LAS VEGAS — Alexander Volkanovski laughs easily and has a self-effacing way about him. He’s just one of the guys, someone who is a blast to swap stories with while drinking a few beers and grilling up some steaks.
The UFC featherweight champion is as unpretentious and normal as can be, though he’s moving into some pretty serious territory in terms of professional accomplishments.
Heading into his bout on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in the main event of UFC 266 against Brian Ortega, Volkanovski has won 19 straight fights, including nine in succession in the UFC. Only 10 fighters have ever won 10 or more UFC bouts in a row, and you may have heard of them:
Jon Jones, widely regarded as the greatest MMA fighter of all time, has won 17 consecutive.
Anderson Silva, who was the GOAT before Jones, has 16 in a row.
Kamaru Usman, who has won 14 in a row, is No. 1 on the Yahoo Sports’ pound-for-pound list and holds the UFC welterweight title.
Khabib Nurmagomedov, whom some regard as the greatest ever, went 13 for 13 in the UFC. Georges St-Pierre, Max Holloway and Demetrious Johnson all won 13 in a row, too. Amanda Nunes and Tony Ferguson each won 13 in a row. And Royce Gracie won 11.
Those are the only fighters who have won more UFC bouts in succession than Volkanovski. And if you think he’s been feasting on second-rate opposition, think again. In his last four fights, he’s beaten Holloway twice, Jose Aldo and Chad Mendes.
Volkanovski’s a -150 favorite at BetMGM to defeat Ortega and retain his belt, while Ortega is +125.
UFC fighters train hard, but watching Volkanovski fend off five guys at once is something. He’s hitting the pads when a sparring partner comes up behind him and grabs his neck. He’s trying to fend off the choke when another sparring partner grabs him and begins to wrestle him.
On and on it goes, one fighter after another jumping in and getting him in a bad position.
“We try to do fight simulations, and these fight simulations are not meant to go your way,” Volkanovski said, cracking a wry grin. “You start off in bad positions and they’re always putting the pressure on you. You’re hitting the pads one minute and then you have someone attacking you, striking you. Then someone comes from behind and wrestles you.”
There’s a method to the madness, of course. The harder it is in training, generally the easier it is in the fights. If a fighter has been in disadvantageous positions and knows how to get out of them, he won’t panic if he winds up in one, even in an important bout.
So Volkanovski happily agrees to it, even though in one of his rare bouts of anything that sounds like boasting he says that Ortega will never get him in the spots his sparring partners do.
“It’s to get everything firing and get that heart rate up and that work rate going and get working on that cardio,” he said. “A lot of people don’t like to put themselves in bad positions, but that’s something we’ve always done. You need to be in those. I probably won’t be in any of those [in the fight], but I’m prepared if I do get in them.”
A bout of COVID-19 forced Volkanovski to pull out of UFC 260 on March 27 against Ortega. While the virus gave it to him pretty good, it did allow him a chance to gather some additional intelligence on Ortega.
When Volkanovski was healthy, the UFC appointed he and Ortega as coaches for “The Ultimate Fighter.” Volkanovski said he learned much about Ortega, both as a man and, more importantly, in terms of the way he thinks about MMA.
“I’m a true martial artist and I’m all about respect and that type of stuff,” Volkanovski said. “But I’m the type of guy that if you annoy me, I’ll say something. I’m not going to be afraid to call you a piece of s*** or whatever. That’s the type of guy I am. Being on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ with him and seeing a different side of him, obviously the competitive side and trying to get under each other’s skin, you try to stir the pot a bit and have some fun, but things are said and things change.
“It’s not the baddest blood you’ll ever see, but I don’t like the guy and I’m sure he doesn’t like me. The more and more I hear him talk, the more and more I want to punch him in the face.”
He’ll get his opportunity in a few days. And if Volkanovski’s history tells you anything, you should expect to see him punch Ortega in the face a lot — as well as a lot of other moves.
A 10-fight winning streak in the UFC is a remarkable feat that only the best fighters ever have done. It’ll be time to call him not only one of Australia’s greatest athletes ever at that point, but to give him the respect as one of the UFC’s elite, as well.