Alexander Volkanovski is tracking towards his second UFC featherweight world title defense, yet there is a greater goal bubbling away under the surface for the 32-year-old Australian: a move up to lightweight.
Volkanovski couldn’t care less if that’s something fans aren’t taking seriously. In fact he’s ready to use it as further motivation for a UFC universe that he feels still doesn’t show him the respect he deserves.
However, if it appears that he is looking past a more immediate featherweight challenge that will likely come against Brian Ortega, potentially in February or March next year, that too, is not the case. But at the heart of the Volkanovski lies an unwavering drive to be not just the greatest featherweight of all time, but a UFC all-time great. Period.
“It is, that is something that I definitely see down the line,” Volkanovski told ESPN on becoming a multidivision champion. “But I don’t talk about it because I have jobs to do; I’ve got goals on my mind.
“But the thing that people have got to realize is that while I might have goals in front of me, they’re not my end goals. So my goal might be the belt, it might be defending that belt and my goal is still to defend that [featherweight] belt, but I want to be the best fighter there is, and that is a goal of mine. And to do so, I want to move up and fight [at lightweight] as well.
“But again, I’ve got a division that I want to take out, I want to be the best the featherweights have seen, so I want a couple of defenses here. But I definitely want to squeeze in a lightweight fight as well.”
The first thought that comes to mind when analyzing a potential step up to lightweight is the height and power Volkanovski might concede in a division that boasts some of the biggest names in the sport.
While Volkanovski’s reach, 71.5 inches, actually holds up pretty well against many of those top lightweight contenders, his leg reach — leg kicks being a key part of the Australian’s arsenal — is on average 4.5 inches lower.
But given he once played rugby league in Australia — just one level below the country’s National Rugby League competition — at 213 pounds, and could really move in doing so, a mere 10-pound weight increase would actually sit pretty well.
Still, Volkanovski knows the disdain a potential shift to lightweight would evoke from UFC fans and pundits alike.
“People are going to say what they want,” Volkanovski said. “For me, I believe that what I’ve done, people don’t understand the skill that’s involved. People will say that I’m all hype or I got lucky because they don’t understand the skill; so of course you’re going to get people that will say I can’t handle myself in lightweight.
“But I don’t worry about them, because people that know the game, especially my opponents, they know where my level is, and I’ve trained with guys much bigger than me and I still do and I always have. So I know how I’d do against some of the best lightweights in the world anyway, even the best welterweights.
“I’ve trained with so many guys; Dan Hooker; I’ve even trained with Israel Adesanya, middleweights, so I know I can hold my own in heavier divisions. People are going to doubt me, but I love that, I love proving them wrong.
“And I want people to think that guys like Ortega, or whoever it’s going to be after him, I want them to think that ‘this is the guy.’ I want them to hype up our fights because I love proving them wrong. And when I move up [they’ll say] ‘he’s too small’, whatever. I love those doubters, and it drives me more, it motivates me more, and I’ll just go out and prove them wrong.”
Ortega’s victory over Chan Sung Jung in mid-October, almost two years after his last fight in the UFC, gave Volkanovski a clear No. 1 contender after the Australian had seen off Max Holloway, the man he dethroned for the featherweight strap, then defeated a second time in a split decision in July.
Volkanovski says he would have loved to have one more fight in 2020, but he is instead chipping away at his Freestyle Fighting Gym base south of Sydney, helping out some teammates, awaiting the official paperwork for the Ortega bout and beginning of his fight camp.
“Training’s good, it’s been fun, because there’s no pressure; when you don’t have a fight, there’s no pressure,” he told ESPN. “But obviously I’m still in the gym doing the rounds.
“We had a couple of teammates fighting, so it was good to have a bit of focus directed to them, helping them as a teammate and helping them prepare for their camp. So it’s been good to ease the mind, no pressure, I can go to the gym and it’s exciting, it’s something a little bit different to what I’m usually doing.”
In Ortega, Volkanovski agrees there is an improved fighter, although one he says is not at the same level.
“He’s the No. 1 contender, so that’s exciting. And he’s improved a lot since before that fight, so that makes it exciting and a lot of people are calling him ‘Ortega 2.0’,” Volkanovski said.
“Again, I hope people think that he’s the guy to do it [defeat Volkanovski], and I can prove them wrong. I just truly believe in my abilities, I think I’m just too much and whoever it is in front of me I’m just going to showcase that every time.
“I see improvements to what he [Ortega] was, but again I still believe it is not enough. I’m on another level. There are things that I didn’t expect him to do [against Jung] that surprised me, that now I’m well aware of … he’s shown some different tools, but there won’t be any surprises if he tries to throw some of those things at me.”
As for Holloway, Volkanovski says it’s good to see the former champion doing what “he needs to do,” in reference to the Hawaiian’s upcoming fight with Calvin Kattar, to get back for another title shot.
After some uncertainty at featherweight, particularly around Holloway, Volkanovski is happy to see the division moving again and says that some “exciting” fights on the horizon should further clear up defenses that will follow what he believes will be a victory over Ortega early next year.
That would be the perfect start to a new year the entire world is craving.
“How’s everyone’s 2020 been? It’s been a crazy year, but I’m lucky enough that I’ve still been able to make it work,” he told ESPN. “It could have been better, but a lot of people have had it much worse than me.
“2020, we did what we had to do, we made it work and cruised through. But 2021 we’re taking over, we’re going to be right at the top, and everybody is going to know my name.”