Ilia Topuria Flattens Alexander Volkanovski to Win Featherweight Belt at UFC 298

UFC
February 18, 2024
Just like that, one of MMA’s greatest title reigns ends and a new era begins.

In the main event of UFC 298 on Saturday in Anaheim, Calif., Ilia Topuria (15-0, 7-0 UFC) navigated a round and half of nail-biting tension against Alexander Volkanovski (26-4) before shutting the lights out with a crushing right hand. The matchup of the undefeated 27-year-old phenom against one of the most dominant champions in the sport delivered on expectations, as Topuria got out to a fast start, stinging Volkanovski with heavy leg kicks and fast boxing combinations. “The Great” remained calm, made adjustments and seemed to have snatched back the momentum by the end of the frame.

The second round was just as close as the first, with Volkanovski continuing to chip away at the Spaniard with crisp combinations and good lateral movement. That is, until “El Matador” followed up a pair of glancing hooks with a flush right hand that melted the champ at the base of the fence. A couple of ground strikes followed, but referee Jason Herzog was already moving in for the finish at 3:32. With the sensational win, Topuria became the fifth man to hold the undisputed featherweight title since its inception just over a decade ago. Volkanovski, having suffered the first loss at featherweight in his entire career, nonetheless now sits at 1-3 in his last four, and at age 35, will need to prove that his best days are not already behind him.

Before that headliner, former champ Robert Whittaker (25-7, 16-5 UFC) reaffirmed his place near the top of the middleweight hierarchy by getting the best of a back-and-forth war with Paulo Costa (14-3, 7-3 UFC). “Borrachinha” likely stole the first round with a spinning heel kick that staggered Whittaker badly in the last 15 seconds, but before then, it had been a firefight, with Whittaker’s low kicks and jab doing good work against some lightning-fast high kicks and lefts from Costa. While “Bobby Knuckles” may have been saved by the bell in Round 1, he came out for the second frame no worse for wear and appeared to pull ahead gradually as Costa’s output slowed. With the fight in the balance, both men came out hot in the final frame. Whittaker’s trademark dipping jab and one-two found the mark over and over, while Costa elected to fight fire with fire, answering Whittaker’s steady stream of low kicks with some whipping kicks of his own. Neither man gave any quarter and Costa’s attempt at another spin-kick killshot with 90 seconds left missed by just a hair. The middleweight contenders continued swinging right up until the final horn, whereupon both raised their arms and walked off, to the cheers of a crowd mostly on its feet. The judges scored the fight for the Whittaker by unanimous decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28), getting him back on track after his loss last summer to now-champ Dricus Du Plessis. Costa, who fought on Saturday for the first time since his rousing win over Luke Rockhold a year and a half ago, has now lost three of four, but it must be said, looked very sharp in defeat.

In the feature fight of UFC 298, Ian Garry (14-0, 7-0 UFC) survived and advanced, frustrating Geoff Neal (15-6, 7-4 UFC) across three close rounds. In a fight contested entirely on the feet, Garry’s distance management made the difference, as he kept the Texan at bay with oblique kicks to the lead leg, then met him with intercepting knees when he tried to enter the pocket. The first two rounds were very even, with Neal’s fast and accurate left hand finding its mark as often as not. “Handz of Steel” struggled to capitalize on those moments, however, as the two welterweights ended up clinching off of most of Neal’s best connects. The third was more of a clear-cut Garry round, as he stayed on his bike, denying Neal any chance to land a fight-changing punch while still peppering him with enough shots to win the frame. After 15 minutes, the cageside judges were split, with two of them seeing the fight 30-27 for the Irishman against one 29-28 scorecard for Neal. With the win, Garry’s seventh straight since joining the promotion as a former Cage Warriors welterweight champ, he may have crossed the line from prospect to contender, and at 26, he is already drawing the mixture of fan love and heel heat that can headline future cards. Neal has now dropped two in a row and four of his last six, and while he remains a tough test for anyone, he faces a hard road back to contendership in a cutthroat division.

Merab Dvalishvili (17-4, 10-2 UFC) continued his inexorable, seemingly endless climb towards the summit of the bantamweight mountain, taking a well-deserved win over former two-division champ Henry Cejudo (16-4). While Dvalishvili’s nine-fight win streak had seen him overwhelm virtually all of his foes while barely breaking a sweat, Saturday’s assignment proved to be a serious test. Cejudo’s strengths were on full display in Round 1, as he stumbled Dvalishvili with a hard short left hand, then took him down and threatened to take dominant positions throughout the second half of the round. On the feet as well as on the ground, it was more adversity than Dvalishvili had faced in years, but he came back strong in Round 2, taking down the 2008 Olympic gold medalist wrestler multiple times, including a nice mat return. Cejudo never stopped seeking takedowns of his own, but his efforts slowed to the point that late in the round, “The Machine” sprawled and snared him in a guillotine choke that looked tight. The horn sounded before the attempt could work itself to a definitive conclusion, but the former champ was visibly tired as he returned to his corner.

The final round turned into something closer to the typical Dvalishvili fight, as his relentless pace began to wear on Cejudo, leading to an extended sequence of Dvalishvili kneeing Cejudo from behind as “The Messenger” held the fence to avoid being taken down. Making things worse for Cejudo, his left forearm began to swell to Popeye-like proportions, most likely from a blocked kick in Round 2. The takedown came a moment later, as Dvalishvili hoisted Cejudo over his shoulder, carried him across the cage and tossed him to the canvas before diving into his guard. Cejudo, despite fatigue, frustration and a visibly swelling left arm, never stopped trying to win the fight, swinging hard right up to the final horn. In the end it was not enough, and Dvalishvili prevailed by unanimous 29-28 scorecards. For the Georgian by way of Long Island, it was his 10th victory in a row, placing him easily in the lead for the longest such streak in the UFC without a title shot. The 37-year-old Cejudo, who is now 0-2 since returning from self-imposed exile last year, vowed to retire in case of a loss, but remains capable of holding his own against the best bantamweights in the UFC.

The main card opener saw Anthony Hernandez (12-2, 6-2 UFC) throttle Roman Kopylov (12-3, 4-3 UFC) in a fun middleweight clash of styles. The opening round was a battle of will as much as skill, as Kopylov worked to employ his fearsome arsenal of kicks while Hernandez crowded him, forced clinch exchanges and tried to bring the fight to the ground. The second round offered more of the same, but a single miscue by Kopylov was all it took for “Fluffy” to take over the fight. Hernandez took Kopylov to the ground, swiftly took his back and applied a rear-naked choke. The Russian made things interesting, fighting valiantly through a tense sequence on the ground and briefly escaping the hold, but Hernandez immediately attacked the neck again and this time there was no way out. Kopylov tapped within seconds, prompting Jason Herzog to step in for the submission finish at 3:23 of Round 2. With both men having brought identical four-fight win streaks into the Octagon, Hernandez’s momentum has never been greater, while Kopylov’s upward trajectory will have to survive his first loss in almost two and a half years.

Reference: https://www.sherdog.com/news/news/Ilia-Topuria-Flattens-Alexander-Volkanovski-to-Win-Featherweight-Belt-at-UFC-298-192647

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