In retrospect, Corey Nelson’s fight with future UFC champion Alexander Volkanovski is a David and Goliath story of sorts, only in this case, it’s the lesser known Nelson who is Goliath.
And Goliath won.
A mainstay on the Australian MMA scene, Nelson was the more proven commodity when he faced off with Volkanovski at an Australian FC event in Melbourne on May 10, 2013. Back then, Volkanovki was just getting his feet wet as a fighter, bringing a 3-0 record into his bout opposite Nelson (12-4 at the time). Still there was enough respect for Nelson and buzz around Volkanovski to net the two a co-main event spot.
By the way, this bout took place at 170 pounds, two weight classes above the division in which Volkanovski captured UFC gold six years later.
The fight came to an end 13 seconds into round three, with Nelson landing a flurry of strikes on Volkanovski before putting him down for good with a stiff uppercut (watch the finish here). It was the last time that Volkanovski failed to get his hand raised.
Despite the card having several names that have become synonymous with Australian and New Zealand MMA, including Dan Hooker, who headlined, and Volkanovski, as well as other notables like Jake Matthews, Dan Kelly, Luke Jumeau, and Vik Grujic, Nelson recalls the event still being relatively overlooked in his country even as it was a banner show for the hardcores.
“To be honest, the mainstream wasn’t hitting and it still really isn’t in Australia, except for the guys like Robert Whittaker and Alex that have really put Australia MMA on the map,” Nelson told MMA Fighting. “The mainstream still isn’t as big as it should be for them, and I feel sorry for them guys. Maybe they got to do something bad to get their heads in them papers and stuff.
“But locally, everybody that was in the MMA community, it was huge. It was huge. Especially when I was fighting and Dan Hooker and at the time Rob was really making waves in the UFC, there was a lot of buzz around it.”
Nelson wasn’t sure what to make of the unbeaten Volkanovski, a fellow former rugby league player who had made the transition from one rough-and-tumble world to another. By this point in his career, Nelson had experience facing some of Australia’s best prospects. He’d lost to Whittaker as well as future UFC and Cage Warriors fighter Ben Alloway, but also established himself as a scrapper with a penchant for stand-up battles that opponents were wary to sign up for.
He admits that he felt confident matching up with the considerably shorter Volkanovski when initially sizing him up.
“I looked at him and he was still coming up, and I hadn’t heard much of him at all,” Nelson said. “I knew he was fighting at middleweight and he was beating some guys. I just thought, ‘Short guy, he’s not gonna have much of a chance.’
“But the thing about looking about people like that is you can’t see how big their heart is. He had a massive heart and the drive and the will to win, and it showed in the fight too. It wasn’t until the third round, that’s when I got him out of the fight.”
Today, Volkanovski is recognized as one of the most well-rounded fighters in the sport. Now sporting a sterling 21-1 record, “The Great” seeks a second win over Max Holloway this Saturday at UFC 251 after soundly outpointing Holloway in their first meeting.
When he faced Nelson, not only was Volkanovski undersized, he had holes in his game that Nelson could exploit.
“The first couple of rounds were back-and-forth, he was giving as good as he was getting,” Nelson said. “But just the wrestling exchanges, I was a lot bigger and I had more leverage to win them little moments in the fight when he was trying to get me down, I’d be able to switch and turn and really get on top of him and wear him down and break him towards the end of the fight.”
Unsurprisingly, the two fights that Nelson is asked about most frequently are his win over Volkanovski and his loss to Whittaker. Nelson, 32, has shared cage time or been on the same card as almost every noteworthy fighter to come out of the Oceanic region over the past 11 years, and he gets excited when he sees them being elevated on a bigger stage.
“Major” has had his own brushes with the UFC and Bellator from 2011-2013, but an ongoing legal situation made it difficult for him to make any deals especially outside of Australia. According to Nelson he and a friend were involved in a street fight “coming home from the pub,” an incident for which he takes full responsibility.
“After I fought Rob, that’s when The Ultimate Fighter came to Australia,” Nelson said. “We both got picked for the house, but because I was going through the courts—I got into a fight on the streets—that stopped me from getting into the house. So I had two opportunities to fight in The Ultimate Fighter, Australia vs. England and Australia vs. Canada [seasons], and both times that [case] was still pending, so I couldn’t leave, I couldn’t do anything with that.
“I actually had a contract for the Bellator ‘Ultimate Fighter thing’ (Fight Master) as well in L.A., and they paid for the airfare, they said get over here and pass the medicals and stuff and you’ll be straight in. But that fell through too because the thing was pending. My own stupidity.”
Nelson is still an active competitor and headlined his most recent appearance for Australia’s Superfight MMA. He hasn’t fought since March 2019, focusing on his job as a crane operator so he can buy a house. But he hasn’t give up on getting that UFC call.
After all, he’s seen how far his peers can go, and for now, he can lay claim to being the only fighter to defeat Volkanovski. The two have trained together in the past (Nelson joked that he was out of shape when he rolled with Volkanovski and ‘he out-wrestled me, the bastard.’) and just based on the time they spent in the ring, Nelson sensed that Volkanovski had the potential for greatness.
“You could tell he was going to continue on to do good things just because of his heart,” Nelson said. “And fighting someone like myself early in his career two weight divisions up, you could definitely see he had a big heart and the drive to get better and train well. We actually crossed paths after the fight in the elevator and you can tell when someone’s a nice guy—15 minutes of punching each other in the face and you can find out of he’s a nice guy or not, it’s funny how that works—but we crossed paths and we stopped and we was chatting for a little bit, and I actually mentioned to him that he should drop down a weight division to lightweight. He had already talked to his coach about going to featherweight and I was like, ‘Even better. For your size and your height, it will be perfect for you.’
“We’ve seen what he’s gone on to and he’s absolutely killed after that fight. I have a little claim to fame that I helped him get to where he is, because you learn more from your losses than your wins and he definitely learned a lot from there, hasn’t lost since.”
Nelson describes Volkanovski as a “pitbull,” and praised him for the improvements he’s made over the past seven years. He was most impressed by how Volkanovski set the pace against Holloway and matched “Blessed” in the cardio department.
Asked if he could share the secret to beating Volkanovski—given that technically he’s the only fighter qualified to offer that advice—Nelson laid out an open invitation for Holloway to pick his brain.
“Come to Australia and I’ll train him,” Nelson said, with a laugh. “I love Max as a fighter, seeing his style and everything else, I love it. But Alex is Australian, and I love Australians even more.”