Alexander Volkanovski raises bar in featherweight division, pound-for-pound rankings with Max Holloway shutout

LAS VEGAS — Alexander Volkanovski didn’t get into MMA as some sort of blue-chip, heavily hyped prospect. After a career as a 214-pound rugby player, Volkanovski turned to mixed martial arts with zero fanfare, worldwide or in Australia, where he’s from.

He lost his fourth pro fight to Corey Nelson, now a crane operator in Sydney, in a welterweight bout.

A little more than nine years since that night, Volkanovski is just about on top of the MMA world. He turned in another brilliant performance Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 276, essentially no-hitting the great Max Holloway.

The rivals met for the third time for the featherweight title Saturday after Volkanovski scored close decision victories at UFC 245 in 2019 and UFC 251 in 2020.

This time, it was no contest almost from the start. Volkanovski, at five inches shorter and with a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, was outboxing Holloway. He said he thinks he broke his left hand in the second, but no one who didn’t hear the talk in the corner would have ever known it.

Holloway has dominated the featherweight division except for Volkanovski. In his last 16 featherweight fights other than those against Volkanovski, Holloway was 16-0 with 10 finishes. He’s clearly lapped the field in the division. But against Volkanovski on Saturday, he looked like little more than a WWE jobber and was beaten in one-sided and decisive fashion.

Featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski pieced up Max Holloway en route to a unanimous decision win. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973 by winning the Belmont Stakes by an astounding 31 lengths. In fighting terms, Volkanovski is at least that far ahead of the featherweight field.

“He answered all the questions from all of the doubters tonight,” UFC president Dana White told Leak Herald Sports. “He took that fight and he looked incredible. It’s time for him to move on and do whatever he wants to do next. Does he want to keep defending that title? Does he want to move up? Whatever he wants to do, the world is open to him. Very impressive what he did tonight.”

It was impressive to say the least.

Volkanovski opened a cavernous cut over Holloway’s left eye and blood was oozing from his eye, his nose and his mouth in the latter part of the fight. One of the greatest and classiest fighters in the sport, Holloway landed little of consequence and couldn’t come up with an attack that was even moderately successful.

Volkanovski is the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter on the UFC’s pound-for-pound list, but after that performance, it’s reasonable to ask if he’s surpassed welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, who sits at No. 1.

Usman has been equally dominant and has reeled off 19 consecutive wins.

But Volkanovski won for the 21st consecutive time on Saturday and won his 12th in a row in the UFC. Nobody has been close to him other than Holloway and it wasn’t a contest Saturday.

In his last six fights, he’s earned three victories over Holloway and one over Jose Aldo, the two men other than himself who were considered in the running for the greatest featherweight in UFC history.

There is no doubt about that now. Volkanovski is the man without question and is moving himself into the conversation as one of the greatest fighters ever. That’s a place occupied by the likes of Jon Jones, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre, but it’s hard to deny Volkanovski’s entrance into that discussion.

“To have three title fight wins over someone like Max rather than some other guy, of course [that means more to me],” Volkanovski said. “He was the No. 1 contender the whole time. He was considered the greatest featherweight of all time. That’s incredible for me. … They’re a lot bigger wins than your average defense.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 02: Alexander Volkanovski of Australia celebrates his unanimous decision win over Max Holloway in their featherweight title bout during UFC 276 at T-Mobile Arena on July 02, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Alexander Volkanovski may have surpassed welterweight champion Kamaru Usman (not pictured) as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

He’s largely been unchallenged in his entire UFC career. The second fight with Holloway was close, but Volkanovski had some issues. USADA drug testers awakened him four hours before he was scheduled to wake up. It threw him off and he was sluggish and not nearly at his best in the fight. He took melatonin tablets to try to get back to sleep but the net result was that it made him feel slow and out of sorts in the cage.

He won the fight, largely by using his wits, and immediately started to call for another fight with Holloway. He had something to prove and on Saturday, prove it he did.

“I was calling for the [third fight] because I wanted to show myself,” Volkanovski said. “I know I didn’t turn up [for the second Holloway fight].”

He ground his way to the top. He believed in himself fully and never doubted, even when critics would. He kindly chastised two reporters at the post-fight news conference who he believed had doubted him in the past.

He made himself into a fighter and has just kept improving day after day. He fights often — Saturday was his third fight in nine months — and few, if any are better on a consistent basis.

It was enough to amaze his new teammate, middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, who blew out Jared Cannonier in the main event in what he called the worst performance of his career.

“F***ing inspiring,” Adesanya said of Volkanovski’s win. “I had a 5-nil shutout, too, but his was way cooler and more impressive. … When he came to CKB for this camp, he raised the bar for this camp.”

He’s certainly raised the bar for other 145-pound fighters, that’s for sure.