The Severe Spotlight: Ilia Topuria

When giants collide, and kings are dethroned, history must document the occasion. Ilia Topuria, accompanied by a swelling united front of Georgian and Spanish reverie, boarded a flight to Anaheim, California. During his 8 minute and 32 second tirade, burnt, ransacked, and pillaged any last trace of the last king’s kingdom, painted it red, white, and gold to match the flags in his hands and as he reached the throne, he sat atop it, a puddle of another mans blood his cushion.

Alexander Volkanovski stood aloft the 145lb division for 1526 days. Amassing five title defences, partaking in one of the greatest trilogies we have seen in the UFC and daring to be greater than the sum of his parts not once, but twice against Islam Makhachev.

It is essential that irrespective of what happens in the career of Alexander Volkanovski that he is remembered as one of the greatest featherweights of all time, but more than that. He should be remembered as one of the bridges between MMA’s infancy and MMA’s adolescence. He championed the absolute necessity for well-roundedness as an imperative standard in MMA.

He left us in awe at his spatial awareness, his footwork, his shot selection, his diversity, his ability to adapt during and between fights, his willingness to embrace elevation in his deficient skills, his offensive wrestling, the defensive wrestling against Islam Makhachev, his submission defence against Brian Ortega, his unrelenting range control against Max Holloway, his precision against The Korean Zombie, his dominance against Jose Aldo.

But above the in-cage skills, above the philosophical heavy lifting of the MMA meta, he should be remembered for his willingness to be vulnerable, his unrelenting thirst for competition whilst still being able to maintain humility, humanity, and humour. In the darkness of the current MMA zeitgeist that seems more about derision and cruelty for attention, Alexander Volkanovski stayed true to himself. That is a champion.

Ilia Topuria, however, has not faltered in his statement of intent since his UFC debut. He has bellowed to anyone that will listen that he would be a champion, before he separated Ryan Hall from his consciousness, after he came back from the depths of hell in a short notice fight against Jai Herbert, before he out classed Bryce Mitchell, and then certainly before and after he dominated Josh Emmett.

From the opening bell it was evident that this was a man that in his mind, had been a champion for a long time. He pranced to the centre of the cage and demanded it from the sound of Jason Herzog’s call to fight.

His wider stance, his slight tilt to his right, chambering the right hand. His angled front toes staring dead in the eyes of Volkanovski’s he stalked. Volkanovski didn’t needed asking more than once as he threw a left high kick up to ensure Topuria didn’t feel too comfortable in that chambered position.

Within the first minute of the opening round, we saw the first layers of both fighters gameplan. Topuria wanted to pressure Volkanovski with his footwork, press him behind the tramline and cause him to have to make tough decisions. Splitting the middle of the guard with crisp, fast straight shots or crowding him with the right hand. Conversely Volkanovski wanted to force Topuria to second guess entering the pocket, his favoured position, and so used lots of long range, diverse kicks to give Topuria something to be concerned with. Volkanovski wanted also to circle and look for check hooks and shots to the body, as per his style.

With six seconds left in the opening round we see the first exchange that caused concern for Volkanovski. As we would expect, he was circling to his right-hand side, away from the power of Topuria. Topuria shuffle feints, to which Volkanovski looks to chamber a kick. As the feint materialises into another shuffle into space, Volkanovski realises the range is now wrong for the kick he is selecting, and so flicks it out whilst retreating from the pocket. Topuria is already inside and knows Volkanovski is square, so feints the left in case Volkanovski continues right and lands with the right hand. Volkanovski did not want to circle to his left, into the power hand, but was forced too.

Elite level MMA.

In the next 30 seconds we see Volkanovski try to control the range a little more, lots more kicks and some stance switching. Topuria catches him again at 3:30 with the same double shuffle, both men land but this is warning signs for the champion. The kicking game is not keeping Topuria away, and worse than that, the timing is being read and countered.

Volkanovski peppers a jab out to switch the range and Topuria smashes a low achilles kick that spins Volkanovski 360 degrees. Another shot lands shortly after that forced Volkanovski to switch stances momentarily.

