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From rugby’s Warilla Gorillas to UFC fighter, Alexander Volkanovski finding success in his second chapter

Alexander Volkanovski Getty Images

As a fighter, Alexander Volkanovski is in his second incarnation. In his first, he donned short shorts and striped socks and acted like a bowling ball towards clusters of humanity. For a decade, he was a rugby player in Lake Illawarra on the South Coast of Australia. He stood 5-foot-5 and was built like the kind of fixture that can only be moved with a dolly.

These days he goes through men one at a time, which on Saturday (in the U.S.) he’ll try to do again against Mizuto Hirota at UFC Fight Night 110 in Auckland. But back then his goal was to run through people.

“I played rugby league, I probably played for about 10 years I think, and I wrestled before then,” Volkanovski says. “I did about a year of wrestling, and I think I got a bit tired of the tights, so I started to play football with the mates. I used to be a front rower, the big guys up front. I used to be 97 kilograms, which is like 210 pounds, or something like that (213 to be exact).

“If you can imagine, I was just a bull — a little stocky bull. I used to be the guy they would pass the ball and just run straight.”

Courtesy of Alex Volkanovski

It is a little hard to imagine. Volkanovski fights as a featherweight in the UFC. Going from a shade over 210 pounds to 145 pounds is one hell of a trick. Yet since deciding to take off the cleats a few years ago, he has incrementally whittled himself down into something more befitting of his “5-foot-6 on a generous day” frame.

“I fought from middleweight down,” he says. “My first four fights in amateur at middleweight, and the first four professional were at welterweight. And I just kind of went down from there. Now obviously I’m very comfortable at 145, and it works perfect.”

As a rugby player, Volkanovski played for the local club, the Warilla Gorillas, at a grade below the pinnacle level of the sport. He was a mainstay of that club and helped it to win the grand final in his last season there. It was a rough and tumble sport confined to 80 minutes of toil, yet it was a team sport that followed the ebb and flow of a collective.

Having wrestled for a year in his youth, Volkanovski paid close attention to fighting throughout his days on the rugby field. He had a couple of amateur fights that went his way, and the itch to compete began to fester in him in different ways.

“I’ve always loved UFC,” he says. “I watched it back since the days it wasn’t big in Australia at all, and you had to watch a Blockbuster videos. They would always come like a year late, but I tried as many of the live ones I could or wait for the videos to come out. So, I’ve loved the sport for that long. I’ve always been into martial arts.

“So finally I said, you know what, I’m going to take this on and take it all the way. And it happened.”

His friends all over greater Shellharbour wondered about his decision at first.

“A lot of people thought I was mad when I told them I was going to change to MMA,” he says. “My last year of football, we won the grand final, I was the player’s player [winning the Mick Cronin Medal], and I ended on a really good year.”

Then he segued into fighting full-time. He has been at it for only six years in total, and only four professionally. In that time, Volkanovski, now 28, has gone 14-1, with most of his bouts having taken place in Australia. He has physically morphed from a human wrecking into a svelte featherweight. A pressure fighter who likes to dictate the space and throw hands, he made his UFC debut against Yusake Kasuya at UFC Fight Night 101 in November. He performed well in front of his countrymen, scoring a second-round TKO (punches) on the main card.

What he realized early on is that the ability to control wins and losses in a dictation of wills is far more gratifying than earning wins in a team sport. He says he loved being wholly accountable for his every move.

“There are no excuses in fighting,” he says. “You can be playing a team sport and have a good game, and you can lose. In fighting, it’s all on me. If I go out there and lose, then it’s my fault. I like that. So I know if I fight well, I’m going to win. I definitely love the fact that it’s all on you, and you do what you have to do to win.

“And each fight is like a grand final in the rugby league.”

In his follow-up fight, he’ll face the 36-year-old Hirota, who is doing his second stint in the UFC. Hirota is coming off of a unanimous decision victory over Cole Miller at UFC on FOX in December, and has a lot of familiar traits as Alexander “The Great.”

“It’s a similar sort of style to me, he likes to pressure and really use his MMA game — the jiu-jitsu, he likes to clinch, and he likes to throw punches rather than go for submissions,” he says. “I can relate.”

Listening to Volkanovski talk, it’s easy to tell his time in the UFC is no cameo bent from a former rugby player. He has seen fellow Australians like Robert Whittaker climb his way to an interim title fight in the middleweight division, and help refuel MMA fanaticism in Australia. He has a fan base of his own, that he expects to turn out in New Zealand as well.

As a professional rugby player, Volkanovski reached the penultimate station in the professional ranks. He was a step short. As a UFC fighter, he wants to do himself one better.

“I want to get to the top,” he says. “That’s what I’ve always said even before I made the UFC, it’s the one thing I’ve always said and I always will say. I wasn’t just happy making the UFC, I want to hit them top ranks. I want to go and get that title.

“I’m only 28. I started reasonably late, as I’ve only been doing it professionally for a few years. I’ve only been full time for a few years. So I’ve got so much room for improvement, and I’m expecting big things. The UFC has got me on two main cards in a row, my debut and now this. I believe they are expecting big things, and that’s exactly what’s going to happen. I’ll go out there and show the world why we’re expecting big things.”

Courtesy of Alex Volkanovski

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