By TRISTAN LAVALETTE The Associated Press
PERTH, Australia — The taunts from UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev about a supposed lack of size aren’t likely to unsettle Alexander Volkanovski.
He’s worked as a concreter, he’s played the rugged game of rugby league and he grew up in the working-class city of Wollongong, south of Sydney. He can defend himself.
“That’s been happening forever … even on the footy field,” Volkanovski said of the taunts coming from his 31-year-old Russian rival. But, “No one’s ever just overpowered me.”
At 5-foot-6, featherweight titleholder Volkanovski will give up four inches in height and 15 pounds in weight to Makhachev (23 wins, 1 loss) when he moves up a division for the lightweight title fight, the main event of UFC 284 on Sunday in Perth, capital of Western Australia state.
With the status of best pound-for-pound fighter on the line, Volkanovski (25 wins, 1 loss) will have a sold-out crowd of 13,000 right behind him at an expected febrile RAC Arena. But even with that, Volkanovski is the underdog against the formidable wrestling and grappling prowess of Makhachev.
“He doesn’t take unnecessary risks. He doesn’t overcommit,” Volkanovski said of Makhachev, who has 11 submission victories in his 23 career wins.
“He will fight on the back foot and wait for the right time to shoot. His distance game isn’t too bad. He’s calculated, brilliant at the basics. He’s a great fighter.”
The straight-shooting Makhachev insists that his superior size will lead to a one-sided bout and defense of his lightweight belt.
“It’s another division. I’m going to beat him,” he said. “I want to knock him out. I know I’m the best MMA fighter because I have all the skills – striking, wrestling, grappling.”
But the 34-year-old Volkanovski, whose power and striking has fueled his rise in mixed martial arts, scoffed at his opponent’s confident prediction.
“Knockout? That’s an unnecessary risk. He won’t be doing that,” said Volkanovski, who has gorged on extra calories in a bid to gain weight.
“If he thinks I’m just going to be a weak little featherweight, then he’s in for a rude shock.”
MMA in Australia is starting to emerge from a niche base, its growing popularity obvious by the hundreds of fans who turned out for public workouts from the fighters ahead of the first UFC event staged in the country since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the other bouts on the card, Josh Emmett will be taking on Yair Rodriguez for the featherweight interim title belt and Parker Porter is against New Zealander Justin Tafa.
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Volkanovski has become a very recognizable name in Australia, where he’s the embodiment of the underdog who doggedly climbs the ranks.
“I don’t think I was ever athletically gifted … I’ve always been strong but that’s it,” he said. “Look where I’m at right now with the right mindset and work ethic. I’m showing people what can be done.”
In this cauldron, though, there’s little room for modest talk, even for Volkanovski, who is on a 22-fight winning streak and is known as ‘The Great’ – a nod to Alexander the Great.
“I’m chasing to be one of the greatest or the greatest. ‘Alexander the Great’ is good but we’re going for ‘Alexander the Greatest’,” he said. “People have counted me out but I’m going to shock the world on Sunday and I can’t wait to do it.”