On Saturday night (September 2) in Rotterdam, Holland, Alexander Volkov won a heavyweight fight the way heavyweights are supposed to win fights and, in doing so, injected some much-needed life into a wheezing, staggering and slightly punch-drunk division.
In the third round of a wild UFC Fight Night 115 main event, Volkov cracked Stefan Struve with a solid left hand, followed by a right uppercut, which floored the Dutchman and had him floundering, and then secured the stoppage with three-and-a-half minutes on the clock.
The arena, at this point, fell silent, for Struve, their man, was stopped the way he had been stopped before. He’d started strongly. He’d hurt and bloodied Volkov with a knee in the first round. He’d teased a home victory. But, in the end, as rounds progressed and Volkov grew in confidence, there was an inevitability about his eventual demise. Struve, and his fans, had been here before. More than once actually.
Volkov, though, is an altogether different proposition for a UFC heavyweight division starved of new names and faces. Unlike Struve, he hasn’t been beaten by Junior dos Santos, Roy Nelson, Mark Hunt, Alistair Overeem and Jake Rosholt. Unlike Struve, his limitations have yet to be shown up. In actual fact, Volkov has won each of his three UFC bouts to date, including decisions against Nelson and Timothy Johnson, and is emerging as a solid contender, one who could eventually find himself in title contention. Best of all, he is still only 28 years of age.
For a heavyweight, that’s almost unheard of; at that age you’re an infant, a neophyte, an anomlay. Those at the top, many of whom have yet to be displaced and have therefore been at the top for too long, are in their mid to late-thirties. Stipe Miocic, the champion, for example, is 35 years old, while Alistair Overeem is 37, Fabricio Werdum is 40, Cain Velasquez is 35 and Mark Hunt is 43. Even the so-called new blood, the likes of Francis Ngannou and Derrick Lewis, are 30 and 32 respectively. Saturday’s fight between Volkov and Struve, therefore, in pairing a 28-year-old with a 29-year-old, was not only a rarity but an important moment for a division in grave danger of becoming stagnant at best and extinct at worst.
From the debris emerges Volkov, then, a six-foot-seven Russian who has now won five fights in a row and long admired countryman Fedor Emelianenko.
“Without a doubt Fedor is the one who made MMA popular in Russia,” Volkov told Fighters Only earlier this year. “It’s hard to overestimate his influence.
“To be better than the legend, I have to become a legend myself. Time will tell. But I am young and I am at the beginning of my long journey. I am improving and there are thousands of things I have to learn as a fighter. The possibilities are endless. I just want to train hard and fight with all my heart and soul to be the best in the best league.”
As far as role models go, a heavyweight could do far worse than Fedor, arguably the greatest big man of all-time. But what makes Volkov, 29-6, such an interesting proposition in 2017 isn’t the fact he is Russian or that he idolises a man synonymous with heavyweight greatness. No, what makes Alexander Volkov interesting, as a modern day heavyweight, is the fact he has yet to become dizzy and burnt out by the heavyweight merry-go-round. He has yet to fight Miocic. He has yet to fight Overeem. He has yet to fight Velasquez and Werdum and Hunt and so on. You get the point. Whether he ends up being successful or not against these men is irrelevant because it’s his time. It’s his time to find out. Moreover, broadly speaking, it’s time for us to see something different in a division that has become worryingly predictable and stale in recent years – the same names in the same fights.
“I feel confident and have a desire to win more,” said Volkov. “Though I am at the beginning of my journey in the UFC, with every step and every fight I grow as a fighter and gain more confidence.
“I think I am really close to it. Any fight now in the heavyweight division can be called a contender fight. I feel I can beat anyone in the top ten.”
A fight between Volkov and Ngannou, which has been mooted, would be as fresh as any heavyweight matchup the UFC has promoted in years. More than a meeting of prospects-cum-contenders, both of whom are refreshingly young in heavyweight terms, it would be a new look for MMA fans tired of reading the same book over and over again. These two, Volkov and Ngannou, don’t even share a common opponent, let alone history. How exciting. How refreshing. How unusual.