Alexander Volkanovski said he felt better than ever. He said his self-belief was at an all-time high. He said he would stop Chan Sung Jung. And so it proved on Saturday night in Jacksonville.
The Australian turned in a thoroughly dominant display, feeding Jung with a series of heavy shots to the head and body, and even worked in a takedown for good measure.
Jung had no answer.
Now the time has come for Volkanovski to defend on home soil. It has been more than four years since he has had the pleasure of fighting in Australia, the last time coming in Perth in February 2018, and his star power is as bright as ever. This is a fighter at the absolute top of his game, one of the best pound-for-pound in the UFC, and he now deserves the chance to fight on home soil, where he is among Australia’s elite athletes.
Volkanovski told ESPN in the lead-up that he was aware of talk of another event in Melbourne towards the end of the year, and there is no one more deserving of the headline spot for an event over 50,000 fans would attend.
Could the occasion get to him? Unlikely. Hard work and discipline are the cornerstones of Volkanovski’s success, a trait that endears him to his countrymen.
“It’s just drive, drive to be better, always be better everywhere,” he said inside the Octagon after the fight. “You can be better everywhere.
“Have that drive, that motivation, and keep looking for ways to improve, it’s that easy…I’m not the most athletically gifted guy, hard work and drive got me to where I am, and look what I’m doing.”
Hopefully, that will include fighting Down Under before the year is out. That, and the UFC finding a worthy challenger to the 145-pound throne. — Sam Bruce
Sterling won fair and square, but boos probably won’t cease
Aljamain Sterling is the legitimate UFC bantamweight champion. No one can take that away from him. Sterling was panned as not a real champ for more than a year. He only won in March 2021 because Petr Yan hit him with an illegal knee and was disqualified. On Saturday night at UFC 273, Sterling won fair and square. He went five rounds and beat Yan by split decision. That’s what it says in the rulebook.
This counts as a title defense for Sterling, technically. But for many, it will be Saturday, April 9th, as the night he was genuinely crowned as champion. Sterling did it after neck surgery and more than a year of boos and social media abuse. And he and his team should be proud of a strong performance against Yan, the favorite and the man many believed to be the best in the world at 135 pounds.
With all of that said, Sterling won’t be able to shake the boo-birds. It was a close fight — a split decision — and some thought Yan won. The crowd in Jacksonville booed the decision and booed Sterling throughout. When he had Yan’s back on the ground, the crowd jeered. Meanwhile, when Yan had Sterling on the ground, there was no such reaction.
Sterling might have firmly established himself as MMA’s equivalent of a “heel” by leaning into the fan resentment. For Saturday night, it doesn’t matter. He’s a UFC champion and very few ever get to say such a thing. But in the future, the bile from fans is something Sterling will likely continue to have to weather. — Marc Raimondi
Dern’s rise makes the women’s strawweights as good as any division in the UFC
Mackenzie Dern reminded the world that her grappling ability can transform a fight. Tecia Torres was valiant on Saturday night and proved she’s impossible to finish, but she fell short against Dern, who was just a bit better. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu standout struggled to find an opening for a takedown or submission attempt in the first round, but found success by using the fence in the second. In the third, her striking and pressure helped her secure a close split decision win.
Yes, Torres was able to keep her usual high pace and striking volume, but Dern was never in real danger, as her stand-up game continues to evolve in front of our eyes. After coming off a loss against Marina Rodriguez, this was a big win for Dern, even when she didn’t accomplish her goal of getting a finish.
With Rose Namajunas defending against Carla Esparza in May and Joanna Jedrzejczyk returning in June for a rematch of former champions against Zhang Weili, the top fighters of the 115-pound division can stand tall compared to any other weight class in the promotion. Dern’s rise means we’ll have a robust set of fights to see in the second half of the year.
Pennington reminds world that she’s still top of the class
A suspension took her out of the rankings for a time, but Raquel Pennington never really left the top of the bantamweight division. She made the best of a short-notice call to replace Irene Aldana against Aspen Ladd, winning by unanimous decision.
And Pennington will be back in the top five of the division by Tuesday.
Pennington displayed solid combinations and was looking for a finish in the first two rounds against Ladd, a highly touted prospect who has lost two in a row and three of her past four.
A rematch against Aldana, whom Pennington beat by split decision in 2019, could make sense in the summer when Aldana might be ready for a comeback after the injury that sidelined her from UFC 273. – Carlos Contreras Legaspi
Garry is right to remain patient
Anyone hoping for a speedy ascent for Ian Garry was probably disappointed watching his performance in a unanimous-decision win over Darian Weeks. One of the UFC’s top prospects, Garry did not run through Weeks like many figured he would.
And that’s fine.
Perhaps it’s even better for Garry’s career in the long term. Garry has said he wants to be patient and slowly work up the welterweight rankings. Had Garry come in and smashed Weeks, it might have been tempting for the UFC to begin throwing him to the wolves. Remember, Garry is only 24 years old. He has the charisma and skills to be a big star in MMA, but he also has the confidence that you don’t want to mess with at this stage.
Garry and his team have been adamant that they want to take their time. He’s not trying to be the champion next week or next year. If he does one day get to that level, and he could, we might be looking back at this fight with Weeks as a learning moment. Weeks gave him some trouble, though Garry was the clear winner. Garry showed flashes of brilliance with his striking, a beautiful jab, lightning-quick kicks and a crafty right hand. But he couldn’t put Weeks away, and he also ate some shots. And that’s perfectly OK.
The UFC should give him another opponent like Weeks next. Any talk of a ranked foe should be put on the backburner. Garry idolizes Conor McGregor and what he’s done in the sport, but the McGregor-like rise is not for everyone. There’s nothing wrong with taking it step by step. “The Future” is Garry’s nickname, but it doesn’t have to be tomorrow. – Raimondi