Can Volkanovski beat Ilia Topuria (14-0) and Father Time (23-2)?

ALEXANDER VOLKANOVSKI STILL LAUGHS about the time in 2019 when he was explicitly told not to get a haircut during fight week.

Volkanovski was in Rio de Janeiro to face Jose Aldo at UFC 237, and the promotion assigned him a camera all week for its behind-the-scenes series, “Embedded.” When Volkanovski mentioned that he intended to see a barber that Monday, it was met with genuine concern by the producers. No, no, he mustn’t do that. Didn’t he know about the curse? Everyone who got their hair cut on “Embedded” lost.

Volkanovski, who will look to successfully defend his featherweight championship against Ilia Topuria at UFC 298 on Saturday in Anaheim, California, went ahead with the trim and dominated Aldo at UFC 237 to earn his first title shot.

“Everyone told us not to do it,” remembers Volkanovski’s head coach, Joe Lopez. “Alex debunked that myth. Then they all told him, ‘Don’t give [Octagon announcer] Bruce Buffer a fist bump, it’s bad luck.’ And Alex eliminated that one. We’re not into myths. We do our thing, and that’s it.”

Going into this weekend, another “myth” is staring Volkanovski (26-3) in the face: Can the 35-year-old win at his age? Whether it’s genuine or not depends on the eye of the beholder.

In the history of UFC title fights at 170 pounds (welterweight) and below, male athletes ages 35 and older have a combined record of 2-23. Sports Illustrated noted that record in 2023, and it has grown in notoriety within the sport since. Six fighters age 35 or older appeared in UFC title fights last year, and all six lost.

One of those was Volkanovski himself. The featherweight champ celebrated his birthday less than a month before challenging Islam Makhachev (31) for the lightweight belt at UFC 294 in October. Volkanovski lost via knockout for the first time in his UFC career, but the result came with an asterisk, as he took the fight on just 12 days of notice when Makhachev’s original opponent withdrew. It was also above his natural weight class.

By contrast, this Saturday is very much within Volkanovski’s norm. He’s had plenty of time to prepare, and the fight is back at 145 pounds, a weight class in which he has never lost.

In other words, this is his first “legitimate” title fight since turning 35. Topuria is 27, so a win on Saturday would essentially be Volkanovski defying UFC title fight history — which means about as much to him as that haircut did back in 2019.

“I get it, people care about stats,” Volkanovski told ESPN. “But with the amount of times I’ve proven that I’m not your normal human being, why would I care about stats? People will quickly remember who I am in this fight, and all of a sudden, no one is going to care about that stat anymore. A year ago, they were saying I was the best in the world. Now I’m old, because a few months have gone by? Come on.”

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CONSIDERING VOLKANOVSKI’S RECORD, it’s nearly impossible to doubt him. During his four-year reign as the featherweight king, there have been 29 title changes in the UFC. Volkanovski’s level of dominance has been a rare feat in the sport as of late. So, this 2-23 thing is meaningless, right? Yeah, he turned 35 last year, but he’s still the same Volk.

Former lightweight champion and Hall of Famer Frankie Edgar would have dismissed the stat if he were in Volkanovski’s place. In fact, he did. Edgar was 37 when he fought Max Holloway for the featherweight title in 2019. Holloway was 10 years younger and won a clear unanimous decision. Edgar didn’t view his age as a disadvantage back then, nor did he view it as a disadvantage as he continued to compete in the UFC into his 40s.

Looking back on his retirement, however, Edgar is willing to reconsider that notion. Age matters.

“I hate to say it, because I was never a guy who listened to labels or stats while I was fighting, but numbers don’t lie,” Edgar said. “And those numbers say that this is a young man’s game.”

Of all the great champions and title challengers in UFC history who competed at age 35 or older, only one managed to get it done: former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley.

Woodley accounts for both wins in that 2-23 record, with title defenses against Demian Maia and Darren Till. And one of those is a bit misleading, as Maia (39) was older than Woodley (35) when they fought for the title in 2017.

Regardless, Woodley is the lone exception to the 35-and-over rule. What was his secret? What kind of genius and advanced training was he using that made him unique in UFC title fight history?

“If I can give him props for something specific, it’s just that Tyron was able to be better a little bit longer than those other guys,” said Din Thomas, Woodley’s former coach and currently an analyst for ESPN and UFC. “I’m proud as hell of our place in that record, but we weren’t doing anything different. Man, half the time ‘training’ with Woodley was us just hanging out, because he was always hurt. He would lay on his stomach and I would walk on his back to loosen him up. We’d start training, and if he started to tighten up, OK, I’d walk on him again. After the session? Walk on him again.”

Of course, there were other factors to Woodley’s success at ages 35 and 36, but he and his team say they weren’t things another fighter could replicate. They were primarily just truths of Woodley’s career.

One was that Woodley competed at 170 pounds, the heaviest weight class in the 2-23 statistic. The exact effects of age on a fighter are hard to quantify. The UFC Performance Institutes in Las Vegas and China, with two more proposed locations in Mexico and Nigeria, are considered the gold standard for modern, data-driven training and recovery — and even they don’t collect much information on the physiological changes of an athlete over time.

