Alexander Volkanovski raises bar in featherweight division, pound-for-pound rankings with shutout of Max Holloway

LAS VEGAS — Alexander Volkanovski didn’t come into MMA as some sort of high-profile top prospect. After a career as a 214-pound rugby player, Volkanovski turned to mixed martial arts without fanfare, either around the world or in Australia, where he hails from.

He lost his fourth professional fight to Corey Nelson, now a crane operator in Sydney, in a welterweight bout.

Just over nine years since that night, Volkanovski is pretty much at the top of the MMA world. He put on another brilliant performance on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 276, essentially without hitting the great Max Holloway.

The rivals met for the third time for the featherweight title on Saturday after Volkanovski picked up narrow wins at UFC 245 in 2019 and UFC 251 in 2020.

This time it was not a contest almost from the start. Volkanovski, five inches shorter and with a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, outed Holloway. He said he thinks he broke his left hand in a second, but no one around who didn’t hear the conversation would have ever known.

Holloway topped the featherweight division with the exception of Volkanovski. In his last 16 featherweight fights other than those against Volkanovski, Holloway was 16-0 with 10 finishes. He clearly outpaced the peloton in the division. But against Volkanovski on Saturday, he looked pretty much like a WWE jobber and was beaten one-sidedly and decisively.

Featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski pieced together Max Holloway en route to a unanimous decision victory. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973 by winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths. In terms of a fight, Volkanovski is at least as far behind as the featherweight peloton.

“He answered all the questions from all the skeptics tonight,” UFC President Dana White told Yahoo Sports. “He took that fight and he looked amazing. It’s time for him to move on and do what he wants to do next. Does he want to continue defending this title? Does he want to evolve? Whatever he wants to do, the world is open to him. Very impressive what he did tonight.

It was impressive to say the least.

Volkanovski opened a cavernous cut over Holloway’s left eye and blood oozed from his eye, nose and mouth in the latter part of the fight. One of the biggest and sleekest fighters in the sport, Holloway landed little consequence and couldn’t come up with an attack that was even moderately successful.

Volkanovski is the pound-for-pound No. 2 fighter on the UFC’s pound-for-pound list, but after this performance it’s reasonable to wonder if he’s passed welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, who sits at No. 1. .

Usman was equally dominant and won 19 straight.

But Volkanovski won for the 21st straight time on Saturday and won his 12th in a row in the UFC. No one has come close to him except Holloway and it was no contest on Saturday.

In his last six fights, he has three wins over Holloway and one over Jose Aldo, the two men other than him who were considered in contention for the greatest featherweight in UFC history.

There is no doubt now. Volkanovski is the man without a doubt and comes into the conversation as one of the greatest fighters of all time. It’s a place occupied by Jon Jones, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre, but it’s hard to deny Volkanovski’s entry into this discussion.

“To have three title wins against someone like Max rather than another guy, of course [that means more to me]said Volkanovski. “He’s been the No. 1 contender the whole time. He was considered the greatest featherweight of all time. It’s amazing to me. … These are much bigger wins than your average defense.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – JULY 02: Australia's Alexander Volkanovski celebrates his unanimous decision victory over Max Holloway in their featherweight title fight at UFC 276 at T-Mobile Arena on July 02, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Alexander Volkanovski may have passed welterweight champion Kamaru Usman (not pictured) as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

He has been largely unchallenged in his entire UFC career. The second fight with Holloway was close, but Volkanovski had some issues. USADA drug testers woke him up four hours before he woke up. This discouraged him and he was slow and far from his best in the fight. He took melatonin tablets to try and get him back to sleep, but the net result was that he felt sluggish and uncomfortable in the cage.

He won the fight, largely using his wits, and immediately began calling for another fight with Holloway. He had something to prove and on Saturday he proved it.

“I called the [third fight] because I wanted to show off,” Volkanovski said. “I know that I did not come [for the second Holloway fight].”

He made his way to the top. He fully believed in himself and never doubted, even when the critics would. He gently berated two reporters at the post-fight press conference who he said had doubted him in the past.

He turned into a fighter and kept improving day by day. He fights often – Saturday was his third fight in nine months – and few, if any, are consistently better.

It was enough to stun his new teammate, middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, who blasted Jared Cannonier in the main event in what he called the worst performance of his career.

“Fuck inspiring,” Adesanya said of Volkanovski’s win. “I also had a 5-0 shutout, but his was much cooler and more impressive. … When he came to CKB for this camp, he raised the bar for this camp.

He certainly raised the bar for other 145-pound fighters, that’s for sure.

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