Alexander Volkanovski might be the next truly great mixed martial arts champion.
Volkanovski, the reigning UFC featherweight champion, picked up arguably the most impressive victory of his career on Saturday night, defending his strap with a decisive unanimous decision against Brian Ortega in the main event of UFC 266.
The 32-year-old Australian was the picture of dominance for the vast majority of the fight, deftly navigating a significant reach disadvantage to force feed Ortega a steady diet of crisp boxing combinations and chopping low kicks. It bears noting that he was very nearly submitted by an Ortega guillotine in the third-round, but outside of that scare, he looked like a champion who's here to stay—a champion who might just assert himself as a generational talent not unlike Jose Aldo and Max Holloway before him.
Even before UFC 266, Volkanovski was showing the signs of a fighter capable of reaching those lofty heights. He stepped into the Octagon on Saturday with 19 consecutive wins in the rearview mirror—a streak he extended to a ridiculous 20 by beating Ortega. That streak, which clocks in among the best in MMA at present, wasn't built against low-level opposition either.
Even before he made it to the bright lights of the UFC, Volkanovski was beating battle-tested fighters like RIZIN lightweight star Yusuke Yachi and current UFC lightweight talent Jamie Mullarkey in Australia and the wider South Pacific. In fact, in the 14 fights that preceded his move to the UFC, the Australian went 13-1 against opponents with a combined record of 116-50 (per Tapology). For context, the first 14 men the great Khabib Nurmagomedov fought had a combined record of 23-26. Those numbers may not be exactly accurate—record-keeping is not easy in MMA—but one way or the other, Volkanovski had an undeniably challenging rise.
Things didn't get any easier when he arrived in the UFC.
After a trio of wins over Yusuke Kasuya, Mizuti Hirota and Shane Young, he was effectively thrown to the wolves, as he was matched up with a procession of surging prospects, gritty veterans and world-class contenders. The most notable accomplishments on his record during that stretch include a pair of impressive knockouts over Jeremy Kennedy and Chad Mendes, a decision win over Jose Aldo, and a pair of decision triumphs over Holloway—the first of which kickstarted the Australian's reign as the UFC featherweight champion.
Volkanovski has shown new layers of his game in every one of those fights, gradually revealing a skillset with few visible deficits or weaknesses. His fight with Ortega was no exception to that rule.
This time around, the champ proved that, in addition to the laundry list of strengths we already knew he had—the wrestling, the striking, the power, the cardio—he also has plenty of heart and some truly impressive submission defense.
"It was deep," Volkanovski said at the UFC 266 post-fight press conference, looking back on his daring third-round guillotine escape. "It was 'f--k, I'm about to lose the belt' deep. That was as deep as it can get. No s--t. I remember I was making f--king weird noises."
Ortega, for his part, certainly seemed impressed by the champion's defensive capabilities.
"I thought he was done," Ortega said post-fight. "I was trying to go for his head, but he's tough as hell. I tried to finish him. I heard him gargling, but he slipped out. He's the champ for a reason."
Volkanovski has never been a particularly popular champion. For all his skill, he's seemingly struggled to catch on with fans. Perhaps that's because he's generally been pretty soft-spoken when there's a microphone in front of him. Perhaps it's because his title-winning victory and first successful defense were both hotly debated decisions against the ultra-popular Holloway. It's hard to say, but after his comprehensive and gutsy victory over Ortega, fans seem to be coming around—and not just in terms of his personality.
Not only did the fans seem to enjoy the more outspoken version of the Australian we got leading up to UFC 266, but they seem to be recognizing that he's not just passing through. If the post-fight Twitter talk was any indication, much of the talk at the water cooler come Monday will surround Volkanovski's place among the sport's best fighters—juggernauts like Jon Jones and dominating champions like Kamaru Usman.
Volkanovski has the opportunity to further cement his reputation among fans over the course of his next few Octagon appearances. At the UFC 266 post-fight press conference, he suggested that his next fight could be a trilogy against Holloway, or, if Holloway loses to Yair Rodriguez in November, a bold treasure hunt in the lightweight division.
"I'm expecting Max to go out there and do his thing, and we're gonna be running that trilogy," Volkanovski said. "That's gonna be a huge f--king fight."
"That's not until November, and I want to fight," he added. "So, do I move up, fight at lightweight, maybe fight the champion? Give me something, because I had 14 months off because of this whole [lockdown]."
Success on either of those potential missions would further cement Volkanovski as a truly special talent. Even his most dedicated haters would probably start to come around. One way or the other, however, the increasingly dominant Australian champion seems ready and willing to keep silencing his naysayers, one lopsided win at a time.
"All them doubters—I'm gonna keep proving you wrong time and time again," he said.