Alexander Volkanovski is ranked by ESPN as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He’s never lost in the UFC, compiling an impressive 12-0 record since his 2016 debut. The Australian has won 22 straight fights and owns four successful title defenses as the UFC featherweight champion.
Yet, despite all of those eye-popping accolades, Volkanovski will be a +320 underdog (via Caesars Sportsbook) when he moves up to fight Islam Makhachev for the UFC lightweight title Saturday in the main event of UFC 284 in Perth, Western Australia (10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV).
Makhachev, a dominant wrestler from the Russian republic of Dagestan, will have a 4-inch height advantage and many believe he’ll also have the strength advantage over the featherweight champ as well. Makhachev is ranked No. 2 pound-for-pound by ESPN.
In light of the rarity of such a situation, ESPN’s Marc Raimondi asked Volkanovski to explain why he took on this challenge, if he views himself as the underdog and how he believes he matches up with his opponent.
Islam Makhachev, left, has a four-inch height advantage over Alexander Volkanovski. Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC
I used to play front row in rugby before I started training in MMA. At 5-foot-6, I’ve always been undersized. I might have been heavier then, but I was the shortest guy on the field. The small people that play rugby league were still bigger than me.
You would see the other team’s big front rowers smirking when we were in packs and scrums. I knew these mountains of men that I had to run at were thinking to themselves, “Look at the size of this bloke.”
The next minute, they can’t touch me. The next minute after that, they’re all game planning to try and slow me down because I’m wrecking their team. I’ve always been undersized and I’ve always proved the doubters wrong. It happens every single time. And it’s going to happen Saturday.
That’s when I, the UFC featherweight champion, move up a division to challenge Islam Makhachev for the UFC lightweight title in the main event of UFC 284 in Perth, Western Australia. Yes, he’s bigger than me at 5-feet-10, and I’m coming up a weight class. But I’ve been there before.
Islam is a little baby compared to these heavyweights I saw in rugby league.
The smaller guys are like light heavyweights. Absolute monsters. Are you going to tell me a little lightweight will scare me? No. Is he good? Yes, he is. I will give him that respect, but I will not back down and be worried.
He’s going to be bigger than me, but everyone has been bigger my whole life, and it’s never been a problem. So, I’m not going to let that be a problem now.
Some people have asked me why I’m doing this. I am the featherweight champion. I could stay at 145 pounds and take contender after contender. I still intend to do that, but why not challenge myself?
I’m not doing this to say, “I am a badass,” and whatever happens will happen. I’m doing this because I believe I’m going to win. And I genuinely do believe that. In my preparation, I believe in myself. And I want people — the underdogs or the undersized people, whoever it is — to believe in themselves, take on challenges and challenge themselves. We should be doing this stuff every day of our lives. I’ve done it the whole way through my career. I’ve done it from early on, and that’s what made me who I am.
I’m already the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. I don’t need to prove anything, but I will go there and show you why you’ve got me No. 1. There’s no better way to prove it than going up and fighting the next guy under you in the rankings, the champion of the division above. You want to talk about pound for pound? I’m putting it all on the line to show you that I deserve that No. 1 spot.
Yeah, it is a challenge. But look at the rewards you get from taking on these challenges. Not only legacy-wise and your bank account, but do you know how much of a better fighter I will be because of this? Do you know how much of a better human being I will be because of this?
I’ve improved my strength, takedown defense and even my wrestling. I did the bulking thing and the strength program, and it was crazy how noticeable the changes were. I’ve got respect for Islam, their team and their strength, so I knew I had to step up in that department. I knew I had to get stronger.
So, I put that in my head, and this is the mindset I have, overnight. Because I knew I had to, my hips got stubborn in takedown defense. Like straight away. My hips were like, “I ain’t taking nothing.” That’s it. People who wrestled me before this would not only feel the difference from the body shape but feel that strength instantly and be like, “Oh, this is significantly different.”
I also worked a lot on wrestling and ground game with the Hickman brothers, great coaches with MMA-specific wrestling knowledge who train out of City Kickboxing and Bangtao Muay Thai in Thailand, and Craig Jones, one of the world’s best grapplers and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert. Jones studied these guys from Dagestan to see what made them so good. And he’s sitting there doing rounds and rounds and rounds of understanding these positions, putting himself in these positions. And you’ve got to remember, Craig Jones is like 210 to 220 pounds. It’s funny, because people say I need to look out for Islam. Could you imagine what Craig Jones would do to an Islam or these guys? This is just a different world when it comes to grappling.
Alexander Volkanovski, right, has held the UFC featherweight title since 2019. Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC
I think 2023 will be my year, and I want to start with a bang. And there’s no bigger way to do it. I’m No. 1 pound for pound and then you win the second belt. It’s not for me to decide, but you go from being called a great fighter to one of the all-time greats. You put yourself in that category where people say, “This bloke is doing stuff that other people aren’t doing.” I’m starting to separate from the rest. So, this is massive.
I’m glad that Islam is the opponent. I do think Charles Oliveira would have been an easier matchup. Islam being the opponent makes it bigger. This will solidify me as the No. 1 pound for pound — and no one could take that away from me. There’s no better way to prove it than going out, getting your hand raised, getting another belt and taking out Islam Makhachev, who is meant to be so much bigger than me, so much stronger than me, a bad matchup for me.
As I said, this is familiar to me. I’ve always been undersized — from rugby to MMA. And I’ve always proved the doubters wrong. Yeah, at first glance, they might be smirking. But that always changes, especially in the Octagon. It’ll happen again Saturday when I become a two-division champion in front of my fellow Australians in Perth.