Life is good these days for Alexander Volkanovski, the UFC featherweight champion. He’s rich, drives a luxury car, has a family he adores and that adores him, had a pub named after him near his home in Australia and has risen to third in the UFC’s most recent pound-for-pound rankings behind only Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya.
He’s held the UFC featherweight championship since 2019 and on Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida, he’ll make the fourth defense of his belt as an overwhelming favorite (-750 at BetMGM) over Chan Sung Jung, aka “The Korean Zombie,” in the main event of UFC 273.
He’s won 20 fights in a row and 23 of 24 in his professional career. His only loss came in 2013 in his fourth pro bout, a welterweight match against Corey Nelson at Australian FC 5.
He exuded confidence from the moment he joined the UFC, but bad news for the rest of the 145-pounders: After what he went through against Brian Ortega in his last outing, he’s more confident than ever.
“I’m a pretty confident guy,” the affable Aussie said.
His self-belief increased tenfold or more when he didn’t tap to a tight rear-naked choke Ortega slapped on late in the fight. Ortega is a black belt under Rener Gracie and has an extraordinary squeeze on his choke.
When he caught Volkanovski in the choke, and Volkanovski was gurgling for air, it seemed as if a new championship reign was at hand. But Volkanovski remained calm and found a way out.
He’d intentionally thrown himself into such bad positions to prepare for the eventuality in a fight, but here he was, his title on the line, the lights shining brightest, and he remained calm in the midst of the hurricane around him.
“I’ve never been a type to panic,” Volkanovski said. “You know what I mean? Like, training with guys that I train with, I’ve been in bad positions plenty of times. They get you sort of comfortable in there. But it’s not comfortable. They teach you not to panic in these situations. I’m a pretty durable guy. I’ve got a lot of heart. And I’m going to keep fighting til the end. But not panicking definitely can save you some seconds, as well. And having that was a real indicator. I was like, ‘That’s how deep it was.’ But purely because I didn't panic and things like that, it made me really be confident in what I sort of already knew, what I told myself.
“But now, I know. There’s proof, right? It’s living proof. You can rewatch that tape. And you can see that. Not even just see it. I felt it it. It doesn’t get any deeper than that. And me doing the things that we worked on, and not panicking, and making that enough space, that’s really helped me, even in the gym. So now, being in them positions, you know, I’m cruising. It's very hard to submit me with chokes. Like, it always was hard. Always was very hard. But now, it's just even harder, where I always feel like, ‘Oh, their arms are going to always gas out before I go out.’ ”
Volkanovski’s only loss left an impression on his conqueror. Nelson, who now works construction, told Fox Sports Australia he saw the qualities first-hand that Volkanovski displayed against Ortega.
Volkanovski was once a 230-pound rugby player, but at that weight, he was never nearly as athletic as he is now. But from the first time he competed in sports, he was a fierce competitor.
Nelson hit him with a kick to the body and two to the head that hurt him. He remembers it well. But he also remembers Volkanovski’s mettle.
“Sharing the cage with him, I saw what everyone else now sees,” Nelson told Fox Sports Australia. “His heart. What that guy has, you can’t teach it.”
It’s what enables a fighter to win 20 in a row and to come back from a vicious knockout even better.
He’s advanced so much that with another win or two at featherweight, he’ll have to start to look for serious challenges at lightweight.
They’ll have size and who knows what else on him if and when he goes to fight at 155. But one thing they’ll never be able to question is what he showed the most in that Ortega fight:
His championship heart.