Will unbeaten Topuria become latest to topple an aging champion at UFC 298?

Aaron Bronsteter reports on the marquee matchup in the UFC 298 main event, where Alexander Volkanovski will try to defend his featherweight title against undefeated Ilia Topuria.

The UFC 298 main event between featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski and undefeated challenger Ilia Topuria has everything you could ask for in a title fight, both narratively and from a meritocracy standpoint.

An all-time great champion, arguably the best the division has ever seen, attempting to overcome adversity and prove he’s still the top dog. Volkanovski has felled some of the sport’s greatest talents, however he is 35 and the metrics are no longer in his favour. He is preparing for an encounter with a fighter boasting an unblemished record for the first time during his championship reign. 

This fight is a potential changing of the guard at 145 pounds and the challenger is the one with the momentum. 

Volkanovski is coming off a devastating knockout loss to reigning lightweight champion and No. 1-ranked pound-for-pound fighter Islam Makhachev at UFC 294 in October. Volkanovski took that fight on less than two weeks’ notice and later admitted he had been drinking every day for several weeks prior to receiving the call to accept the rematch – Makhachev also defeated Volkanovski in a thrilling and competitive back-and-forth decision 12 months ago in the UFC 284 main event.

Eugene Bareman, Volkanovski’s trainer, has since admitted he advised his fighter not to take the rematch with Makhachev on short notice the way he did.

The champ has used that loss and his lack of preparedness as fuel to ensure he is back to being his usual dominant self as he heads back down to his natural weight class where he has never lost.

Volkanovski is a perfect 16-0 when he competes at featherweight, and if you remember it was merely seven months ago MMA fans witnessed him put on an absolute clinic against dangerous challenger Yair Rodriguez at UFC 290.

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“I’m ready for a young, hungry prospect to come and bring a fight,” Volkanovski told reporters at UFC 298 Media Day on Wednesday. “But I won’t be surprised, and you shouldn’t be surprised, if I make it look easy. I’m not saying that’s exactly how it is. I’m not cocky like that. I’ve prepared properly, but if he doesn’t land a punch and I ragdoll him and make him look like nothing in there, you shouldn’t be surprised.”

Volkanovski can become just the eighth UFC champion to defend their title at least six times but to do so he’ll have to solve a puzzle yet to be solved.

Topuria is 14-0 in mixed martial arts with 12 stoppage wins and is 6-0 in the UFC specifically with three knockouts and one submission to his name. His confidence has grown steadily as his record became more impressive and his skills more refined. Ever since his dominant showing against Josh Emmett last summer he has been puffing his chest out more frequently, claiming he will make easy work of the current champ.

“I think he’s just playing the game really well,” Volkanovski told Sportsnet. “He does have a lot of hype around him because he’s doing things right. It’s not the route I would choose to go; that’s the route he wants to go. Obviously it could go really good or it could go really bad when you start playing that confident guy, though, because you’re digging yourself a deep grave when you start acting like that and things aren’t going to go to plan, so he’s gonna definitely feel that after.”

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Topuria’s rise to title challenger status is somewhat reminiscent of Conor McGregor’s ascension up the featherweight ranks when he burst onto the UFC scene a decade ago.

Saturday’s main event has a similar energy to the lead-up to McGregor challenging Jose Aldo back in 2015, and not merely because both McGregor and Topuria won Cage Warriors titles prior to debuting in the UFC.

Aldo had won 18 consecutive fights and had never lost at featherweight prior to facing McGregor, who was 6-0 in the UFC with five knockouts at the time.

Volkanovski has never lost when competing in the 145-pound division; Topuria is 6-0 in the UFC, talks a big game with skills to back up his words. McGregor had faced a higher level of competition relatively speaking on his road to a title shot compared to Topuria.

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McGregor famously called his shot and caught Aldo with a perfect counter knockout punch just 13 seconds into the opening round at UFC 194. Topuria didn’t attach a time to his prediction, but also sees himself not requiring more than a few minutes.

“I see myself knocking him out in the first round,” Topuria said Wednesday at UFC 298 Media Day.

Topuria even took a page out of McGregor’s book this week by touching and displaying the featherweight belt around his waist right in front of Volkanovski.

McGregor infamously snatched Aldo’s belt away from him at one of the pre-fight press conferences and Aldo’s personal animosity towards the brash Irish star impacted his ability to stay measured and composed in the cage, rushing forward aggressively and careless early in the fight which lead to his demise.

“I’m better than him everywhere,” claimed Topuria, who has already changed his social media bios to read 15-0, an indication of his high level of confidence.

Volkanovski said he thinks his opponent has “a puncher’s chance” but that ultimately his robust skill set will be too much for Topuria to handle.

“That’s how I look at it until he shows us something different. … I’m so well-rounded that, it doesn’t mean they can’t give me problems, but I know I can solve them problems and go a different route,” Volkanovski explained. “I’m confident in my fight IQ and all those things, my durability, me dealing with adversity, all these things.” 

The grappling exchanges and scrambles have the potential to be electric in this scheduled five-round contest. Topuria has become known for his knockout power and vastly improved striking, however the challenger with Georgian and Spanish roots has an impressive grappling background and began his MMA career with seven consecutive submission victories.

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One bit of success Emmett was able to have against Topuria was with occasional calf kicks, something the champ does well and can look to exploit.

Topuria even got ahead of that this week and predicted the champ’s entire game plan.

“I know what he’s going to bring to the table because that’s what he always brings,” Topuria said. “He’s going to try to kick me, as we know he’s got strong kicks, he’s going to try to move around me, he’s going to try to put some hands in there and some combos and after the kicks come in with some handwork and try to mix in some combos and try to pressure me to go against the fence and do some cage work as well, but that’s all he’s got. … I’m a different breed and I’m going to beat him up.”

The only other previously undefeated fighter Volkanovski has fought during his UFC tenure was Jeremy Kennedy six years ago in the champ’s fourth UFC appearance.

As Aaron Bronsteter broke down in detail earlier this week, Volkanovski will look to become a statistical anomaly as the first fighter in the men’s divisions below welterweight aged 35 or older to defeat a younger fighter in a championship fight.

“Everyone’s gonna quickly forget about that and be all of a sudden, ‘Oh, what’s next for Volk?’” the champ added. “I think that’s sort of what’s going to happen after this.”

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