It’s one of those funny little open secrets in the sports world. Athletes work their whole entire lives to be the best, to get respect, to win. Only, for many of them, when they reach the pinnacles of performance, they find that the only real comfort they know comes from the push for greatness. Sometimes it feels a lot less comfortable to sit on top of the mountain than it does to climb it.
“I love the underdog story. I love being the underdog and people saying I’m undersized and all that type of stuff. It just adds to the story and it’s going to add to the victory,” UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski enthused in a recent interview on the MMA Hour (transcript via MMA Fighting).
Unbeaten in his last 22 fights, Volkanovski is currently set to take on newly crowned lightweight champion Islam Makhachev in the main event of UFC 284 in Perth, Australia. It’ll be his first time fighting as an underdog since his title winning bout against Max Holloway back at UFC 245 in 2019. His opponent, Makhachev rose to prominence under the guidance of fellow standout Dagestani sambo artist and former king of the 155 lb. division Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Both before and after his competitive fighting career was over, Nurmagomedov was a fixture in the corner of many AKA fighters—especially those who grew up training with the ‘Eagle’ at his home gym in Russia. It seemed like the transition to coaching was a natural fit for the 34-year-old. Right up until the news dropped earlier this month, that he was stepping away from that as well.
It’s a move that Volkanovski admits surprised him. But also, something he doesn’t want fans to see as a major factor against Makhachev, when the Aussie walks out of the arena next week with his hand raised.
“I guess I was [surprised] at the start,” Volkanovski said of Nurmagomedov’s decision to step back from coaching. “But it doesn’t matter, Islam is still going to turn up. I know people push narratives and all that type of stuff—at the end of the day, Islam is a great fighter. He’s the one who’s going in there and doing his work, and Khabib will tell you that himself. So again, if my hand gets raised, don’t be [complaining]. These are excuses. He’s fought plenty of times with Khabib not in his corner.
“He’s done it before and he’s a great fighter. He’s going to turn up and show up in the Octagon anyway, even if Khabib is there or not. So I’m preparing for the same Islam that I’ve seen. And again, if things go how I plan on them going, don’t start changing narratives and start using all these excuses—because it’s the guy in front of him that’s the problem.”
UFC 284 goes down February 12th at the RAC Arena. Alongside the lightweight title fight main event, the card is expected to feature a top-tier featherweight battle between Yair Rodriguez and Josh Emmett. It just may be that whatever record Volkanovski exits the Octagon with on Saturday, he’ll have a new contender for his featherweight title waiting in the wings.