Volkanovski's Win over Holloway at UFC 251 Is Anything but Clear-Cut

Kelsey McCarsonFeatured ColumnistJuly 12, 2020

Should they run it back again?
Should they run it back again?John Locher/Associated Press

There's a reason the final two frames of any title fight are called the championship rounds. 

UFC featherweight titleholder Alexander Volkanovski stole former champ Max Holloway's brilliant belt-nabbing win from him Saturday night on "Fight Island" in the co-main event of UFC 251 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, through sheer determination over the last 10 minutes of the bout. 

Judges scored the matchup for Volkanovski 48-47, 48-47 and 47-48 in a split decision.

The 31-year-old Australian entered the Holloway rematch riding an 18-fight win streak. He'd gone 8-0 in the UFC and had just handed arguably the most accomplished—if not best—UFC featherweight champ ever in Holloway a one-sided loss in his last matchup.

But the 28-year-old from Hawaii had entered the second fight—this one on Yas Island—looking sharper than ever.

Long. Mean. Laser-focused. This Holloway was a real problem. 

He outstruck Volkanovski during the first two rounds both in volume and power, scoring knockdowns during each of those five-minute stanzas. 

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Volkanovski kept pressing forward anyway.

The champion pushed his opponent to the cage for the first time about halfway through the third round. But even then, he didn't get much accomplished as Holloway's diverse attack still allowed him to firmly plant a knee in his midsection for all the trouble. 

A lesser fighter might have crumbled, but not Volkanovski

Trying just about everything in his repertoire, Volkanovski kept attacking. He went for takedowns, trips, counters—anything that might work. 

The wildest part? Somewhere around halfway through the fight—and just when it all started to look bleak for the champ—some of it started to connect. 

By the fourth round, both fighters wore the action on their faces. 

This was a good scrap. 

But if the first fight had been a case study in how Holloway could fight with an atypical amount of uncertainty, the second bout was the opposite. 

This was Holloway's eighth career title fight, after all. He carried so much experience and ability into the cage that he dared to reveal to the world beforehand that he had entirely trained for the bout via Zoom calls during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maybe that was a power move, but it also just seemed to be the fighter telling the truth about how he readied himself. 

This guy was confident, and he fought like it. 

Holloway had won 12 straight fights in the featherweight division before he lost his belt to Volkanovski in December at UFC 245. The future Hall of Famer beat the likes of Anthony Pettis, Jose Aldo, Brian Ortega and Frankie Edgar, and he's been one of the most popular, accomplished UFC champs in recent history. 

So of course he thought he was going to win. Heck, for the first half of the fight, he looked as if he would. 

A different Holloway had entered the cage in Abu Dhabi. Maybe even a different Volkanovski had gone into it too. By the final five minutes, both displayed greatness. They had pushed themselves both mentally and physically to the point that each left the Octagon looking like something more than they were before.

Holloway, already acclaimed as one of the all-time greats, bloody, tired and still throwing strikes to the end; Volkanovski, a fighter whose nickname The Great is now bolstered by two wins over Holloway and one over Aldo, a featherweight legend. 

Volkanovski scored a takedown with just seconds left in the bout. If any moment tilted things in his favor, maybe that was it.

"It was a tough fight," Volkanovski told ESPN's Jon Anik. "My opponent stood there, and he didn't really take a backward step."

In the end, Volkanovski said he knew what that meant for him.

"I knew I had to win the last round."

And that's what he did, in a sense. Volkanovski won the last moment of the last round to take the night.