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Alexander Volkanovski Faces Goliath of a Task at UFC 284

"He thinks he’s well-rounded? We’ll see,” says Islam Makhachev's challenger ahead of February's title bout.

Welcome to The Weekly Takedown, Sports Illustrated’s in-depth look at MMA. Every week, this column offers insight and information on the most noteworthy stories in the fight world.

Alexander Volkanovski isn’t bothered by people already dismissing his chances against Islam Makhachev. Undersized and underestimated his whole career, Volkanovski relishes the chance to prove his doubters wrong.

“Trust me, he’s going to have big problems with me,” says Volkanovski, who challenges Makhachev for the lightweight title at UFC 284 in February. "He might think I’m a little guy, but this little guy is going to look pretty big against him.”

The reigning featherweight champion, Volkanovski (25-1) is tasked with a seemingly insurmountable challenge in overcoming Makhachev. The champion from Dagestan, Makhachev has dominated his last 11 bouts, none more impressive than the manner in which he made Charles Oliveira tap out last month to win the title.

Once Makhachev (23-1) forces his opponent to the ground, that signals the end is near. Yet Volkanovski has built a career on overcoming doubt and exceeding expectations. He looks to do that again at UFC 284 in Australia during a bout he believes will be fought on his feet.

“It’s going to be a stand-up fight,” Volkanovski says. “Mark my words.”

Alexander Volkanovski (red gloves) reacts before a bout against Max Holloway (not pictured) during UFC 276 at T-Mobile Arena.

Volkanovski has his sights set on becoming the lightweight champion in February.

Among Volkanovski’s most transcendent showings in the cage was a unanimous decision victory 14 months ago against Brian Ortega, who is one of the most skilled jiu-jitsu artists in the world. Ortega came precariously close to submitting Volkanovski, but ultimately could not make him tap. Volkanovski believes the same will be true against Makhachev.

“I’m preparing for him to take me down, but there are so many layers before he gets me there,” Volkanovski says. “I fight for every inch and kilometer. You need to kill me to put me out.

“I’m very good at scrambling, and I’m going to spend weeks on just that. I know he’s good at that, but we’ll see if he’s well-rounded after I get to my feet. He thinks he’s well-rounded? We’ll see.”

UFC 284 will also feature an interim featherweight title bout featuring Yair Rodriguez against Josh Emmett. Volkanovski intends to fight the winner in a title unification bout.

“I want to stay active in both divisions,” Volkanovski says. “I want to fight every three months. I’m in the best shape of my life, and I’m ready to f--- some people up.”

Volkanovski was dominant in his two fights this year. He obliterated “The Korean Zombie” Jung Chan-sung in April. Three months later, he dismantled former rival and measuring stick Max Holloway. After two close bouts against one another, Volkanovski proved in the third encounter he is on a different level than Holloway.

“I wasn’t even trying last camp,” Volkanovski says. “It was still a good camp, but I was just going through the motions. I didn’t even have to make an adjustment [in the fight]. Even with a broken hand, what we thought would happen did happen.

“But I needed that third Max fight. Even though I was already 2-0 [against him], I wanted it. He was the biggest challenge in my division, and people thought he won the second fight. For me, that needed to happen. I wanted that challenge, and now I am fired up for this one.”

On paper, Makhachev should win at 284. It isn’t hard to envision him locking the clinch as soon as Volkanovski steps too close, then control the bout with superior grappling skills on the ground. But it is not wise to bet against Volkanovski. Unlike Oliveira, who invited Makhachev to the mat, Volkanovski possesses the speed and footwork necessary to counter.

If styles make fights, then Volkanovski certainly has a chance–his style is problematic for Makhachev, as Volkanovski finishes combinations and lands kicks with precision when his opponent commits to the jab. Volkanovski is also a skilled king distance striker, as well as an elite grasp on distance control. He is going to test Makhachev in a way that he has yet to encounter in the octagon.

“I want to be the champ-champ,” Volkanovski says. “It’s a challenge, and that excites me. I’m going to be ready for February.”

Pitbull Gets Long-Awaited Chance to Earn Respect 

Bellator 288 takes place  Friday, and a standout bout on the card is Patricky “Pitbull” Freire defending his lightweight title against the undefeated Usman Nurmagomedov.

This is a showdown between two proud, iconic fight families. Khabib Nurmagomedov will be in one corner, with Patrício “Pitbull” Freire in the other.

“It’s two great fight families,” says Freire, who spoke through a translator. “I’m ready to represent my family and go to war.”

Freire (24-10) has enjoyed a decorated career in Bellator. Along with Michael Page, he holds the record (10) for most knockout wins in Bellator history. Freire is also tied with Michael Chandler for the most wins (15) in the history of Bellator’s lightweight division. But much of his success is overlooked, and he is still hunting for that signature career victory.

“My brother and me, the more we do in Bellator, the more we get questioned,” Freire says. “There are guys who haven’t done much, but because they are in UFC, they get a lot more attention than us–but they aren’t as good as we are. So we just need to keep working. Eventually, people won’t be able to deny us.”

This title fight against Nurmagomedov is exactly the type of high-profile bout Freire needs. Nurmagomedov (15-0) has blitzed through opponents in the cage, though he has had the benefit of getting a title shot without defeating a string of ranked opponents. But it is the challenger who enters the bout as the overwhelming favorite, a fact not lost on the champ.

“Let’s see how this goes,” Freire says. “Bellator has given him some very favorable matchups. In a way, he’s been gifted the title shot. But I’m not underestimating him.

“If I win this fight, people will have to recognize me. I’m ready for a big war. I’m ready to bleed, He hasn’t been tested yet. I’m ready for everything. I’m going to do everything I can to keep my belt, then get my respect.”

The Pick ‘Em Section:

UFC Fight Night heavyweight bout: Derrick Lewis vs. Sergey Spivak

Pick: Derrick Lewis

Bellator 288 lightweight title bout: Patricky “Pitbull” Freire (c) vs. Usman Nurmagomedov

Pick: Usman Nurmagomedov

Bellator 288 light heavyweight title bout: Vadim Nemkov (c) vs. Corey Anderson

Pick: Corey Anderson

ONE on Prime 4 flyweight Muy Thai title bout: Rodtang Jitmuangnon (c) vs. Joseph Lasiri

Pick: Rodtang Jitmuangnon

UFC Fight Night heavyweight bout: Chase Sherman vs. Waldo Cortes-Acosta

Pick: Waldo Cortes-Acosta

Last week: 4-1

2022 record: 131-71

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