It wasn't his move down to 145 pounds. It wasn't his merciless seizure of the UFC featherweight title. It wasn't his second defeat of Max Holloway. And it wasn't his recent stint as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter.
None of these things made Alex Volkanovski (22-1) a household name, a fighter liked and admired as much by casual fans as the hardcore set. But this Saturday at UFC 266 in Las Vegas, Volkanovski's long-awaited title defense against rival TUF coach and top contender Brian Ortega (15-1 [1 NC]) could establish him as a tentpole star in the UFC and one of a select few fighters who can cross over into the mainstream sporting consciousness.
As he prepared for the first UFC pay-per-view main event of his career, the 32-year-old Aussie took time out for an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report, discussing his time on TUF, his beef with Ortega, and perhaps most importantly his favorite post-fight celebration.
The exchange has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Bleacher Report: This fight has been a long time coming for you. It was originally scheduled for March, but then you tested positive for COVID-19. Where are you in your process right now, and how are you feeling as the fight finally approaches?
Alex Volkanovski: Yeah, it's definitely been a long time, man. I'm excited, I really am. Just doing the whole fight-week thing in Nevada. I just want to get back in there, man. Go out there, perform, and put on a show. It's just around the corner now.
B/R: Your fighters absolutely steamrolled both brackets of The Ultimate Fighter, with all four finals slots—two each in middleweight and bantamweight—occupied by Team Volkanovski. What was the key to that success?
Volkanovski: We found guys we would get along with and all that type of stuff. No egos or anything like that from the fighters, and our coaching staff gave that back to them. It was a real team environment we wanted to give them. We never wanted anyone to feel like they were being singled out. I think that environment took a lot of pressure off of them.
Our team had a slow start on the show, but we knew that with the team we had, with so many team players who help each other prepare and all that, we'd turn it around. We did, and I feel our environment played a big part.
B/R: You've always struck me as a pretty happy-go-lucky sort. But things seem to have gotten chippy with Ortega. Why is that?
Volkanovski: There's definitely a little bit of beef there. You're right, I'm not usually in this position. I'm pretty easy-going and whatnot.
But when you're spending all this time with someone, you see different sides of people. Behind the scenes, he's a completely different person. I believe he puts on a front, and that's what I mean when I say that he's a little fake. He comes across as a very respectful, caring type of guy, but behind the scenes, he's more of a selfish type of guy. And that's what I've got to say. He's not really the way he acts.
It's not a crazy amount of beef, but I think there is some bad blood there. And I want to put an end to it.
B/R: You've got a very pressure-oriented style, always moving forward and getting inside to land shots or get a takedown. Ortega has recently moved away from a brawling style and does an excellent job of controlling range. How will you use your style to counteract Ortega's approach?
Volkanovski: Until recently, Ortega barely knew what range was. He'd just walk forward and eat the shots. He could finish and he had a good chin, but he never used range. And even then, his opponents would stand flat-footed in front of him and let him do whatever he wanted.
So, I can fight my fight. Obviously there's a game plan, but I should be able to do my thing. You're gonna see him crumble, 100 percent. You're gonna see him get pretty uncomfortable in there pretty quickly.
B/R: If someone wanted to get a sense of your career and how you fight, what's the fight you'd tell them to watch?
Volkanovski: I'd say the Chad Mendes (18-5) fight is definitely one of them. Mendes was a very explosive sort of athlete: short and stocky but a very high-level wrestler. Chad was one of the few people who could really put a lot of pressure on me. That's one I think the casual blokes would like.
B/R: Who were the fighters you admired as you were coming up?
Volkanovski: Chuck Liddell (21-8). Easy. I was a massive Chuck Liddell fan, and he was definitely one of my idols when I was young.
B/R: Why's that?
Volkanovski: When I first started really getting into the UFC, he was the champ. I don't know, he just seemed like a chill dude. He never had too much to say, but he was knocking everybody out. I loved the fights he had with Tito Ortiz (19-12-1) during that huge rivalry they had. Ortiz did all the trash talk, but Liddell let the hands do the talking.
B/R: How does Alex Volkanovski like to celebrate a win?
Volkanovski: Well, I can't go home straight away anyway [because of COVID-19 restrictions], so we'll definitely be celebrating in Vegas with a few drinks. It's the good, old Aussie way (laughs). It will be fun to have a little bit of a party before I get locked up in the hotel quarantine.