Though there is only an eight-year age difference between Alexander Volkov and the man he faces this weekend, Alistair Overeem, the Russian heavyweight recalls watching his Dutch counterpart compete when he was at the outset of his career.
“I followed his fights when I was young, when I was just having my first professional fights,” offered the 32-year-old, who began his MMA career in 2009, at a time when Overeem had already amassed more than 40 pro fights and was dominating in Japan.
More than a decade later, Volkov has now reached the 40-fight milestone himself, accomplishing the feat with his second-round stoppage victory over Walt Harris in October at UFC 254, and he will share the Octagon with the resurgent Overeem on Saturday, headlining the first of four massive events on the schedule in the month of February.
“It’s a big honor and challenge to face him in the Octagon,” Volkov said of the heavyweight superstar, who enters on a two-fight winning streak and is looking to make one last run at the UFC heavyweight title before calling it a career. “It means a lot for me because he’s a legendary fighter.
“It’s like the dream of a young man — to meet your favorite fighter in the Octagon,” he added. “It means a lot for me, and I trained a lot for this. I’ve put everything into this fight.”
Like many of his contemporaries, going all-in on fight preparation wasn’t an option for Volkov during different periods in 2020, as COVID restrictions and lockdowns limited access to gyms, strength and conditioning facilities, and the everyday amenities and routines that allow the men and women that compete inside the UFC cage to be at their best come fight night.
That was the case for Volkov ahead of his frustrating five-round decision loss to Curtis Blaydes in June.
“I had some problems when I prepared for Curtis Blaydes because Moscow, at the time, was absolutely closed to movement; the gym was closed and we were just sitting in our houses,” explained Volkov, who got out-wrestled for long stretches over the opening 15 minutes before getting off some offense of his own over the final two rounds.
The setback was his second loss in three fights and prompted questions about where the towering Russian fit in the heavyweight hierarchy.
After rattling off four straight quality wins upon arriving in the UFC, the former M-1 Challenge and Bellator heavyweight champion landed on the wrong end of a Derrick Lewis “Hail Mary” at UFC 229 that may have cost him a title shot. A unanimous decision victory over late replacement Greg Hardy 13 months later did little to augment opinions about Volkov, and the loss to Blaydes had some wondering where his true place was in the heavyweight pecking order.
But Volkov was able to return to a relatively normal training routine ahead of his bout with Harris in Abu Dhabi and it showed — he was in great shape and aggressive, keeping Harris on the outside through the entirety of the first round, utilizing long punches and kicks to the midsection to punish the popular southpaw.
Volkov found the finish early in the second, sticking his toes into Harris’ belly, causing his opponent to immediately double over in pain to where the follow-up punches were academic. It was a reminder of how dangerous “Drago” can be inside the cage, and he’s confident he can replicate that effort this weekend against Overeem.
“When I prepared for Walt Harris, everything was good — Moscow was open and everybody came back to the gym,” said Volkov. “Now, with Alistair, I started this camp two months ago and I’m feeling good now. I’m in really good shape — maybe better than I was in the fight against Walt Harris.
“I’m in the same shape as the fight before, physically and mentally,” he continued. “I’ve made some changes in my camps, working a lot with a physical therapist, working on conditioning, and I’m feeling really strong.
“I think this next fight will be the same as the fight with Walt Harris.”
Not only has Volkov added on to the positive elements from his preparations for Harris, but he also made a point of giving himself the best opportunity to feel fresh, rested, and ready to fire on all cylinders on Saturday night by making the trip to North America well in advance of this weekend’s festivities in Las Vegas.
“I have fought a lot in the U.S. before, so we know everything about how to get better here after a long flight and (how to deal) with the jet lag,” said the heavyweight headliner, who will be making is third appearance in “The Fight Capital of the World” and is competing on U.S. soil for the 13th time in his career.
“I came earlier because I wanted to go through the time changes from Moscow and the United States,” continued Volkov. “I came so that I can feel better during Fight Week because when it is night in the U.S. it is day in Russia, and I need to change this, which is why we usually come to the U.S. two weeks early.”
In addition to this weekend’s bout against Overeem being a dream come true for the 32-year-old Russian contender, it also kicks off an eight-week stretch that will see eight of the fighters currently stationed in the Top 10 steps into the Octagon, culminating with the heavyweight title fight between champion Stipe Miocic and challenger Francis Ngannou on March 27 at UFC 260.
This period will dictate how things line up in the division heading into the second half of the year and establish a clear pecking order in the heavyweight ranks, and Volkov has the opportunity to be first out of the gate with an impressive showing.
“For sure it’s really important for me to show my best in this fight — to show who I am, to show where I’m at right now,” he said, acknowledging the importance of this weekend’s main event.
“I’m ready and I will try to do everything possible to do this.”