Some clever level change feinting in the next 30 seconds from Topuria allows him access to the pocket once more, as he catches Volkanovski with a straight shot counter to the naked low kick. Slowly Topuria is eroding away the options for Volkanovski. The longer kicking game has failed, the medium range, full rotated shoulder jabbing game was punished quickly, now the slightly tighter kicking game is punished immediately.

That is evident by the next 30 seconds, Topuria marches forward with more freedom, jabs to the body and head accentuated by a crisp 1-2 that stops a Volkanovski high kick dead in its tracks. The low calf kick, the shuffle steps, the level change feints, and the speed of the jabs keep racking up panic points in the Volkanovski processing machine.

As we creep into the final two minutes of round one, Topuria shows little respect for the two check left hooks Volkanovski offers, as he powers through the ranges to land a four-shot combination, the final right hand forcing Volkanovski to reset completely.

Closing out the fourth minute of the fight, Volkanovski makes an adjustment. He choses to up the pace, and to put himself closer to the pocket and instead rely on his own head movement and footwork to evade the hooks and low kicks from Topuria. This is for the most part, effective with him landing two very clean, snapping low kicks on Topuria.

Championship fights are won and lost in the adjustments, and Topuria made one of his own. Recognising the shift in gears from Volkanovski, he ducked his level more consistently and used rolling defensive head movements to give him the angle to land the shots inside.

The final minute see’s the first grappling exchange. Volkanovski ducking under the left hook of Topuria and looking for a takedown, Topuria immediately throws his hips back and regains the head position. Volkanovski was ready for it, launching a clean knee to the ribs of the challenger. Upgrading his grips to an underhook and a collar tie, he lands another. The third is thrown as Topuria angles off and out of the right-hand door.

The second round starts at a higher clip than the first, Volkanovski mixing the volume of kicks with the long jab. Topuria still looking to work himself inside. The first meaningful shot comes within the first thirty seconds a gorgeous switch right hand from Topuria, followed up well with a left and a second right hand.

Volkanovski continues his lateral circling, looking to pick off Topuria with his jab from his opposing stances. He lands a beautiful check right hand counter to a Topuria left hand and lets Topuria know. The challenger doesn’t allow that to slide, a penetration step catches Volkanovski square, and he is punished by eating a clean left and right hook pairing. Volkanovski, ever the gentleman nods his head in approval.

For the first time in the fight, Volkanovski’s back touches the fence. This signals a barrelling into range from Topuria, who whilst landing two hooks to the body, is met with three knees, forcing him to exit.

As we reach the apex of the fight the momentum swings are on a heavy pendulum almost second by second. Volkanovski buoyed by gaining marginal respect over Topuria is instantly snatched away by the Georgian fighter as he clammers and drags Volkanovski back to a level his ego is comfortable with.

The Volkanovski jab is much more effective of a tool in this round, in part it is keeping Topuria at bay. This is because Volkanovski has given Topuria something to think about in the clinch and is switching up his long jabs with his variety of kicks. He is dabbling with pocket fighting and using his head movement and footwork to counter when he can.

Whilst being at bay, the mind of Topuria is chunking and churning data at a rapid rate. He is reading and analysing the gaps for him to counter and land. He fires a big right hand with 2:25 left on the clock that narrowly misses Volkanovski. Testing the waters.

It feels that Volkanovski may have gotten too comfortable in his output, and failed to recognise that Topuria was chunking and waiting and edging closer to the pocket. It could also be possible that Volkanovski was so hyper-aware of that fact that the volume upped and the adherence to footwork was not the same. An overhand right beat the lead jab of Volkanovski and backed him up. Topuria sensed his moment and leapt in with a inside head roll, that chambered the left hook. The left hook fed right into a right hook that narrowly missed. The astonishing spatial awareness that comes next is just unbelievable. Topuria posts on the cheek of Volkanovski to measure the next shot, at the same time he strafes to his right to get a clean angle, seemingly while the right hand has already been unleashed.

To have the awareness in that moment, to be able to bear the weight of the context, the consequence, the severity of that moment and to still pull out a technical adjustment like that is astounding, utterly astounding.

Volkanovski drops and is unconscious immediately, Jason Herzog rushes in and saves Volkanovski from any further punishment valiantly. A new king is crowned.

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