Thursday, June 29, 2023 | 2 a.m.
• Featherweight title unification bout: Alexander Volkanovski (Australia) vs. Yair Rodriguez (Mexico)
• Flyweight championship bout: Brandon Moreno (Mexico) vs. Alexandre Pantoja (Brazil)
• Middleweight bout: Robert Whittaker (New Zealand/Australia) vs. Dricus du Plessis (South Africa)
• Lightweight bout: Jalin Turner (U.S.) vs. Dan Hooker (New Zealand)
• Middleweight bout: Bo Nickal (U.S.) vs. Tresean Gore (U.S.)
• When: July 8; early preliminaries 3 p.m. (UFC Fight Pass); preliminary card 5 p.m. (ABC/ESPN); main card 7 p.m. (ESPN+, $80)
• Where: T-Mobile Arena
• Tickets: $150-$5,000 at axs.com
In the middle of the biggest and toughest fight of his life, Alexander Volkanovski wouldn’t shut up.
The longtime UFC featherweight champion moved up a weight class to challenge lightweight belt-holder Islam Makhachev in February, even though hardly anyone gave him much of a chance. Volkanovski sat as high as a 4-to-1 underdog, with most expecting the bigger Makhachev’s wrestling style to overpower him.
It didn’t turn out that way, and even in the few instances when Makhachev did grab a hold and control Volkanovski, the latter kept talking to the former.
“I’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re not that strong,’ and when he’s there like, ‘Oh, you’re just hanging on,’ ” Volkanovski explained in his post-fight news conference. “I’m not being disrespectful. He’s still in a good position, and it’s up to me to get out of there, but I’m going to [try to] get in his head.”
Volkanovski arguably put on the show of his career in front of a home-country crowd in Perth, Australia, even though the judges ultimately sided with Makhachev via unanimous decision (48-47, 48-47, 49-46). Many disagreed with the decision, and the aftermath has spurred an unlikely phenomenon to occur in the UFC: Volkanovski’s star is shining brighter than ever despite him coming off a loss.
For the first time, the 34-year-old will headline what is traditionally the UFC’s biggest event of the year—the pay-per-view at the end of International Fight Week in Las Vegas. Volkanovski has twice defended his featherweight belt in the co-main event of the annual early July pay-per-view, but he gets prime billing at UFC 290 on July 8 at T-Mobile Arena in a title unification bout against Yair Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, a 30-year-old who hails from Mexico, emerged as interim featherweight champion while Volkanovski went up to lightweight.
“I’m not a selfish guy,” Volkanovski said. “I’m not trying to hold things up [at featherweight], and now we’ve got a guy that deserves a shot. That’s clear. That’s what I wanted.”
Volkanovski only felt the need to clarify that because he has also made his ultimate goal clear: to beat Makhachev in a rematch and become the 10th two-division champion in UFC history. Neither Volkanovski nor Makhachev ended up getting what they wanted out of their initial showdown.
Volkanovski was determined to prove everyone wrong and escape with a victory before falling painfully, if not controversially, short. Makhachev, meanwhile, asked for the bout because he wanted to prove he was the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
But despite Makhachev’s victory,Volkanovski retained the No. 1 pound-for-pound standing in the UFC’s official rankings. Jon Jones has since returned to the octagon to win his second title, at heavyweight, to take over the No. 1 pound-for-pound spot, followed by Volkanovski at No. 2 and Makhachev at No. 3.
Volkanovski and Makhachev both want to fight one another again, and UFC President Dana White isn’t opposed to the idea. While White chose to prioritize Volkanovski vs. Rodriguez for UFC 290, he has gone so far as to say, “We’ll do the rematch.”
“When you make a superfight, could you possibly have had a better f*cking result than we did on that fight,” White said of Makhachev vs. Volkanovski during a recent news conference. “When the entire world is arguing over who won, that’s a superfight, and it delivers.”
The risk now for Volkanovski is letting his pursuit of Makhachev interfere with the task at hand. Rodriguez, who stopped perennial contenders Brian Ortega and Josh Emmett back-to-back, is not someone to be taken lightly.
Volkanovski is as high as a 5-to-1 favorite, but he has been accused of being distracted. He’s laughed off those suggestions, insisting he’s capable of giving Rodriguez his full attention while still keeping his goal of winning the lightweight belt in mind.
“You gotta move forward,” Volkanovski said in an interview on the Impaulsive podcast with YouTube personality-turned-boxer Logan Paul. “Obviously it sucks, but I’ll get the rematch. I’ll win, and then we’ll make a bigger fight, a bigger ending to that story later on.”
He might not have gotten the initial victory over Makhachev, but Volkanovski came away from the fight with the acclaim some felt he long deserved. He won his first 11 fights in the octagon, downing virtually every active featherweight great during a run that saw him first become champion in December 2019.
He won every match in a trilogy with longtime former champion Max Holloway, though the first two were razor-thin decisions that some thought should have gone the other way. The controversial results against a fan-favorite like Holloway might have contributed to the fanbase not fully embracing Volkanovski as a champion from the outset.
It’s ironic that it was a loss in a similar situation against Makhachev that elevated him to the highest peak of his career so far. And if Volkanovski handles Rodriguez at UFC 290, he’ll likely get another opportunity at the prize he so desperately seeks.
“Obviously people are proud of how that went, but I expected to go out there and win and dominate,” Volkanovski said of the Makhachev fight. “I’m still proud of myself, still proved a lot of people wrong, but I didn’t get my hand raised. I’m going to be hard on myself.”
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.