Volkanovski loss at UFC 298 a reminder how unforgiving MMA is to aging stars

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.

In case you had forgotten or somehow hadn’t realized it, mixed martial arts can be cruel and ruthless sport. 

The MMA gods will chew up aging fighters regardless of past accomplishments and spit them out with disdain, particularly those in the lighter weight classes as we witnessed at UFC 298 when Ilia Topuria slept long-time champion Alexander Volkanovski in brutal fashion to begin a new era at featherweight.

With every instance of a great champion getting violently removed from their throne, it serves as a reminder why decisions from the likes of Khabib Nurmagomedov and Georges St-Pierre to leave the sport whilst still at the top of their game are exceedingly rare.

Amanda Nunes is another champion whose legacy is currently unassailable; we’ll see if the former simultaneous two-weight champ tests fate and comes out of retirement later this year though.

It would appear Jon Jones is the strongest candidate to join GSP and Khabib on that short list with the current heavyweight champion seemingly only with or two more fights in him before he also steps away. Jones is in a similar precarious position to other aging greats where the most logical next opponent for him is interim champ Tom Aspinal, the Topuria of the UFC heavyweight division so to speak, but that matchup offers the greatest risk to his legacy.

Volkanovski didn’t hesitate to accept those types of matchups when he was faced with them. It’s part of what made him such a popular champion yet now people will assuredly assess the breadth of his accomplishments differently than they would’ve prior to his knockout losses to Topuria and Islam Makhachev.

Henry Cejudo, who lost to Merab Dvalishvili on the UFC 298 main card, is another example. The former flyweight and bantamweight champion initially retired from MMA in 2020 a reigning champion on a six-fight winning streak that included victories over the 125-pound GOAT Demetrious Johnson and the 135-pound GOAT Dominck Cruz.

The 2008 Olympic gold medallist in freestyle wrestling tested the MMA gods’ collective patience when he came out of retirement in 2023, after the age of 35 no less, and is 0-2 since then. While he wasn’t finished in either loss, Cejudo had hinted at another retirement prior to UFC 298 if he didn’t beat Dvalishvili and now it looks as though his Hall of Fame career may also go out with a whimper.

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Volkanovski did not sound like a fighter contemplating retirement when he said at the post-fight press conference he was in high spirits both before and after the fight.

“He caught me. That’s that,” explained Volkanovski, who had won the opening round on all judges’ scorecards. “I felt good in there. I felt like I saw everything early, but he ended up catching me. I was pretty comfortable in the first round. Then we started to do more. I was just about to do more and he caught me. I’m pretty confident we were probably even up through then, but that’s just the game.”

The respected veteran is as dogged a competitor as you’ll find and already has a rematch on the mind.

“That’s something that needs to happen,” he said. “I’ve been reigning champ for how long? I’ve been a company man. I’ve backed up on short notice and fought (Max Holloway) three times. You name it, I’ve done it. I’ve been champ for a long time, so I think I deserve that. It’s going to be different next time.”

It’s near impossible to not admire the determination of a great athlete and personality like Volk, nevertheless that’s now two consecutive fights within a four-month span where Volkanovski ended up folded along the fence uncertain of had just happened.

Volkanovski was unable to become a statistical anomaly as male fighters over the age of 35 at lightweight, featherweight, bantamweight or flyweight fell to a combined 0-15 in UFC title fights. Volkanovski is 0-2 since turning 35 this past September.

Far more important than a rematch or discussion of the former champion’s next fight is the need for him to fully recover from that pair of concussive losses.

TOPURIA ON WAY TO BECOMING GLOBAL SUPERSTAR

The new featherweight champion ticks all the boxes. He is an undefeated 27-year-old fighter only entering his prime yet already boasts an elite and robust MMA skill set; he has amassed a growing international fan base as German-born raised in Georgia then Spain and can help the UFC break into a new market like Spain.

He has friendships with some of the world’s most well-known Spanish athletes such as Sergio Ramos, while the Rafael Nadal, Andres Iniesta and Iker Casillas were among those who showed him support over the past week.

There are several notable similarities between Topuria’s and Conor McGregor’s rise to UFC gold. Time will tell if the new champ’s celebrity status will blow up as quickly as the Irish superstar’s did.

McGregor bolted from the 145-pound division the moment he won the title. It doesn’t appear Topuria will do the same. Unlike his latest victim in the cage, though, Topuria is not thinking about a rematch.

“He’s such a good person,” Topuria said of Volkanovski despite being disrespectful at times while promoting the event. “and to be honest, at this point, I’m like, OK I’m going to give him the rematch because he’s a good person but at the same time, it’s time to move on. It’s time to clean up the division a little bit. It’s time for the new generation to have new challengers, new faces, and I think I will be looking for that but to honest my job is to fight. Whoever they tell me I’m going to have to face and fight next, I will be there. That’s it.”

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