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Alexander Volkov the latest to signal a changing of the guard at heavyweight

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MMA: UFC Fight Night-Werdum vs Volkov Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into his fight with Fabricio Werdum on Saturday, the 29-year-old Russian Alexander Volkov had been to every corner of hell. He’d stood in against human drudge-and-doom hammers like Cheick Kongo and Roy Nelson, losing the former (and winning the latter) by existential decision. He toured the U.S. like a two-bit comedian, visiting the kind of towns that advertise HBO in the hotel rooms. He fought in Mulvane, Kansas, for instance, Thackerville, Oklahoma and Southaven, Mississippi. He won Bellator’s heavyweight title in Hammond, Indiana, before losing it in collegiate Irvine, California.

For all we knew, he was just another Midwesterner named Drago.

And even with a nice record and a modest winning streak, not too many people considered Volkov a real threat to the UFC’s top half in the first quarter of 2018. It took a knockout of the 6-foot-11 Stefan Struve just to land him in a headlining gig out in cosmopolitan London against one of the heavyweight division’s perennial mainstays, but he finally arrived against Werdum. He made the most of his Fight Pass exclusive, scoring a fourth-round TKO over the former UFC champion, becoming only the third fighter to ever finish the old “Vai Cavalo.” He now shares company with Junior dos Santos and current champion Stipe Miocic with the feat.

It wasn’t pretty, either, but it was eye opening. Werdum got Volkov to the ground early in the opening round, which portended bad things, even if Werdum appeared to be toying with his prey. Yet Volkov didn’t panic, nor cave; he merely bided his time. The 40-year-old Werdum began to wear the trauma on his face in the second round, though he did enough to give himself a 2-0 advantage on the scorecards. Volkov landed a hard uppercut in the third that opened a gash under Werdum’s right eye, and he began thwarting Werdum’s takedown attempts. The tide turned. By the fourth, Werdum ran out of tricks. For the first time in a long, long while, he looked his age.

Volkov happily went to the ground with the diminished version of Werdum, only this time it was to deliver the knockout blows. A couple of heavy shots on the canvas made Werdum go stiff, and jarred from him any delusions of a sundown title run. In the process, Volkov became the latest heavyweight to break through in a division that has been, for years, governed by dinosaurs.

It was all very symbolic.

Suddenly Volkov — now 4-0 in the UFC, and 30-6 overall — found himself talking about title shots. He didn’t sound exactly like Ivan Drago, the hammer and sickle Russian who killed Apollo Creed in what was supposed to be an exhibition bout in the 1980s, but he bore a modest semblance.

“This is the best feeling,” he said. “Fabricio is a big name in the sport so this means that now, I am a huge name, too. Now, I am looking for a title shot for sure, so maybe it will happen very soon. I want a title shot in Russia, though. That is what I really want.

“I would be so excited to fight for the belt in Russia. I want to bring the UFC to my country for the first time. If I can bring the UFC to Russia, I will be a fighter who has made history. I am so happy to be a part of the group of Russian fighters now fighting in the UFC.”

You know what? Volkov’s breakthrough is part of a movement. He joins his comrades Curtis Blaydes, Francis Ngannou, Derrick Lewis and Tai Tuivasa in a hostile takeover of the heavyweight ranks. The longtime stalwarts of the division — Werdum, dos Santos, Cain Velasquez, Mark Hunt, Andrei Arlovski, Alistair Overeem — are now targets, catapults and springboards to the new set. They are gauges, measuring sticks and litmus tests. Baton-clutchers. Overlords that need to be replaced. Ham-fisted cannibals waiting to be cannibalized. Candidates for the glue factory.

Icons ripe for replacement.

The division for so long has existed has been a carousel of familiar names laying waste to each other. It’s been exceedingly difficult to generate new contenders. Yet Volkov became the latest to break through the barrier by taking out Werdum. Before him Ngannou took out Arlovski and Overeem. Blaydes took out Hunt. Tuivasa took his lager from a warm shoe, and is now booked to face the re-revitalized Arlovski at UFC 225 in June. It’s no longer JDS versus Velasquez versus Bigfoot Silva quadrilogies, but Lewis versus Ngannou (maybe), and Volkov versus…perhaps Miocic or Daniel Cormier?

They will fight for the heavyweight title in July.

And for once, the contenders waiting to see what happens don’t have biographical roots back to Pride. Some of them, like Volkov, came out of Russia by way of Mulvane. It was an impressive thing for Volkov to overthrow Werdum in a big spot. It signaled a further changing of the guard at heavyweight.