Topuria melts Volkanovski at UFC 298, follows similar path to title as McGregor

Watch as Ilia Topuria lands a series of punches on Alexander Volkanovski early in the second round of their featherweight title fight at UFC 298.

A new featherweight era has begun.

Ilia Topuria is now the champion at 145 pounds after melting Alexander Volkanovski with a devastating right-hand knockout in the main event at UFC 298.

Topuria looked calm, cool and collected on his walk to the Octagon, smiling at supporters at Anaheim’s Honda Center and singing along to his “El Mariachi” entrance music, while Volkanovski was accompanied on his walk to the cage by noted mixed martial arts fan and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The challenger had predicted all week he would take out his respected opponent in the opening round, however, after the first five minutes had elapsed Volkanovski was still upright and had won Round 1 on all three judges’ scorecards.

Topuria’s nickname is El Matador yet it was the wily veteran who was playing the matador early. Topuria was unphased in the championship spotlight as the two competitors were settling into the action, frequently exchanging nasty calf kicks and seeking openings for their hands.

Volkanovski occasionally kept his chin high when exiting the pocket and Topuria eventually found his timing. The 27-year-old with Spanish and Georgian roots connected on a four-punch combo then briefly reset before landing a perfect overhand right that turned off Volkanovski’s lights.

“He looks like a guy who could be one of the all-time greats,” UFC president Dana White said of Topuria’s potential ceiling.

Volkanovski becomes the latest victim of the UFC’s infamous statistic where fighters aged 35 and older are now just 2-22 in championship bouts contested at 170 pounds and below in the men’s divisions.

Doubters of Topuria cited the fact he had not yet faced a former champion or defeated a top-ranked contender on his road to a title shot. He did, however, earn three huge knockout wins – his 2022 KO of Jai Herbert in a lightweight bout ended courtesy of a near-identical right hand combination to the one that ended Volkanovski’s night – before the jiu-jitsu black belt submitted standout grappler Bryce Mitchell then dominated Josh Emmett over 25 minutes this past June.

Topuria’s confidence bordered on cockiness in the weeks leading up to UFC 298. His performance Saturday silenced any critics that may have been lurking.

“I just know my skills,” Topuria said after having the belt wrapped around his waist. “I work so hard for this. I was knowing always I would one day become UFC world champion. … I had to throw a lot of combinations in this fight and I did.”

Topuria pleaded for White and the UFC to hold an event in Spain with him atop the card before adding a would-be lucrative callout to the sport’s biggest star: “Conor McGregor, if you still have some balls, I will be waiting for you in Spain.”

McGregor is not a likely next opponent for Topuria, however, it was fitting the Irish superstar’s name was mentioned considering Topuria had essentially channelled or outright copied the former two-weight UFC champ’s pre-fight formula leading up to UFC 298.

McGregor became known for manifesting his success on his rise to stardom and called his shot by predicting a first-round knockout of then-champion Jose Aldo before their anticipated 2015 title fight.

Topuria was one round off with his one-round prediction, but he did change his social media bios before the fight to read that he was 15-0 in MMA, already accounting for a win over Volkanovski. 

McGregor famously snatched Aldo’s belt away from him at a pre-fight press conference and Topuria took a page out of McGregor’s book by doing the exact same earlier in the week.

McGregor and Topuria both won Cage Warriors titles prior to debuting in the UFC. Both became undisputed champions in their seventh UFC fight, and both handed their opponent their first loss within the weight class. Aldo had won 18 consecutive fights and had never lost at featherweight; Volkanovski was 16-0 when competing in the 145-pound division before Saturday. Topuria has a massive and rapidly growing European fan base just like McGregor had at the time and, heck, they even both have large tattoos emblazoned across their chests. 

Prior to the event, McGregor predicted on social media that “Volk will get hurt early but come back and KO Ilia.”

Chad Mendes was the only fighter to register a knockdown against Volkanovski at featherweight prior to Topuria’s knockout win. 

Topuria joins the likes of Khabib Nurmagomedov, Israel Adesanya, Jon Jones, Cain Velasquez, Lyoto Machida, Chris Weidman, Ronda Rousey and Joanna Jedrzejczyk as champions to win a UFC title before losing a pro MMA bout.

Although his title reign is over, Volkanovski entered the event considered the consensus greatest 145-pound champion in UFC history, originally capturing the title by defeating Max Holloway at UFC 245 in December 2019. Volkanovski defended his title four times thanks to two additional wins over Holloway plus victories over Brian Ortega and “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung before moving up in weight to challenge 155-pound champion Islam Makhachev. 

Volkanovski lost an instant five-round classic to Makhachev at UFC 284 before returning to his natural weight class and defending it in dominant fashion against Yair Rodriguez at UFC 290. Volkanovski, against the advice of his trainer Eugene Bareman, accepted a short-notice rematch with Makhachev at UFC 294 and he sustained a first-round knockout. He has now been viciously KO’d twice in a four-month span. 

Betting favourites had gone 11-0 on the night heading into the main event where the pre-fight betting odds were close to a pick’em. Topuria closed as a slight underdog and was the only fighter listed at plus-money to win their contest.

The night’s co-main event saw former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker rebound from his loss to Dricus Du Plessis with a three-round unanimous decision over a returning Paulo Costa. In other middleweight action, Anthony Hernandez extended his to winning streak five by submitting Roman Kopylov.

Merab Dvalishvili took Henry Cejudo’s best shots, landed multiple takedowns on the Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler, chatted it up with a cage-side Mark Zuckerberg while fighting and proved once again he should be next in line to fight for the 135-pound title. White confirmed after the event Dvalishvili will get the winner of the UFC 299 main event between champion Sean O’Malley and challenger Marlon Vera.

Ian Machado Garry kept climbing the welterweight ladder, showcasing his speed, silky movement and precise striking to out-point Geoff Neal and improve to 14-0 as a pro.

UFC 298 was the fifth event of 2024, and far and away the best card of the year thus far from top to bottom. The preliminary bouts saw three highlight-reel finishes from Danny Barlow, Zhang Mingyang and Marcos Rogerio de Lima, plus a back-and-forth three-round war of attrition between Amanda Lemos and Mackenzie Dern that was named Fight of the Night.

This was the 10th event the UFC has held in Anaheim. The only American city that has hosted more UFC events is Las Vegas.

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