UFC 298 Paths to Victory: How can Alexander Volkanovski fend off Ilia Topuria and Father Time?

UFC 298 is upon us, and with it comes one of the most highly anticipated fights in years.

On Saturday, featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski puts his title on the line against the undefeated Ilia Topuria. It’s a battle of old guard vs. the next generation, as Volkanovski attempts to hold of Father Time once more, while Topuria hopes to etch himself into the history books.

How will each man approach this fight, and how do they take home the win? Let’s take a look.

UFC 290: Volkanovski v Rodriguez

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Paths to Victory for Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 298

After two failed attempts to claim the lightweight title (with a featherweight title defense over Yair Rodriguez sandwiched between), Volkanovski returns to 145 to take on his most dangerous challenger since Max Holloway. And he’s in luck, because while Topuria has a lot to offer and poses a serious threat, Volkanovski is set up extremely well to retain his title.

Volkanovski is a tank of a featherweight who can do everything very well, but as he’s gotten older, he’s pared his game down to a few fundamental building blocks: Feints, low kicks, counters, and the clinch. Of course he mixes in other weapons, and sometimes builds entire game plans around them (the focus of the Rodriguez fight was getting it to the ground), but those are the tools that build Volkanovski the house. And all of them line up quite well against Topuria.

One of the reasons Volkanovski struggled so much with Islam Makhachev was that Makhachev is a southpaw who doesn’t bite on feints. Volkanovski couldn’t get Makhachev to open up for counters off his feints and he played hell getting leg kicks working from the open stance. That, paired with the size disadvantage, meant Volkanovski had to use a ton of shifts and combinations to try and land something on Makhachev, which ultimately just got him countered a lot. That won’t be an issue with Topuria.

Topuria is already one of the best boxers in UFC, using a lancing jab, quality fundamentals, power, and a cheeky little shoulder roll inside to set up counters. All of those attributes have made him a nightmare for his previous opponents, but not so much for Volkanovski. Topuria rarely steps out of orthodox, lead leg heavy stance. What little success Josh Emmett had in their fight came largely from attacking that lead leg and Volkanovski is a far superior kicker. Topuria’s answer against Emmett was simply to throw heavy counters to dissuade the attack, but Volkanovski is better at timing those and using angles to minimize return fire.

Topuria also wants to land big shots, and it shows itself in dangerous ways. Prior to the Josh Emmett fight, Topuria was out-and-out reckless at times in the cage, swinging so hard he would throw himself off balance. Even against Emmett, that tendency reared its head a time or two, and if Volkanovski can draw out a big counter with feints, he is then set up to return with heavy shots of his own.

But for all the above advantages, the big thing for Volkanovski in this fight is getting back to an earlier version of himself. Volkanovski could win a fight where he plays matador to “El Matador” for 25 minutes and chops his legs out, but that’s a lot to ask against a potent offensive threat like Topuria. Instead, he should head that offense off at the pass and get back to his days as a pressure fighter. We haven’t seen Topuria fight off his back foot nearly as much, and if Volkanovski can get him moving backwards, not only would it limit Topuria’s offense, it will also neutralize portions of his defense, and maybe even allow Volkanovski to mix in the wrestling. Topuria is an elite wrestler himself, so that may not yield amazing results, but forcing Topuria to wage war on all fronts is better than consenting to a striking contest.

UFC Fight Night: Emmett v Topuria

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

Paths to victory for Ilia Topuria at UFC 298

I think I made it clear in the above section that, stylistically, Volkanovski has some pretty key advantages over Topuria. But what he may lack in style, Topuria makes up for in a few key areas — specifically, speed, athleticism, and power. Topuria is basically a cross between Max Holloway and Chad Mendes, and aside from Islam Makhachev, those two men have given Volkanovski the most problems in his career.

As noted above, Topuria’s boxing is the straw that stirs the drink for him, and that drink starts with the jab. He’s got an exceptional one and it’s going to be critical for him in this fight. Volkanovski has made a career out of neutralizing jabs (see: Jose Aldo) and if Topuria can’t get that going, he’s in for a tough night. Doubling and tripling up on the jab and moving Volkanovski around the cage with it will keep this fight in the winnable phases for him.

