase his bullfighting skills than usual, and against a blank canvas at that. Whereas before Ilia would follow the flourish of his proverbial red cape by swinging his counterpunches with all his might, this time he prioritized accuracy and safety. The better the opponent, the more they can punish overthrown strikes, and none have more power to punish with than Emmett. In a similar vein, it also kept him safe from gassing out. Although his gas gauge has never hit ’empty’ in a fight, the tank did run low at times in the past, which is natural when a fighter throws all their might into every blow.

All fighters have flaws, and Topuria is no different. Recognizing those holes and being willing to change as a fighter to stitch them up is the first step, and it is clear that Jorge and Agustin Climent know their stuff, given how Topuria has grown. Yet he has not seen everything that mixed martial arts has to offer, and if there is one man who does have it all, that is Alexander ‘the Great’ Volkanovski.

Greatness may be an understatement; one could argue that Volk is the best pound-for-pound hand-to-hand combat artist to ever live on Earth. Just like his beginning in rugby league, he builds his game from a simple base, which evolves throughout the course of a fight until it transforms into a Hydra, attacking from all angles with his arsenal of a few perfected weapons.

While Volk does not have the varied arsenal of Topuria, what he does have is a less straightforward process. Where Ilia comes right at his foes and forces engagements with his own smart boxing footwork, Volk skates around the outside for the most part, dulling their defenses, stifling their offense, and picking every exchange with a the precision of a mathematician. His actual strikes begin with his famous inside low kick, then perhaps a low kick feint into a jab once the kick threat is established and his foe has keyed onto the tell. The key is the interplay between those two weapons and his feints; the order of operations changes in each exchange. Once those two scout weapons probe the defenses he begins to sit down on punches more, begins to feint the low kick to setup his crescent kick to the body, and crashes into clinches to stifle opposing offense and land his own, even occasionally implementing the cage wrestling which marked his early UFC run. All the while the low kick pumps away, both proactively and reactively. His outside kicks begin just when the opponent may think they have the rest figured out, buckling enemy legs the other direction. It is that which finally reduced one of the best strikers ever, Max Holloway, to a one-legged southpaw in their first fight.

For all that Topuria does feint to draw out his opponent’s counters, he has never had to deal with someone doing it to him. Certainly he will not expect Volkanovski to stay right in front of him like Bryce Mitchell and Damon Jackson, but the difference between a base of great boxing fundamentals and a well-developed process, a system which breaks opponents down from toe to head, is vast.

For all that ‘El Matador’s offense is as potent as anyone in the world, he does not possess a primary weapon which has given the champion trouble in the past: round kicks. Open side kicks work best – everyone knows Volk fell prey to Islam’s in the previous fight – and Ilia isn’t southpaw to begin with, but Max Holloway hurt his rival from orthodox in their second fight as well. Topuria simply does not kick above the legs, and even that development is a recent addition to his boxing-centric striking approach.

For all that his left side is shelled up behind his shoulder when he counters, Volkanovski has a lead hook which began the finish of another offensive dynamo in his last victory, a lead hook which is one method of dealing with a Philly shell. So is shifting through stances while punching, something else Alex does as well as anyone else, and the delivery method for the lead hook which finished Yair. Ilia’s own footwork? The leg kicks of Volkanovski do not only serve as a building block for his entire moveset, but also as a spectacular attritive weapon. Again, just look at Max Holloway. Topuria is a front-foot heavy fighter, rolling ever-forward, a Sherman tank with its 75mm gun loaded. Yet the vulnerability of all tanks lies in their tracks; disable their movement and they will be much easier prey to pick at, from near or far. The same is true for a combat sports athlete who puts their weight onto their lead leg. Volkanovski does the opposite, anchors himself with his rear leg.

And for all that Volkanovski is renowned as a out-fighter, he possesses cat-like reflexes in the pocket which Ilia has not faced, and a strong clinch game to bail him out of trouble. Topuria has bullied a few fighters in the clinch and possesses a Greco-Roman wrestling base, but has not had to deal with defending a grinding, cage-wrestling game. Nor has he faced any clinch strikers whatsoever, let alone one who can damage foes off the break like Volk.

The experience is perhaps the biggest gap in this fight, and yet Ilia Topuria has risen to meet every challenge thus far, displaying new abilities to fit different opponents. Although he is still at the same gym he began his career at as a teenager, Climent Club in Spain, based on Ilia’s growth his coaches have a clear aptitude for intelligent tactics and high-level, fundamental techniques. That is rare among smaller gyms and should be appreciated for what it is. But the step up from Bryce Mitchell to Josh Emmett is nothing compared to the difference between just about any fighter in the world and our dear old Grandfather Volko.

Of course Topuria possesses the power to hammer Alex into dreamland – Volkanovski hardly has the most elite chin – but it is clear that Ilia faces an uphill battle to hit him with a clean, full power shot that puts him out. The champ also possesses elite recoverability and calmness under fire, meaning if he is not unconscious then he will keep fighting until he is.

No discussion of Ilia Topuria is complete without discussing his wrestling and grappling skills. For much of his MMA career that was his primary weapon, as he secured submissions in his first six professional victories. He even choked out Bryce Mitchell and stopped Ryan Hall on the mat. Yet how can anyone predict that the challenger will succeed where Islam Makhachev struggled? Topuria does not possess the length and size of the lightweight king, a crucial aspect of Islam’s back mount in the first match with Volk, nor quite the same skills. Volkanovski’s defensive grappling is as good as there has ever been in the sport. Even if he is put into a bad position, he is a master at pulling Houdini-like escapes, as seen against Makhachev, Chad Mendes, and Brian Ortega. Training with Craig Jones, a genius grappler, has trained Alex to wrestle up on a single leg with the best of them, as well as a litany of other stand-ups. Anything is possible, but a Topuria knockout seems more likely than a victory through his ground game.

No matter who wins this fight, it is all alone on a mountain as the highest level title bout that mixed martial arts has to offer at the moment. Both fighters can compete in all phases, both fighters are highly intelligent, and both fighters bring consistent action to their fights. This is an archetypal fight: the aging, GOAT-level champion against the young, undefeated prospect who has torn through the division like a tornado. The matchup has even drawn comparisons to the legendary title bout between Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor, with some eerie statistical similarities between McGregor and Topuria.

No matter who wins, the UFC featherweight division can stand proud; its rulers have long been recognized as the best champions in the sport: Jose Aldo, Conor McGregor, Max Holloway, and now Alexander the Great. Even Patricio Pitbull is Bellator’s greatest champion of all-time. Though Topuria may not be able to complete the steepest climb of all, he appears every bit the part of a worthy heir-apparent to that tradition of greatness. Who knows, maybe one day he will lay claim to the title of greatest featherweight of all time that Aldo and Volkanovski have been battling for in fans’ minds of late.

His time as champion seems a matter of when, not if. If ‘El Matador’ does find himself atop that lonesome mountain at Saturday night’s end, then the legacy of the second coming of Alexander the Great will be forever etched in stone, but that of Topuria will be writ in water.