Sam Bruce, Deputy Editor, espn.com.auFeb 12, 2024, 07:43 PM ET
- Sam was brought up on long drives and the dusty fields of north-west New South Wales, where he developed his love of rugby from an early age. He joined ESPN after a five-year stint heading up Fox Sports Australia’s digital rugby coverage.
Volkanovski (26-3) will put the belt he has held since December 2019, when he defeated Max Holloway by unanimous decision, on the line in Anaheim just five months after he saw his dreams of dual-champion status snatched away in brutal fashion by Islam Makhachev.
Immediately after that crushing defeat, Volkanovski gave an emotional insight into his psyche, which left many questioning whether, after such a dominant run, cracks were suddenly starting to emerge within the usually unflappable Australian.
But he says that is not the case and that life after mixed martial arts does not worry him, despite admissions after that loss to Makhachev, he “needed to fight” for his mental well-being.
“That’s obviously going to be a question [people have], especially after seeing what I talked about [after the second loss to Islam], but they don’t realize that right now, all that matters to me is my career and my family,” Volkanovski told ESPN.
“My career I know [will end], I’m already prepared, I’ve got a good team around me, I understand that. I know what makes me tick right now. But I’m in my prime, and I know that time’s limited, so there’s pressure there, obviously.
“But I know once that’s done, I’m going to have to shift [my life]. There’ll be no fighting career, as you say, then that energy is going to have to shift into business, whatever it is, or commentary, or behind the camera; I know that is going to shift, I’m aware of that. But a lot of people aren’t aware of what makes them tick. I’m lucky that I do.
“But right now, that’s why we get antsy when we’re not capitalizing on our time, like I’m in my prime; don’t waste my time, get me in the Octagon, let me make my money, let me build this legacy and let me do my thing, and then let me do that again until I’m done. Right now, it’s all I can do; it’s family and fighting; after that, it will change.”
One man adamant Volkanovski won’t fight on too long is his coach, Joe Lopez, who has been the fighter’s corner throughout his mixed martial arts career. While Lopez says there are “no regrets” about the decision to take the Makhachev rematch on 11 days’ notice, rejecting suggestions it was irresponsible, he does agree Volkanovski is closer to the end of his career than the start, and wants to ensure life in retirement for his charge will be just as good as it is now.
“Like I always say, we’ve got these set exercises or drills that we do each week, and when he’s not meeting those times, that’s when I’ve got to say, ‘Hey, Alex, it might be time to hang the gloves up,'” Lopez told ESPN when asked if Volkanovski’s best performances were still ahead of him.
“But right now, he’s still hitting all the times, at the moment, the body’s still there, the mind’s still there, so we’ll keep going. We might have only a couple of years left. I don’t think we’d want to go any more than that.
“And our whole goal, or for me anyway as his coach and his friend, was to set him up for life so he doesn’t have to fight anymore. He’s got a beautiful family, and I just want all the best for him in the future, so he doesn’t have to be one of these guys who has to keep fighting because he didn’t save his money or didn’t work his money well.”
While his Cooking with Volk videos on YouTube showcase a keen culinary interest, among other pursuits and investments, the 35-year-old freely admits he is most comfortable in camp, putting in the work for his next entry into the Octagon.
But Volkanovski also knows he can’t go on forever, though he insists he is in peak condition at 35 and plans to prove that against Topuria this weekend.
“I still feel great. I think I’m definitely going to teach this bloke a lesson and remind everyone — a lot of people are [saying] ‘is he done, is he this, is he that — but I guarantee you on February 18th, they’re going to be saying there’s nothing left for him at featherweight, he’s got to do this, he’s got to do that, so we’ll see what’s next.
“But I want to be active. We’re already throwing dates around; obviously I’m taking Ilia seriously, but I would love to bounce back, whether there is another card in Australia later in the year, maybe I get one before then and then come back here [to Sydney]. I don’t know, but it’s definitely a good year that we’re going to have this year.”
While it will elicit laughter from many UFC fans, Volkanovski hasn’t given up hope of becoming a two-division UFC champion. However, he acknowledges the loss to Makhachev in Abu Dhabi has made such a goal far more difficult.
Taking the fight on 11 days’ notice was bold, but coach Lopez said the fact Volkanovski had a “puncher’s chance” was enough of a reason to take a “gamble”.
Asked whether there was a situation in which he would give up competing at featherweight and commit himself entirely to the lightweight division, Volkanovski said: “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m just glad there’s a clear guy right now, that’s all I’m really thinking of in the featherweight [division] right now, I’m not really paying attention to everything that’s going on.
“But there’s no clear guy but Ilia right now, he’s that guy, he’s the one that’s talking and all my attention’s there. But obviously lightweight does still excite me a lot, [so] until there’s another clear guy, or there’s a job or a date set [at featherweight], it’s very easy for me to shift all my energy to that [lightweight]. But like I said, all my energy is shifted onto Ilia right now.”
If anything, Volkanovski’s emotional postfight news conference may have endeared him even more to the Australian sporting community and to UFC fans around the world.
Honest and raw, it was a timely reminder that even some of the toughest people on the planet have moments of vulnerability. And that is no bad thing.
But he also wants to put that night behind him by silencing Topuria at UFC 298, proving he remains one of the promotion’s elite fighters in the process.
“I’m going to be setting a statement and humbling Ilia, 100%,” Volkanovski told ESPN. “Just winning is not enough. It doesn’t mean it has to be a finish. Obviously, that would be great; I don’t really care about that.
“But if I do get the finish, I want to embarrass him first, I want to teach him a lesson first, I want to humble him first, because if I just go out there and knock him out, he’ll [just say] ‘he caught me’.
“I’m going to show you that I am levels ahead and you’ve got a lot of work to do, and you’re going to thank me later for it because you’re going to work hard now and you’re going to earn your stripes rather than just giving them to you. And then I’m going to finish you. That’s what I’m planning on doing.”