Behind the jab comes the footwork, and this is the critical piece — Topuria’s biggest advantage in this fight is in the interior. Volkanovski can compete everywhere, but Topuria’s speed, power, and craft make him an absolute demon in the phone booth, even for Volk. Josh Emmett repeatedly got into close-quarters combat with him and was swinging at air, while Topuria battered the life out of him. Historically, Volkanovski has solved problems like this by simply entering into clinches, but if Topuria can keep his pivots working inside and deny the lock-ups, this is where he can do the most damage.

Speaking of clinches, Topuria would be foolish not to at least gauge that phase of the game. Volkanovski has been an excellent clinch fighter throughout his career, but Makhachev had a lot of success in that space against him, particularly with knees to the body, and the Thai clinch. Now, Topuria is not Makhachev, but he’s a physical specimen in his own right and he should at least test the waters out early to determine if that’s a safe space for business to be conducted.

Lastly, and this is a bit of a moon shot, but I’d like to see Topuria try out southpaw. Makhachev’s southpaw, and the left straight down the middle, gave Volkanovski so many problems, that it would be worthwhile to mix some of that in, particularly if Topuria is struggling to land cleanly on Volk. It doesn’t need to be the centerpiece of the game, but providing a different look, one that Volkanovski has issues with, would be a nice change up and could get him off rhythm.



Much has been made of Volkanovski’s age coming into this fight, and it’s understandable. Fighters under 185 pounds have a pretty poor track record in title fights against younger opponents. Now, there are a whole host of reasons for this, but the simplest one is also the one that makes it the most true: Sports are not the purview of the old. As you get older, speed and reflexes slow down, and as such, the sport gets harder. This is especially true in the lighter-weight divisions in combat sports, where so much of the game is predicated on general athleticism. Yes, there are ways to stave off this drop off, and the best fighters in history have managed to do it for long periods of time (I estimate Anderson Silva started declining around 2009 or 2010, and he still held the belt for several years after that), but the bill always comes due.

Unfortunately for Volkanovski, he is no longer in the “when will he decline” stage. He’s now in the “how long can he hold on despite declining” part of the game. You can tell by the way many of his past few fights have gone: He’s less aggressive, more prone to counters (which he’s way better at dealing with now), and he’s paring his game down to the best bits of it. These are all the signs of a fighter who is adjusting to losing a few MPH on his fastball (as Jose Aldo aged, he started beating people with just a jab and otherworldly defense). Does that mean he’s bad now? Of course not. But Volkanovski will never be better than we’ve already seen. Every day from here on out, he will be a slightly worse version than the one before. And the opposite is true for Topuria.

Along that line of thinking, I’m fascinated by Topuria’s approach to this fight. This is a man who has been the hammer his entire fighting life, and he’s oozing confidence heading into this. What happens if Volkanovski starts schooling him in there? Does his confidence break? Or instead does he go back to reckless Topuria, gambling on his natural abilities to overcome the skill gap? I hope we get to see.


Hand-in-hand with the age, there’s been a lot of hullabaloo about Volkanovski getting knocked out and making a quick turnaround here. I even joined in immediately after UFC 294, saying it was a bad idea — and while I still don’t think it’s the best planning, I’ve decided it’s less significant that most are making it out to be. Yes, he got knocked out, but it wasn’t particularly brutal — he never went out — and he didn’t get knocked out because he’s getting older. Volkanovski has never had an ironclad chin (he’s been dropped in several fights) and Islam Makhachev is a real big boy who put a shin upside his dome. It happens. If Topuria sleeps Volkanovski on Saturday, the talk will be about it being because he’s diminished, but realistically, it will simply be because Topuria can cut men in half and Volkanovski is durable but has never had a Max Holloway level chin.


To me, this matchup is truly one of veteran savvy vs. youthful exuberance. Stylistically, Volkanovski has the advantage and his one of MMA’s greatest in-fight adjusters. That’s a tall task to overcome unless you have attributes over him, like Makhachev did. Well, Topuria has those attributes, it’s simply a question of whether he can impose them effectively. My guess is that he has success early, but struggles to keep up with Volkanovski’s adjustments. In the end, it will be just a bit too soon for the young man to pull it off.

Alexander Volkanovski def. Ilia Topuria via unanimous decision (48-47, 48-47, 49-46)

Source link

You May Also Like