Alexander Volkanovski fell short of history last October in Abu Dhabi following his knockout loss to lightweight champion Islam Makachev. After the loss was the agreement to defend his featherweight title in February, meaning “The Great” would look for his seventh defence at featherweight while also being in the unique position of bouncing back from a head kick knockout in just four months.
The once unstoppable featherweight champion is now behind the 8-ball, entering perhaps a dangerous opponent in Ilia “El Matador” Topuria, someone shown to have cannons in his hands and an impressive set of skills since joining the UFC ranks.
His perfect 6-0 UFC record includes three knockouts, brutal finishes of Ryan Hall and Damon Jackson alongside the especially violent comeback knockout of Jai Herbert. Even his sole submission victory in the UFC against Bryce Mitchell was full of bombs, with every connection sending Mitchell back, battering him before the arm-triangle finish. With a slew of eight subs in his career and established merit of finishing on the feet, Topuria meets the mark of being well-rounded enough to compete with Volkanovski for five rounds.
The uniqueness of the matchup seems to align momentum in favour of the undefeated challenger, but that isn’t all backing “El Matador” in his pursuit of greatness, for the numbers paint a vivid picture as well.
Feed the Hot Hand
Have you heard this expression in sports? It rings truer than ever here with the challenger’s red-hot form on the feet for multiple fights now. In each of his last four UFC fights, we have seen increased striking output from Topuria, which has paid off as he has secured a knockdown in his last three fights. Compared to his opponent, there is no doubt who is more explosive in that area, with Topuria’s four knockdowns in the UFC falling just one short of tying Volkanovski in seven fewer fights.
Not only is he offensively gifted, but “El Matador” is hard to hit as well. His division-best 67% significant strike defence proves him to be a hard target to land on with impact, a rather important stat to carry against Volkanovski, a fighter who typically strikes with volume and accuracy. “Typically” is the keyword, which brings us to the next observation.
A Shift in Specialty
“The Great” is top-three amongst active featherweights in significant strike accuracy, strikes landed per minute, and strike difference, something that should serve as a favourable talking point. However, over his last three bouts, Volkanovski averaged approximately 3.3 strikes landed per minute, a far cry from his career average of 6.8 per minute, and even further from the approximate 7.9 landed per minute over the three fights before those.
The champion’s shift to grappling because of the Makhachev matchup twice-over favoured him in quelling the explosive and rangy fighter in Yair Rodriguez, but will not be enough in isolation to put away the Georgian. His astounding 92% takedown defence will make him a challenge to get down, his top-three bottom position percentage suggests he’ll be hard to keep down, and his aforementioned eight submissions and attempt activity will make him a threat if they stay down.
Father Time Favors the Youth
Individual stats did not look good for Volkanovski, and when looking at historical data, it gets worse. When these two are locked in the cage, Volkanovski is 35 years old which for many purists is a death sentence for a men’s championship fighter at lower weights. More specifically, winning a featherweight title fight at 35 and older has never happened.
REMINDER: Record of UFC fighters over 35 years old between 125 & 170 in title fights: 2-28. Those 2 belong to Tyron Woodley.
WRT to #UFC288, Aljamain Sterling is 33 years of age. Henry Cejudo is 36.
Of note, Cejduo was 33 in his last UFC bout in 2020 against Dominick Cruz.
— Luke Thomas🏋️♀️ (@lthomasnews) April 30, 2023
Since this tweet, the record has expanded to 2-31 with Henry Cejudo’s loss to Aljamain Sterling, Volk’s second loss to Islam Makachev, and Colby Covington’s loss to Leon Edwards, moving the win rate to fighters in title bouts in that weight range aged 35+ to 6%.
When assessing facts and figures, Volkanovski jumping into this fight looks more and more risky. With “The Great” putting his head on the chopping block once more, Topuria will have no problem playing the executioner. Every empire falls eventually, and at just 27, Ilia “El Matador” Topuria looks ready to be the next great leader of the UFC featherweight division. With the two set to fight soon, time will tell who stands tall.