UFC 298 storylines: Can Topuria pull off the upset vs. Volkanovski?

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Few fighters in combat sports truly live up to their nicknames. “The Korean Zombie” did plod forward unfazed by whatever was in his path, but Chan Sung Jung was neither undead nor mythological. “The Axe Murderer,” as fierce as Wanderlei Silva was, never chopped down a tree or even an opponent inside the cage. The heavyweight who calls himself “Razor” has a thick beard covering his face, so what does Curtis Blaydes know about razors? Quinton “Rampage” Jackson was capable of wild violence early in his career but toward the end was more of a “Mild Disturbance.” And so on.

Then there’s Alexander Volkanovski. His nickname, “The Great,” tells us two things: first, that he or someone in his circle of friends is a student of ancient Greek history and, second, that he’s way more humble than he needs to be. Because with all apologies to Muhammad Ali, Volkanovski has earned the right to use the superlative version of that moniker. As far as both current UFC champions and all-time featherweights go, he is “The Greatest.”

Volkanovski is by far the longest-reigning champion in the UFC. He won the men’s featherweight title in 2019, and none of the other 10 current champs claimed their strap before 2022. Volkanovski has made five title defenses, more than twice as many as the next-most-accomplished champion. He will put his belt up for grabs for a sixth time on Saturday when he faces undefeated Ilia Topuria in the main event of UFC 298 in Anaheim, California (ESPN+ PPV, 10 p.m. ET).

Another number adds to the intrigue of this weekend’s title defense. That number is 35 — Volkanovski’s age. No one in any of the UFC’s lower-weight divisions has ever won a title fight at that age or older. And for all of his success — 12 straight wins at featherweight — Volkanovski has recently become well acquainted with losing. He has dropped two of his last three fights, both in challenges of lightweight champ Islam Makhachev. Volkanovski’s loss to Makhachev in October came via first-round knockout. That’s tough to bounce back from.

And yet it still feels unimaginable that Topuria will dethrone “Alexander the Greatest.”

The stage is set for a big night at Honda Center, which will see several fascinating matchups before Volkanovski and Topuria take over the spotlight. Here’s a look at the most intriguing storylines of UFC 298.


Will this be another reminder that there are levels to this sport?

Men’s featherweight championship: Alexander Volkanovski vs. Ilia Topuria

Topuria is 14-0, with the past six of those victories coming in the UFC, four of them by finish. He has looked destructive every time he’s stepped inside the Octagon. But here are fighters he has faced inside the UFC cage: Josh Emmett, Bryce Mitchell, Jai Herbert, Ryan Hall, Damon Jackson and Youssef Zalal. There are a couple of marginally top-shelf names there, but contrast that list with the six most recent Volkanovski opponents: Makhachev, Yair Rodriguez, Makhachev again, Max Holloway, The Korean Zombie and Brian Ortega. Prior to that, Volk beat Holloway two other times and before that defeated Jose Aldo. He has decimated all of MMA history’s other greatest 145-pounders.

Topuria is eerily confident, however, in much the way that Chris Weidman was self-assured prior to his unthinkable upset of Anderson Silva in 2013. Does the 27-year-old Spaniard just not see what’s coming? Or does he know exactly what’s in front of him — MMA stardom after taking out the most decorated current champion in the sport? On Saturday, we will witness either a star-making rise to the top of the game or a violent, dismissive comeuppance.


One man’s redemption is another man’s free fall

Middleweight: Robert Whittaker vs. Paulo Costa

Both of these fighters have been down and out, which is an especially unexpected state of being for Whittaker. But he lost twice to former champion Israel Adesanya, then to the man who now holds the belt, Dricus Du Plessis. All of that put the former champ far, far away from returning to the top of the mountain.

Costa has never even had a taste of that throne. Adesanya made sure of that, dominating their 2020 title bout and handing the Brazilian his first loss. Costa has never been the same since then, although evidence of a demise is limited, because he’s fought only twice. It’s like he’s disappeared.

Here comes an opportunity for one of these fighters to redirect his career toward an upward trajectory. Of the two men, Whittaker seems more self-aware, and that might light the fire of urgency under him. Whittaker is 33, Costa 32, so there’s time — but not an abundance of it — to make another run at the title. It has to start on this night.


He can dish it out, but can he take it?

Welterweight: Geoff Neal vs. Ian Machado Garry

Combat sports are, to paraphrase the late Yogi Berra, 90% mental and the other half physical. If that equation doesn’t make sense to you, it’s either because you’re not as wise as Yogi or because the mental game is shrouded in mystery. Fighters have always sought an edge by poking future opponents with nasty words, and only sometimes do they land like a crisp punch.

When this bout was originally slated for last summer, Garry let his wardrobe do his trash-talking, wearing a T-shirt that depicted a mugshot of Neal from a DUI arrest. The gamesmanship seemed all for naught, though, after the fight was canceled because of a Neal illness. Now it’s back on. “He’s dead,” Neal said.

In the time between cancellation and rebooking, the laws of karma put Machado Garry on the receiving end of personal attacks from other fighters. And the unbeaten Brit seemed to shrink in the face of all the unkind words before pulling out of a December fight because of pneumonia. How is Garry’s mental game going to stand up?

It’s unfortunate that this is the narrative surrounding a bout that could propel the winner toward contendership. But that’s where this sport now resides.


If you wear fancy duds to a faceoff, Henry, bring along a valet

Men’s bantamweight: Merab Dvalishvili vs. Henry Cejudo

Dvalishvili is an entertaining showman, from his quirky videos on social media to his jacket-stealing prank on Sean O’Malley. But while in public appearances he can be a jokester, as a fighter Merab is far from a joke.

Dvalishvili wins his fights with relentless wrestling. How relentless? In his last scrap, he took down Petr Yan 11 times. Yan actually held up well against Dvalishvili’s shots, fending off 38 of them. (Yes, Dvalishvili shot for 49 takedowns over the five rounds.) But the nonstop takedown defense wore Yan out. Much the same happened to Jose Aldo in Dvalishvili’s previous fight. Aldo stopped all 16 of the takedown attempts, yet Merab never stopped coming.

What that says is the Olympic wrestling background of Cejudo may not be the X-factor that swings this fight his way. He surely will stop a whole lot of takedowns, but that will not slow down Dvalishvili. Will Cejudo, 36 years old and with just one fight in nearly four years, have the stamina to make it to the finish line?


The pile of straw is deep

Strawweight: Amanda Lemos vs. Mackenzie Dern

Originally, this fight card was to feature a bout between Lemos and Tatiana Suarez, both top-10 115-pounders. After that matchup was lost to a Suarez knee injury, what did UFC 298 end up with? Another top-10 matchup.

Dern is not undefeated, as Suarez is, but she’s a grappling ace with more submission wins than any other strawweight, active or otherwise. That speaks to the depth of this weight class, which also features the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in women’s MMA, Zhang Weili.

Here’s a chance for the littlest fighters in the UFC to put on a big show.

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