UFC 298 breakdown: Ilia Topuria has what it takes, but is he the one to dethrone Alexander Volkanovski?

MMA Junkie analyst Dan Tom breaks down the UFC’s top bouts. Today, we look at the main event for UFC 298.

UFC 298 (pay-per-view, ESPN, ESPN+) takes place Saturday at Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.


Alexander Volkanovski (26-3 MMA, 13-2 UFC)

Ilia Topuria (14-0 MMA, 6-0 UFC)

Point of interest: Best boxers in MMA

Josh Emmett (red gloves) fights Ilia Topuria (blue gloves) in a featherweight bout during UFC Fight Night at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. (David Yeazell, USA TODAY Sports)
Josh Emmett (red gloves) fights Ilia Topuria (blue gloves) in a featherweight bout during UFC Fight Night at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. (David Yeazell, USA TODAY Sports)

The main event for UFC 298 features a featherweight title fight between two of the best boxers you will find in MMA today.

An acclaimed wrestler-turned-rugby player, Alexander Volkanovski initially stepped onto the scene as a come-forward slugger who typically approached the pocket like an oncoming juggernaut from his compact stance. A natural athlete, Volkanovski shows little issue when having to crash distance with his patent kicks and crosses, strikes that have been typically set up off of prodding jabs.

However, since incorporating the influences of Brad Riddell and his sister gym City Kickboxing, Volkanovski has sharpened his feints, footwork, and overall striking fundamentals, measuring and moving in space more smoothly and on balance than before. The 35-year-old Australian will now change up his combination approach, doing things like leading with stance-debasing kicks and finishing off combinations with a long lead hand.

Volkanovski also has taken some of the feinting swagger from his stablemates, showing or throwing away certain shots to land others with a bigger picture in mind.

Still, I’ll be very curious to see how Volkanovski deals with fellow a fighter who can jab and circle/pivot as well as Ilia Topuria.
An aggressive fighter who came out of the gates as more of a bull than a matador, Topuria appears to be developing an elite striking game before our very eyes.

Typically looking to cut off the cage, Topuria will initially display a lot of the right ideas you’d like to see from forward-moving fighters. From small feints that accompany Topuria’s pressure to the tight distances he likes to keep on the feet, the Georgian fighter’s style ensures high temperatures in his fights.

Although Topuria isn’t the tallest or longest fighter in his division, he has a knack for punching with his opponents in order to meet them in the middle. The 27-year-old is also good about flowing into left hooks, particularly down low to the liver.

In his last outing opposite Josh Emmett, Topuria demonstrated the ability to focus his aggression for 25 minutes in what was a boxing masterclass opposite a devastating puncher.

Aside from solid footwork and a beautiful jab, Topuria quietly incorporated some slick shoulder rolls to protect his chin and take some power off of Emmett’s shots. This tactic and the spirit of Topuria’s movement, in general, also fed into the Georgian’s patent pull counters (which come with a Conor McGregor-Esque swagger in tow).

Point of interest: Potential grappling threats

Alexander Volkanovski (red gloves) fights Yair Rodriguez (blue gloves) during UFC 290 at T-Mobile Arena. (Stephen R. Sylvanie, USA TODAY Sports)
Alexander Volkanovski (red gloves) fights Yair Rodriguez (blue gloves) during UFC 290 at T-Mobile Arena. (Stephen R. Sylvanie, USA TODAY Sports)

Considering that both men come from grappling bases, no one should be shocked if this featherweight party touches the floor at some point this Saturday.

A dangerous submission grappler who grew up with jiu-jitsu, Topuria has proven to be a top-level black belt with his finishing prowess on the floor.

A demon from the front-headlock position, Topuria can seamlessly transition into his favored anaconda choke like it’s second nature. Topuria is also a solid wrestler and superb scrambler – an area where his athleticism particularly shines through.

Still, I’ll be curious to see how the Georgian’s entries stack up against Volkanovski (should he elect to get offensive in that department).

Since reining in his aggression and fighting smarter, Volkanovski appears to be even harder to meaningfully take down and control due to his overall awareness of positioning – particularly against the fence.

Even when taken down, Volkanovski displays solid head positioning and smart details like a low underhook (limiting front-choke counters) when looking to execute things like half-guard getups.

Offensively, Volkanovski seems to stay consistent with said trends, appearing to prefer more efficient options like inside trips from the clinch as opposed to the traditional double and single-legs against the fence that he used to favor. That said, I’ll be curious if the champion elects to go back to the latter option given that single-legs appear to be the most realistic takedown path against a scrappy athlete like Topuria.

Point of interest: Odds and opinions

Despite the oddsmakers opening the champion as a slightly higher favorite, public money has been trickling in on the challenger, listing Volkanovski -125 and Topuria +100 via FanDuel.

Between the Anderson Silva-Chris Weidman vibes I got from this initial booking to the recent rough times that Volkanovski has sustained in and out of the cage, I can understand why there is support coming in for Topuria.

Aside from the fact that Volkanovski is making a rather quick return after suffering a stoppage loss up a division, Topuria is one of the few fighters on the planet who can match the pound-for-pound great in the speed and striking department.

Should Topuria’s fast-starting sensibilities allow him to get the jump early on Volkanovksi, then none of us should be shocked if the Georgian’s killer instinct allows him to snatch the champ’s title away this Saturday.

That said, despite both men sharing similar vulnerabilities to kicks due to their dipping propensities and boxing-centric stances, I suspect that the champion is the better kicker of the two.

Volkanovski also has a more educated lead hand, which could come in handy considering Topuria’s propensity to eat left-sided shots. And if Volkanovski decides to change things up by wrestling, I believe that he has the superior stamina and the defensive wherewithal to stay safe from Topuria’s submission prowess.

For those reasons, I’ll side with Volkanovski to survive the initial storm and make the better adjustments down the stretch for a competitive but clear win on the scorecards.

Prediction: Volkanovski by decision

Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie