The undefeated fighter — there’s always something special that comes with a fighter who hasn’t yet tasted defeat. As they rack up win after win, they build an aura about them. The confidence of taking out person after person, especially if done in impressive fashion, is hard to shake. There’s also often some mystery regarding how they might respond to adversity. If they pass a real test and keep their zero, then they’re cooking with gasoline, so to speak.
An undefeated fighter also might get a faster push than one who goes on an up-and-down journey toward the top, which means potential exposure to higher levels of competition than they might be ready for at that point in their career. Such is life when you win and win big.
From the moment Ilia Topuria entered the UFC, he’s been anything but shy of confidence. The 27-year-old arrived in the organization with an 8-0 record and a 100 percent finishing rate. Through six bouts in the Octagon, he now stands at 14-0 with three more knockouts and another submission to his name. He also dismantled former interim title challenger Josh Emmett in his first main event test, even earning a 50-42 score according to one judge.
Topuria now gets his crack at featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, who hasn’t lost at 145 pounds in any of his 16 professional fights at that weight, including his 11-fight UFC winning streak in the weight class.
The challenger, though well-tested and carrying wins over names like Ryan Hall, Bryce Mitchell and Emmett, does not have the same resume “The Great” built on the way to his title shot. Volkanovski’s run to his first meeting with Max Holloway included wins over Chad Mendes and José Aldo, as well as seven more professional fights to his record. Since then, Volkanovski has thwarted Holloway thrice, Brian Ortega, The Korean Zombie and Yair Rodriguez.
In UFC history, undefeated fighters have challenged for at least a piece of the UFC title 35 times, winning 15. Some go on to carry their undefeated records into lengthy title reigns like Israel Adesanya, Ronda Rousey and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. Others, like Holly Holm and Cody Garbrandt, succeed in taking out a long-reigning champion but fall short in defending that title afterward.
Of the 20 who suffered their first professional loss in a title shot, only five (Sean Sherk, Daniel Cormier, Georges St-Pierre, BJ Penn, Henry Cejduo) went on to eventually win gold later in their career. They were picture-perfect examples of fighters who responded to that initial defeat well and rebuilt their cases for title shots.
Coincidentally, four of those five also went on to become part of the exclusive class of multi-weight champions (Cormier, St-Pierre, Penn, Cejudo).
Despite those success stories, there is still the other side of the coin. While it’s often assumed the fighter will bounce back from their first loss and eventually grab the UFC title for themselves, we’ve also seen fighters struggle mightily. In recent memory, Dominick Reyes stands out as one such example. After nearly beating Jon Jones for the light heavyweight title in February 2020, “The Devastator” hasn’t gotten his hand raised since but has instead been knocked out in three consecutive fights. Darren Till struggled after losing to Tyron Woodley in September 2018, going on to lose four of his next five bouts and getting finished on three of those occasions.
Paulo Costa and Brian Ortega, despite bouts of injuries and inactivity, have been able to stay in their respective title pictures and still stand a chance to join the aforementioned five who eventually snatched the belt. Costa can reassert himself in the wide-open middleweight division with a win over Robert Whittaker at UFC 298. Ortega, who earned a second title shot in just his second fight after losing his first shot to Max Holloway, fell to Volkanovski. “T-City” remains in the featherweight Top 5, however, and he can also bring himself back into potential title contention if he can best Rodriguez in their upcoming rematch at UFC Fight Night: Moreno vs Royval in Mexico City.
Of course, there’s rarely, if ever, a clean, one-to-one comparison between fighters. These are just the paths we’ve seen fighters in Topuria’s situation walk. It’s all on the table for “El Matador,” who will immediately earn one of the most impressive feathers in his proverbial cap if he can unseat Volkanovski in Anaheim.
As nice as the “0” is on the record, nothing truly beats becoming the undisputed champion.
UFC 298: Volkanovski vs Topuria took place live from Honda Center in Anaheim, California on February 17, 2024. See the final Prelim & Main Card Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!