UFC 298: Alexander Volkanovski, Ilia Topuria, and a devastating ‘curse’

When Alexander Volkanovski enters the Octagon on Saturday, an environment where he is more at home than perhaps any fighter of his generation, he will not only battle a young, tenacious, powerful, well-rounded challenger in Ilia Topuria; the featherweight champion will duel with a statistic that has a record as dominant as his own.

In UFC title fights in every division from welterweight down to men’s and women’s flyweight, athletes aged 35 and over have a record of 4-33-1. Across those eight divisions, fighters in that age bracket have consistently failed to secure victory, with only four exceptions – courtesy of just three fighters.

Before the final two successful title defences of Tyron Woodley’s welterweight reign, against (a 39-year-old) Demian Maia in 2017 and Darren Till in 2018, there were no wins for fighters in this sample. Since those wins, only Raquel Pennington and the great Amanda Nunes have successfully bucked the trend. The former outpointed Mayra Bueno Silva last month to win the women’s bantamweight belt, after Nunes vacated that title upon beating Irene Aldana in June, when she retired as one of the few fighters to hold a win over the best to ever do it: Father Time.

If anyone is capable of joining that exclusive group, it is Volkanovski, whose every title defence has bolstered his claim to dethrone Jose Aldo – a man he beat five years ago – as the greatest featherweight ever. The Australian holds a professional record of 26-3 and has never lost at 145lbs; his first defeat came at welterweight over a decade ago, before he came up short in two lightweight title shots in 2023. The first of those failures at 155lbs was marginal, as he was outpointed by Islam Makhachev; the latter, however, marked Volkanovski’s first encounter with the statistical curse in question – and his first affliction by it.

Stepping in for Charles Oliveira on 10 days’ notice, having barely recovered from surgery and hardly trained, Volkanovski was swiftly, brutally dismantled by Makhachev, who knocked out the featherweight king with the harshest of head kicks. That result came three weeks after Volkanovski’s 35th birthday.

Volkanovski after his knockout loss to Islam Makhachev in October

(AFP via Getty Images)

Now there is the very real threat that, in the most unforgiving sport on the planet, Volkanovski could become the latest fighter to grow old overnight. Indeed, Woodley was crippled by the same rapid decay. Dominated by Kamaru Usman in his final title defence, Woodley exited the sport with a run of four straight defeats, all decisive.

Then there was Usman himself. The Nigerian-American outdid his predecessor by recording five successful title defences, only to find himself on the wrong end of one of the most captivating knockouts in UFC history in his next fight – his first after turning 35. Now Usman is on a three-fight losing streak. For a while, he and Volkanovski were the consensus No 1 and 2 fighters in the UFC, pound-for-pound. Usman has cascaded down the rankings, fictive and contrived as they are, while Volkanovski has also begun to slip. The worry for the Australian is that this slip could become a fatal fall.

In UFC 298’s main event, Volkanovski seeks his sixth successful title defence, as he takes on the unbeaten Topuria. Volkanovski may just be the outstanding archetype of the modern mixed martial artist, yet Topuria is also well rounded, and the Georgian-born Spaniard has the power to change the course of an opponent’s career – especially an opponent who was knocked out four months ago.

Topuria has been on a path of destruction towards the featherweight title

(Getty Images)

Twelve of Topuria’s 14 wins have come via stoppage – 12 by submission and two by knockout. The 27-year-old last fought in June and earned a rare decision win, but even without a finish, Topuria managed to showcase his ruthlessness. “El Matator” outclassed Emmett in every area of the game, battering the American to the head, body and legs and thrice dropping him to the canvas, where he controlled the grappling specialist. In the final round, Topuria was intelligently evasive of Emmett’s notorious power, before taking him down and scrambling circles around him.

Topuria is as fierce as they come, and he is fresh now. There are fears that Volkanovski is far from fresh himself. After losing to Makhachev in October, the Australian tearfully admitted that his frequent fights – and ill-informed decision to face Makhachev on short notice – were down to struggles with his mental health. As such, there are questions around Volkanovski’s physical and mental state ahead of UFC 298.

When Topuria spoke to The Independent ahead of his clinic against Emmett, his confidence was clear in his stoic demeanour. Recently, however, Topuria has made an aggressive pivot in self-presentation. Almost a caricature of arrogance at this point, he has already updated his social-media bios to read: “UFC champion. Undefeated 15-0.”

Between his losses to Makhachev, Volkanovski stopped Yair Rodriguez to retain his title

(Getty Images)

The UFC may just hope that prediction materialises; as its expansion into Europe continues, Topuria would be a useful commodity – especially with his already sizeable fanbase, which includes more than two million Instagram followers. Topuria claims that the UFC has even entertained his suggestion of a title defence at the Santiago Bernabeu, home to Real Madrid.

In fact, the UFC has already placed Topuria in a Spanish stadium, filming a promo for UFC 298 that featured the challenger shadow-boxing in a bull-fighting ground. In Anaheim, though, there is little chance that Topuria will play the matador, despite his nickname; so far he has been bullish, and against Volkanovski he will be the bull.

Volkanovski, meanwhile, will need every trick in his arsenal to neutralise Topuria. The Australian humorously played down the age factor in a skit this week, which depicted the champion as a pensioner succumbing to phone scams and afternoon naps.

His fans will hope that is the last time they see Volkanovski unconscious this month.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *