Fight Preview: UFC 298 ‘Volkanovski vs. Topuria’

UFC
February 16, 2024
The main event sees Alexander Volkanovski draw what might be the toughest test of his featherweight title reign, as rising contender Ilia Topuria has looked flawless during his charge up the ranks.

After a middling start to 2024, the UFC returns with what feels like the first major card of the year, as UFC 298's main card is an excellent five-fight slate. The main event sees Alexander Volkanovski draw what might be the toughest test of his featherweight title reign, as rising contender Ilia Topuria has looked flawless during his charge up the ranks. A middleweight co-main sees Robert Whittaker and Paulo Costa each look to re-establish themselves as title contenders; just past that is welterweight uber-prospect Ian Garry potentially affirming his championship-level upside once again opposite Geoff Neal. A bantamweight fight between Merab Dvalishvili and Henry Cejudo might be the best-matched fight on the card, on top of potentially determining the division's next title challenger; rounding things out is a classic wrestler-versus-striker matchup between surging middleweights Anthony Hernandez and Roman Kopylov, which should be a good time.

UFC Featherweight Championship

Alexander Volkanovski (26-3) vs. Ilia Topuria (14-0)

Odds: Volkanovski (-118), Topuria (-102)

This fight comes at a fascinating point in Volkanovski's career; coming off a disappointing showing in a late-notice spot against lightweight champion Islam Makhachev, Volkanovski suddenly finds himself facing the narrative that he might be getting too old in a young man's game. But Volkanovski's career has done nothing but defy expectations, so why not try to do so once more? Volkanovski came to the UFC in 2016 with a ton of hype out of his native Australia, but it wasn't a guarantee that he'd find success in a major promotion; the Australian scene at the time was quite wrestling-poor, and the recent past was littered with prospects that struggled to make their takedown game work in the transition to the international stage. But Volkanovski was the exception, playing the bully in dominant fashion up until a 2018 fight against Chad Mendes, which at least saw Volkanovski have to stage a comeback in order to find victory. That win marked "The Great" as a contender, but it was his subsequent win over Jose Aldo that established his potential as something truly special; Volkanovski suddenly fought against type and still scored a one-sided victory against one of the best fighters to ever live, neutralizing Aldo with a diverse range striking game that worked to a stunning degree. Volkanovski then wrested the featherweight title from Max Holloway and has since gone on to have a dominant reign; Brian Ortega's lone moment of success - a particularly deep guillotine choke - only served to allow Volkanovski to add to his own legend with a subsequent escape, Chan Sung Jung offered little resistance, and then there was Volkanovski's trilogy with Holloway. Their first two fights were each entertaining Volkanovski wins where both men got their licks in and constantly adapted to the other, but the trilogy fight in 2022 was an astounding statement from Volkanovski, who battered his fellow all-time great from the jump in dominant fashion; there was now no doubt who the better man was, and the only doubt seemingly left was who could challenge Volkanovski. That wound up being Makhachev, as Volkanovski briefly abdicated his duty to the featherweight division to ply his trade up at 155 pounds; their fight a year ago was an all-time classic, with the two essentially fighting to a stalemate that saw Makhachev get the narrow nod. That seemingly set up a rematch at some point down the road, which came faster than anyone would've expected - and, in retrospect, much sooner than it should've. Volkanovski took care of business back at 145 pounds with a title defense against Yair Rodriguez in July, then stepped in on late notice as an injury replacement to take on Makhachev in October; but unfortunately, the second time went much worse than the first, with Makhachev running over Volkanovski in a shade over three minutes. As more and more comes out, between Volkanovski's injuries heading into the fight and the mental issues that seemingly now plague him when he doesn't have a fight booked, taking that Makhachev rematch seems to have been a clear mistake. But if there are any sort of residual issues, now would be a good time for Volkanovski to work those kinks out; challenger Topuria looks like a problem.

Fighting out of Spain and representing Georgia, Topuria has had a shockingly clean rise up the featherweight ranks, to the point that he doesn't come into this fight with a clear weakness. "El Matador" came to the UFC as a late-notice replacement in 2020, at which point he was armed with a simple but effective pressure game; he out-wrestled Youssef Zalal handily in his UFC debut, but his subsequent win over Damon Jackson was the one that really opened some eyes, as he showed off some diverse boxing and impressive bodywork in what turned out to be a quick and brutal shellacking. A pairing against grappling ace Ryan Hall looked like a potential pitfall ahead of time, but Topuria showed off an ability to temper his aggression and once again put away a one-sided victory. From there Topuria suffered the only real adversity of his career; some weight cut issues forced a one-off move up to 155 pounds, which saw Topuria get clipped badly by Jai Herbert, but Topuria once again stormed back for a brutal knockout. He then ran through Bryce Mitchell before a June win over Josh Emmett that saw Topuria put everything together in masterful fashion, dictating range while blasting Emmett with some brutal combinations, then picking up the pace and aggression before salting away the fight with his wrestling late. It was a complete showing that saw Topuria blend things at a championship level, but now the question remains: can he do it against Volkanovski? It's a testament to everything that Topuria has shown that this fight has to be framed in terms of unanswered questions, not clear weaknesses; there are no negatives to be taken from his win over Emmett, just criticisms of Emmett's own limitations. Emmett isn't a range striker, and while Volkanovski has a similarly squat frame, the featherweight champ has shown his own ability to dictate range and read his opponents much like Topuria. And while Emmett is a capable wrestler, he's nowhere near as dogged with it as Volkanovski can be when he needs it; after all, this is a man who hung with Islam Makhachev on the mat just a year ago. The narrative seems to be that this is Topuria's time to unseat a champion just leaving his prime, and that's certainly on the table; Topuria's shown every bit of the ability needed to take the title, it's just a matter of how much benefit of the doubt is afforded to Volkanovski at a time when most mortal featherweights begin to fade. The champion still gets that benefit here; the pick is Volkanovski via decision.

Reference: https://www.sherdog.com/news/articles/1/Preview-UFC-298-Volkanovski-vs-Topuria-192623

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