UFC 298: Featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski facing 2 opponents Saturday night — Ilia Topuria and Father Time

Whatever else they say about UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski when his fighting career is finally over, let the record reflect that the man was a good sport.

How else can you explain his appearance at this week’s UFC 298 pre-fight news conference ahead of Saturday night’s title fight with Ilia Topuria (14-0)? With questions swirling about his age and his ongoing ability to hold off the young whippersnappers coming for his 145-pound title, Volkanovski (26-3) showed up looking like he was headed to a costume party dressed as his own grandfather.

He had the drab cardigan. He had the spectacles on a chain around his neck. He had the newsboy cap that practically screamed, "Can I offer you some soft candy that’s been in my pocket all day?"

The whole ensemble communicated a very clear message: if we’re going to be out here talking about whether he’s too old to hold onto the belt, he might as well join in on the joke.

Volkanovski is 35, just so we’re clear. In almost any other line of work, he’d be on the young side of middle-age. But for a pro fighter, not to mention one in the lighter weight classes, three and a half decades has become a line of demarcation.

In a legitimately hilarious video put out prior to Saturday night’s UFC 298 headliner, Volkanovski donned the same old man uniform while referencing the “over-35 curse.” But the thing is, it’s not so much a curse as it is a story of statistics.

Alexander Volkanovski of Australia is seen on stage during the UFC 298 press conference
Alexander Volkanovski of Australia hams it up during the UFC 298 news conference at Honda Center on Feb. 15, 2024, in Anaheim, Calif. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

The data compiled by X user @VolkaraFrance (and first spotlighted by Morning Kombat co-host Luke Thomas) tells us that fighters 35 and over are just 1-21 in UFC title fights against younger competitors in all the divisions south of middleweight. The heavier weight classes? It’s a different story. We’ve seen 40-year-old heavyweights who look like they could easily fight five more years, especially in those eras when the competition they faced wasn't exactly brimming with youthful dynamism.

But for the lighter weight classes, where speed and athleticism and razor-sharp reflexes count for so much — and where the talent pool is deep enough that good and great are separated by the thinnest of margins — age really does seem to matter.

You can understand how this might be slightly annoying to Volkanovski. He just turned 35 in September. And yes, he did lose a title fight the very next month, but it was in a higher weight class and he took it on two weeks’ notice in exchange for a big bump in pay, according to his longtime coach. Now, he’s back in the division where he’s never lost as a professional, and suddenly he’s being warned that he got too old some time between now and his last dominant title defense seven months ago.

In the opposite corner, there’s Topuria, the perfect antagonist for a fight with the ravages of age as such a big part of the narrative. He’s 27 and dripping with the kind of confidence that only the young and unbroken can sustain. He’s never lost inside the cage, never had to confront his own mortal limitations on live TV the way Volkanovski has. As far as he knows, the future is just one long, upwardly trending line.

What makes this such a potentially career-defining fight for Volkanovski is that, in a rational world, he should lose this one. He’s crossed the age threshold. He’s just a few months removed from a bad knockout loss. He’s facing a challenger who, based on everything we’ve seen so far, looks like he could be the future of the division. The way these things normally go, this is the one where the champ gets knocked off his throne.

But then, Volkanovski has made a career out of proving that conventional wisdom doesn’t apply to him. Every sport he’s done, from rugby to MMA, he’s been too short, too physically unremarkable, too lacking in the proper athletic pedigrees. Then he proved he was the world’s best featherweight — and now he’s too old.

If he can go out there and win anyway, he might prove that the whole “over-35” thing is just another rule that doesn’t apply to him. And the only one who wouldn’t be the least bit surprised would be the grizzled old man himself.

A couple other quick thoughts on UFC 298:

This is a big one for Robert Whittaker

The former UFC middleweight champ is coming off a knockout loss to the current champ, Dricus du Plessis, and his only other losses at 185 pounds are to the man who’s likely to get the next title shot, Israel Adesanya. If he wants to stay relevant and stay within swinging distance of that title, the man they call “Bobby Knuckles” has to win this one.

His opponent, Paulo Costa, however? He’s got other options. Such are the merits of being the division’s lovably chaotic rascal.

It’s an even bigger one for Henry Cejudo

The former two-division champ (and, as he’ll never let us forget, Olympic gold medalist) faces a tough challenge in Merab Dvalishvili. Cejudo has said he may retire (again) with a loss, and this time there’s reason to believe it. If he can’t win this one, the next fight he’s offered will be much farther from the title. Dvalishvili is also something of a stylistic nightmare for him. A high-motor wrestler with the speed and the cardio to turn pace itself into a dangerous weapon? That used to be Cejudo’s thing. If time has marched on, maybe Cejudo’s days in the cage should follow.

Ian Machado Garry desperately needs some headlines that are about his actual fighting ability

We know too much about this guy’s marriage and his personal life. We’ve heard him talk too much about how big a star he thinks he is or will soon become. The last time he was supposed to back it up inside the cage, he had to withdraw with pneumonia. He’s running out of time to remind people why they learned his name in the first place. And while Geoff Neal isn’t necessarily the opponent who propels you to instant fame and riches with a win, he is good enough to reveal it to the world if it turns out you’re not ready for that level.