Alexander Volkov was stacked with the unenviable task of fighting 7-foot giant Stefan Struve before a partisan crowd in Struve’s native Holland, practically as an afterthought given that he was doing so one week after the fight world blew its wad with McGregor-Mayweather. Things didn’t look good early. He took a violent knee to the face in the first round, which opened up a bloody fissure where football players wear eye black. He had one eye poked in the second round, which caused the doctor to come in and shine a light. Then he had the other poked moments later, giving him the unfortunate parlay. Luckily his ears worked well enough to hear referee Marc Goddard issue a warning to Struve, advising him to watch his fingers.
In the third round, Volkov won the fight.
He hit Struve with a hard left then a right uppercut, and then unleashed everything he had. Struve — the only man to finish champion Stipe Miocic — crumpled on the fence, and just like that the UFC had some vital new blood in the heavyweight division. The 6-foot-7 Volkov has now won his first three fights in the UFC, including a rugged decision over Roy Nelson. He has won five in a row overall, going back to his days fighting in M-1 Global. There are whispers about him stepping in against Francis Ngannou next, which would be an appropriate escalation — he’d go from fighting an uphill battle, to being fed to one of the UFC’s fiercest intrigues.
Now this is how it should work.
It wasn’t all that long ago that the UFC’s heavyweight division boiled down to a handful of names — Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez (who played hot potato with the belt), along with Alistair Overeem, Brock Lesnar and a couple of strays. Fabricio Werdum just kept chugging along and eventually won the belt, only to cough it up to Miocic. These days, with Derrick Lewis on the prowl (he fights Werdum at UFC 216 in October) and Mark Hunt still acting as the division’s Enola Gay, you can mix and match many of these names, and you’ve got something. With that win over Struve, Volkov now joins that group, too.
The heavyweight division has been revamped from the days of the Strikeforce merger, when veterans like Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva and Andrei Arlovski came over. Some of the old school names that have been around forever are being weeded out and/or jumping ship. Frank Mir is Bellator bound, and will debut at some point in 2018. Nelson is now with Bellator, too. And Travis Browne, who was the new blood not so long ago, is now lost to marital bliss (though he still occupies a roster spot).
For the first time in forever, the broader-bodied division has an influx of new names — guys like Marcin Tybura, who has won three straight, and Aleksei Oleinik, who this past July choked out Browne to make it four of five in the UFC. Junior Albini doesn’t look like much, but did you see what he did to Tim Johnson? He was able to buy his daughter her very first toys after that knockout. Struve isn’t even 30 yet, so he’ll be around for a great while longer. And you’ve got cats like Curtis Blaydes who can make the ground quake if he stomps a foot.
By 2018, if Jon Jones isn’t socked with a long suspension after testing hot for a banned substance at UFC 214, he could join that mix, too. Same with Daniel Cormier, who right now insists he won’t. And Lesnar, though these are all just fun hypotheticals.
Even as is, the heavyweight division is actually kind of stacked right now, and it’s on the verge of getting deeper — not just with stalwart names thudding through their twilights, but with new fighters like Russia’s 28-year old Volkov, who hasn’t lost a bout since Cheick Kongo sucked the air out of the room when they crossed paths in Mulvane in 2015.
Volkov had a quietly good showing in Rotterdam on Saturday. He had to weather the storm early against a man more than four inches taller than him, who can use a jab like a joust and put him out quick. He had to block out the crowd rooting for the hometown guy. And he got hit plenty, too. His face afterwards was a wreck. Volkov was dabbing the gash on his cheek daintily during the post-fight press conference as he explained how he “methodically destroyed” Struve, whom he said didn’t fight as clean as he should have. Still, he won the fight. He has a cool demeanor, and an optimistic smile.
And the blood trickling down his cheek was new blood, the kind we haven’t seen a lot of in the UFC’s heavyweight division of late.