Alexander Volkanovski has already beaten Max Holloway twice in UFC featherweight title fights, and that still wasn't enough to settle this rivalry.
That's a measure of the excitement generated by the first two bouts between these two electrifying strikers. It's also an illustration of the sport-wide respect for Volkanovski, the Australian with a 21-fight winning streak, and for Holloway, Hawaii's former 145-pound champ.
Along with being brilliant fighters, they're two well-liked guys in a sport with some unsavory characters.
Volkanovski and Holloway will go again at UFC 276 at T-Mobile Arena on the Las Vegas Strip on Saturday night, each hoping to complete this trilogy with a statement victory.
“It’s a legacy fight,” Holloway said. “We’re on the higher end of the pound-for-pound ranks, and these fights don’t happen very often. People are calling us the main event of this card, and that’s saying a lot about how good this fight is.”
The mixed martial arts promotion's biggest event of the summer is headlined by Israel Adesanya's fifth middleweight title defense against Jared Cannonier. The UFC's typically stacked Fourth of July weekend card also features Brazilian kickboxing star Alex Pereira against middleweight contender Sean Strickland, along with the returns of Robbie Lawler, Suga Sean O'Malley, Jim Miller and Uriah Hall.
But the most compelling matchup is Volkanovski (24-1) against Holloway (23-6), who held the featherweight belt from 2016 until Volkanovski took it from him in December 2019 with a relentless tactical performance. Holloway lost to Volkanovski for the second time in July 2020 in Abu Dhabi in a razor-thin decision.
Not many rivalries stretch to three fights when the first two bouts weren't split, but this is no ordinary rivalry. Volkanovski has defended the belt twice since that second bout with Holloway, while Holloway outpointed Calvin Kattar and Yair Rodríguez in a pair of thrillers to stay in prime position to reclaim his belt.
“It’s the biggest fight I could do right now,” Volkanovski said. “Everyone wants to see it, and that’s it. I give him credit. He was stubborn. He goes, ‘Ain’t no one taking that No. 1 contender spot from me.’ He stood there and took out all the guys and didn’t let them have a shot at me, and now he gets the shot. Good on him. That’s exactly what I would do in the same situation.”
While Holloway and Volkanovski trade verbal jabs like any top contenders, there’s a clear respect between the two best featherweights in UFC history not named Jose Aldo. Holloway has been gracious about his second loss while making sure nobody thinks he agreed with the decision in which he out-landed the champion in each of the first three rounds and then fought a tenacious fifth.
“If you watch from the first to the second fight, I'm two different fighters, and this is going to be different fighters again,” Holloway said. “I got to spend 50 minutes with this guy, 10 rounds with this guy. This one, he’ll be blessed if we go above three (rounds).”
Holloway's formidable chin kept him upright against Volkanovski's power, but Holloway absorbed a daunting amount of cumulative damage during 25 fights over his first decade in the UFC. Volkanovski believes he can punctuate this rivalry by becoming the first opponent to register a knockdown of Holloway.
“If I could take that chin and put him out, that’s really sending a statement, because no one has done that,” Volkanovski said. “He takes damage. It can’t hold up forever, but let’s see if it holds up in this fight, because I’m going to land some big shots. Let’s see if that legendary chin holds up.”
Volkanovski and Adesanya are teammates at City Kickboxing in Auckland, New Zealand, where Adesanya (22-1) grew from a kickboxing star into an MMA champion.
He's a big favorite to beat Cannonier (15-5), who has earned his first UFC title shot at 38 years old. Cannonier is on an impressive run of five victories and one narrow defeat to ex-champ Robert Whittaker over the past four years.
Adesanya has been talking up Cannonier as a future opponent for years, but he still expects to extend his title reign in the main event at UFC 276.
“His fighting spirit and his essence, I recognize that, because I'm an empath myself,” Adesanya said. “I can kind of feel the energy from a great man and a great fighter. I like to take care of these guys, and I saw that in him early on. I tried to boost him up early on. He fell short once, and then came back and proved his worth as the next contender.”
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