This weekend’s UFC 298 card in Anaheim shapes as one of the most pivotal days in the careers of two of Australia’s fighting icons.
In the headline blockbuster, Alex Volkanovski is desperately seeking to extinguish ongoing talk about his age when he defends the featherweight title against rising star Ilia Topuria.
Meanwhile, former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker hopes to launch another run at the title when he faces Paul Costa in the co-main event.
They’re both coming off rare knockout losses, and, with both men fighting in rapidly evolving divisions, the stakes could barely be higher for the two fan favourites.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Volkanovski’s reckoning is two-fold following his first ever knockout loss in the UFC.
Arguments have been raging over whether he’s coming back too soon from his first round defeat to Islam Makhachev, especially after revelations about his mental health.
But the larger focus is his age.
At 35, he says he still feels as good as he did at 25.
But few combat sports athletes keep improving once they hit their 30s.
It’s something he acknowledges, and has even hit back at with a viral video released last week for Sportsbet.
In it, a cardigan-wearing Volkanovski gripes about skateboarders, watches an old school VCR and nearly gives his credit card details to a phone scammer.
The hilarious video became an instant viral hit, but the underlying questions about his relatively advanced years remain.
“I’m aware of it – I feel great – I’m not aware of it because I don’t feel great, but you do think about it,” Volkanovski told this masthead. “How long am I going to feel great for? I don’t want to wait around.”
Since his rise up the ranks, Volkanovski has beaten every serious featherweight contender the UFC has to offer, including Chad Mendes, Jose Aldo, Max Holloway (three times), Chan Sung Jung, Brian Ortega and Yair Rodriguez.
This weekend, the 27-year-old Topuria represents the next generation of stars. He’s young, hungry, undefeated and brash.
Only a win will answer Volk’s doubters’ questions and keep at bay the changing of the guard.
LAST CHANCE SALOON?
There’s a similar vibe running through the build-up to Whittaker’s fight with fellow middleweight veteran Paulo Costa.
A win means there’s a chance to make another run at the title.
But it’s hard to see a road back to the title for whoever loses.
Whittaker’s title reign came to an end more than four years ago at the hands – or, fists – of Israel Adesanya.
He had another crack at Stylebender in 2022, and could have set-up a third fight if he’d beaten Dricus du Plessis last year.
Costa meanwhile has had one shot at the 185-pound title, against Adesanya in 2020, and has had a rocky relationship with the UFC ever since.
For years, Whittaker and Adesanya stood head and shoulders above the rest of the division. Between them, they’d beaten anyone who could be considered a title challenger, including Kelvin Gastelum, Marvin Vettori, Jared Cannonier, Yoel Romero, Darren Till and Derek Brunson.
But, with the emergence of Alex Pereira and Sean Strickland, the rise of Du Plessis and former welterweights Kamaru Usman and Khamzat Chimaev moving to middleweight, the division is undergoing a drastic change.
The equation here is simple: a win keeps the victor relevant, while the loser faces an uncertain future, which could involve becoming a gate-keeper.
TAFA, THEN THE REST
Justin Tafa is the third Aussie on the card, but he’s relatively fresh in the UFC compared to Volkanovski and Whittaker.
The entertaining knockout artist can rise into the top 15 of the rankings with a win over Marcos Rogerio de Lima.
From there, he’s potentially just a couple of fights away from the belt, currently held by Jon Jones.
Originally published as UFC 298: Why this weekend is one of the most pivotal ever for two Aussie favourites