The reigning UFC featherweight champion seeks his fifth defense of the belt on Saturday when he takes on interim champ Yair Rodriguez in a much-anticipated title unification bout. Rodriguez captured the interim strap with an eye-opening second-round stoppage of Josh Emmett this past February. It was just one of many dynamic and destructive finishes the Mexican talent has authored since becoming the inaugural winner of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America in 2014, and Volkanovski isn’t taking the challenge lightly.
“He’s got that danger element,” Volkanovski said Wednesday on The MMA Hour. “But people just quickly forget about that fight IQ, about my resilience and my durability. I’m just very well-rounded. I’ve got all the tools and I’ve got all the right tools to be where I am right now. There’s a reason why I say it every time for my fights — I don’t think I’m athletically gifted or anything like that, it’s all the other stuff that make me the champion I am, and make me who I am. And that’s why you can never really count me out. That’s why I believe the way I lose to anyone in my division is that someone landing a lucky punch, catching me.
“Saying ‘lucky punch’ is probably pretty disrespectful, but someone that catches me. I don’t see anyone actually beating me. But then you’re talking about opponents that have more of a chance of doing that, it probably is Yair Rodriguez, when you look at him having that danger factor. Can I go out there and make this look easy? Yeah, I can. I can go out there and make this look easy. But does that mean he’s not dangerous? No, he’s very dangerous. But I’m well prepared and I’m ready to go out there and show why I’m the man.”
Volkanovski, 34, may have fallen short in his attempt to become a two-division UFC champion this past February when his 22-fight win streak was snapped at the hands of Islam Makhachev at UFC 284, however the native Australian is still perfect as a UFC featherweight, racking up at 10-0 record in the octagon at 145 pounds. Volkanovski’s title reign includes a trio of victories over former champ Max Holloway, plus dominant wins over Brian Ortega and “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung.
His path differs greatly from Rodriguez’s. After joining the UFC early in his 20s, “El Pantera” had to overcome a few hard lessons and bad losses on his road to title contention, however Rodriguez’s victory over Emmett showcased a new level of growth and maturity in his skill set.
“He’s always been very good with these spin kicks and flashy stuff at a longer range. He’s always been good there, but then now he’s just so good at all ranges,” Volkanovski said.
“Even when you’re close, you don’t know whether he’s exiting, whether he’s throwing spinning elbows, flying knees, teep kicks, whatever it is. So he’s very good at all ranges. I think earlier on in his career, he was probably much better at one range. But now you’re seeing him a lot better at all ranges, and even his ground game — obviously he’s the type of guy that always goes for the finish, even on the feet and then on the ground. But again, he’s just sort of molded everything together to make that perfect style for himself.”
Volkanovski added that he doesn’t take offense when fans and media refer to Mexico as claiming three champions currently in the UFC, even if Rodriguez’s belt may not be as official as those won by flyweight titleholders Brandon Moreno and Alexa Grasso.
“He’s an interim champion, so yeah, let him have it, it’s alright,” Volkanovski said. “Let him enjoy it while it lasts. You know me, I’m not going to throw any disrespect, but everyone knows I’m the real champ and I don’t need to care about anything else.”
As for what’s next, Volkanovski remains determined to secure a rematch against Makhachev and hopes to slot into that fight on the Oct. 21 pay-per-view in Abu Dhabi at UFC 294.
But that doesn’t mean he’s done with 145 pounds. After UFC 290, Volkanovski also has his eyes on fast-rising Spanish contender Ilia Topuria, whose UFC record moved to 6-0 in June with a one-sided victory over Emmett at UFC Jacksonville.
“Fresh blood would be incredible, right? Give me some of that fresh blood,” Volkanovski said of Topuria. “I’d just say, without disrespecting the bloke, I don’t want him to face anyone else, especially like Yair. Say if I was to take out Yair this weekend, he faces Yair [after that] — I don’t want that to happen. I look at Yair as a much bigger threat and way more dangerous fight, to be quite honest. Just being brutally honest with him.
“But a lot of people are hyping Ilia up, so no worries, all good, because I know he’ll talk a little bit of trash as well, so that’ll make it fun. And I know I’d give him a good whooping. But I’ve got Yair to worry about, and yeah, we’ll do that and then we’ll see what’s next. Again, I’ve got Yair worry about, but after that, what is it? Is it going to be Islam? Is it going to be Ilia? I want to fight, I want to be active. Depends on how long a certain fighter is going to be, I’ll squeeze one in before that, because I ain’t lying when I say I want to be active.”