The emergence of a new contender in the heavyweight division can feel like a jolt of electricity coursing through the mixed martial arts community.
While the upper echelon in the big boy ranks features a collection of elite talents, it has largely been comprised of the same familiar names for the last several years. Current champion Stipe Miocic, former titleholders Fabricio Werdum, Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos and veteran contenders Alistair Overeem and Mark Hunt have been staples in the division, battling amongst themselves and routinely turning back anyone else who tried to break into title contention.
It’s why Francis Ngannou’s sudden, undeniable impact on the division was felt with such force. He was a new arrival, untested against the established names at the top of the division and boasting the potential to earn a place alongside of them, and though he came up short in his quest to claim championship gold at UFC 220, “The Predator” has more than proven he belongs in the elite class.
Curtis Blaydes has started to make a similar case for himself, rebounding from his debut loss to Ngannou to go unbeaten in his last five fights, culminating with his unanimous decision victory over Hunt in Perth, Australia last month.
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This weekend, Alexander Volkov has the opportunity to stake his claim to membership in the new contenders collective when he takes on Werdum in the main event of Saturday’s return to the O2 Arena in London.
Over his first three fights in the Octagon, the 29-year-old Russian has posted victories over Tim Johnson, Roy Nelson and Stefan Struve, working his way up the divisional ladder one rung at a time, improving with each appearance.
Like any new arrival to the biggest stage in the sport, there have been growing pains for the towering heavyweight talent, but Volkov has stepped up his efforts in the gym and found his comfort zone, which has allowed him to transition from being a UFC newcomer to a contender one win away from title contention in just three fights.
“I feel I became better because now I fight at the highest level,” said Volkov, who carries a five-fight winning streak and a 29-6 record overall into his showdown with Werdum on Saturday. “This is a big thing for me – a big thing for all my fans and everyone around me – so while I always trained hard, I believe I’ve been training even harder, doing this every day. I believe that I am a different fighter than before I signed with the UFC.
“The most uncomfortable was the first fight,” added the surging contender, who came out on the happy side of a split decision following his first foray into the Octagon. “The next fight was always better and better, so now I feel very good and in my place.”
Professionally speaking, that place is on the cusp of contention in the heavyweight division, where Miocic is slated to defend his title against light heavyweight kingpin Daniel Cormier at UFC 226 to close out International Fight Week in Las Vegas. But beyond that contest, everything is wide open and a strong performance against a former champion like Werdum would certainly be a strong argument in Volkov’s favor for having next.
Headlining opposite a recent champion and one of the most decorated heavyweight competitors of all-time is the kind of thing that rattles some competitors, but Werdum’s credentials and the weight of what it would mean to beat him seem to be of little concern to the man who will stand across from him inside the Octagon this weekend in London.
“I have to beat him; that’s the only thing,” said Volkov, who carries the nickname “Drago,” after Dolph Lundgren’s iconic Russian boxer Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. “He’s my opponent; he’s the guy I have to beat.”
While it’s not quite as chilling and devoid of emotion as “If he dies, he dies,” it’s clear that Volkov isn’t caught up in thoughts of joining the short list of elite talents to have beaten the 40-year-old Brazilian; he’s only concerned with beating him.
“I’m really prepared for this fight,” he added. “I feel that I’m much better in the striking and standup game. I’m not really thinking about the knockout, but I’m sure I will be better in every position in this fight and that will make me the winner of this fight.”
And if he were to emerge victorious and gain entrance into the upper echelon of the UFC heavyweight ranks, what might be next for the talented new arrival?
“Of course I prefer a title fight, but we’ll see how this fight goes,” said Volkov.