That said, the evidence suggesting it is much harder for aging fighters to succeed at the highest level in the lightest weight classes is irrefutable. In fact, in the weight classes of 205 pounds and above, male athletes aged 35 and over have a winning record of 33-28-1 in UFC title fights. So, Woodley simply competing at the weight he did might have helped him beat the stat.

“Welterweight is an even match of speed and power,” Woodley told ESPN. “The lower you go [in weight], the more speed there is, right? It’s a speed thing. These younger kids are also more skilled these days, because they’ve been training MMA at an earlier age, rather than coming over from one discipline. So, I feel like Volkanovski’s test might even be a tick above [what it’s been historically].”

One aspect that is a must, of course, is motivation — and Woodley felt both sides of that. In 2017 and 2018, when he defended his title against Maia and Till, Woodley had a ton of external motivation. He was the champion, but he frequently felt at odds with the UFC and its fan base over his merit as the champion. Woodley was still fighting hard for recognition and respect at age 35, which is usually not the case for a champion sitting on multiple title defenses.

“My whole motivation during that time was like, ‘Oh, you think this motherf—er can beat me? You think Till can beat me?'” Woodley said. “Let me show you something real quick.”

According to Thomas, Woodley’s camp for the Till fight in 2018 was one of the best of his career. One month before fighting Till, Woodley was in attendance at UFC 227 when former flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson lost his title to Henry Cejudo in the co-main event. Thomas remembers that experience, and coupled with the disrespect Woodley was feeling from the promotion and fans at the time, it all led to a hyper-focused effort — starting that night.

“Tyron got so motivated watching Demetrious lose, we actually trained at that event,” Thomas said. “We went and found an empty room in Staples Center and worked out. Demetrious was the GOAT at that time, so if he could lose, anybody could lose.

“Tyron was in the crowd and said, ‘Yo, I’m so motivated right now. I am not losing my belt to Darren Till.’ And boom, we were in a room training. We didn’t even watch the main event that night because we were training.”

After defeating Till, however, Woodley’s motivation started to wane. His body was banged up, sure, but he attributes the decline in performance late in his career to a complete lack of motivation. He lost his belt to Kamaru Usman in 2019, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he fought his final three fights in the UFC’s empty Apex in Las Vegas. In his own words, Woodley “got tired of proving people wrong.” He lost 16 consecutive rounds across four losses to end his UFC career.

“It’s hard when the focus isn’t there,” Thomas said. “Because I can tell you right now — at 36 years old, your desire to just f— somebody up is gone. When you’re 25, all you want to do is f— somebody up. When you’re 36, you’re like, ‘Do I really want to f— somebody up?’ And once that’s over, it’s hard to get back.”

As the only success story of the 2-23 stat, what does Woodley think? Is the age of 35 a reliable gauge of a lighter fighter’s ability to win a UFC title fight? Or is it a myth, like Volkanovski intends to prove?

“I don’t know Volkanovski personally, but he’s always come off to me as a hard worker, somebody that’s not just doing the cute s— in the gym — hitting mitts and shadow boxing,” Woodley said. “All these people want to take shortcuts [later in their careers], they just want to spar and kickbox, nobody wants to get off the bottom and work off their back, it’s a cocky thing. I feel like Volkanovski is different, and he could be the guy to get it done, and get it done a few times, actually.”

EVERY WEEK, VOLKANOVSKI’S COACH, Lopez, runs his stable of fighters through various fitness tests.

It varies from week to week, but the test always consists of five rounds in which fighters work to a state of fatigue through individual or team drills before completing specific exercises. Each fighter must complete a full set of the exercise, and each round is timed. Not surprisingly, Volkanovski excels in these weekly tests, and his performance times have not declined in recent years, according to Lopez.

“He’s doing some of these drills in one minute that are taking other guys two minutes,” Lopez said. “And his times in the fourth and fifth rounds are the same or even better than his times in the first round. Once we reach a point in his career where we’re not getting our times in those exercises, maybe I’ll talk to him [about age]. At the moment, he’s still punching in those times.”

Those numbers mean far more to Volkanovski than the “2-23” he’s been forced to address leading up to UFC 298. That said, he doesn’t mind this record being a part of his story. He’s got a story of his own — in UFC featherweight history, the younger fighter has won just six times in title bouts. Five of those wins were by … Volkanovski. Volkanovski is still favored by oddsmakers on Saturday, but there has never before been this feeling of doubt around one of his title defenses. Some of that has to do with his knockout loss in October. Some of it has to do with Topuria’s skills. And silly or not, some of it concerns this stat.

And Volkanovski says he welcomes all of it. He appreciates the doubt.

“People want to bring in the age thing now, and that’s perfect,” Volkanovski says. “I’ve got a young, undefeated prospect that everyone is hyping up. This fits perfectly into the story that I want to tell. [Topuria] is a confident young man who needs to be humbled, and I’m looking forward to that. This isn’t just about winning. I want to give him a good life lesson.

“You want to be a champion? You’ve got to earn that s—. He’s gonna learn that.”

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