In an interview last week, Alexander Volkanovski, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s featherweight champion, said he “felt honored to close the show” at U.FC. 290, perhaps the most important card to date for the sport in 2023.
In the third round, he did exactly that, finishing Yair Rodríguez with a combination of a big punch, a final takedown and a flurry of punches to win the unification bout and cement himself atop the U.F.C.’s roster of athletes. Volkanovski, the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter in the U.F.C.’s rankings, never seemed to be threatened, easily thwarting Rodríguez’s strikes and countering with wrestling takedowns.
In the co-main event, Brandon Moreno lost the flyweight belt to Alexandre Pantoja in split decision, a fast-paced fight that Pantoja won by prevailing in the grappling exchanges. With the losses by Moreno and Rodríguez, the women’s flyweight champion Alexa Grasso is now the U.F.C.’s only champion born in Mexico, something of an inconvenience for the U.F.C. as it expands its presence in the country, including plans to open a performance institute in Mexico City in October.
Volkanovski, a former rugby player who trains at the New Zealand-based gym City Kickboxing with the star middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, has headlined three pay-per-view cards since entering the U.F.C. in 2016, including in Perth, Australia in February, when he lost a competitive five-round fight to the lightweight champion Islam Makhachev.
Had Volkanovski won that fight, he would have become the fifth U.F.C. fighter to hold belts in two different weight classes simultaneously. As Volkanovski attempted to claim a championship in a heavier weight class, the U.F.C. introduced an interim featherweight belt, which Rodríguez earned in February by submitting Josh Emmett.
When Jon Jones, the No. 1 pound for pound fighter and arguably the greatest U.F.C. fighter of all time, defeated Ciryl Gane to claim the heavyweight title in March, most fans expected Jones to headline this card against the former heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic. U.F.C. 290 fell on International Fight Week, a staple event for the promotion filled with ceremonies such as its Hall of Fame induction.
Fight cards held at the end of that week are normally one of the strongest of the year, and headliners in the past included stars such as Jones, Conor McGregor and Adesanya. But the U.F.C. booked Volkanovski’s unification bout and saved Jones-Miocic for U.F.C. 295 in November at Madison Square Garden. In an interview, Dana White, the U.F.C. president, said he felt comfortable placing Volkanovski atop U.F.C. 290, saying his cachet outside the United States gives him the ability to carry an important event.
“When you talk about what makes him a star, it’s about selling pay-per-views,” White said in an interview. “Stars equal pay-per-views. This guy’s one of the biggest pay-per-view draws in the sport. He’s the No. 2 for pound-for-pound fighter in the world and he impacts pay-per-view sales in the United States, Canada and the U.K. and absolutely destroys it in Australia and New Zealand.”
He continued: “His stock has never been higher. This is the biggest we cold have gone other than bringing in Conor McGregor or Jon Jones.”
Volkanovski’s sponsorship opportunities are also expanding. In June, he and Adesanya became the first athletes to be sponsored by a sports drink company founded by Logan Paul, the social media influencer who has dabbled in boxing.
As the U.F.C. groomed fighters like Jones, McGregor and Adesanya for mainstream recognition, they were aided by the athletes’ personalities and trash talk. But Volkanovski has mostly remained poised during news conferences and promotional events, and said he rarely tried to change or exaggerate his personality to increase his visibility. Instead, he said he focused on winning, and said he felt his slot was a testament to the U.F.C.’s belief in him and an opportunity to gain more fans.
“We’re obviously pushing the needle good enough to be in the position we are, and I was able to be myself through the whole process,” Volkanovski said in an interview last week. “I’m trying to inspire a lot of people and I think it’s working.”
Volkanovski, in his post-fight interview with the commentator and podcast star Joe Rogan, said he needed surgery on one of his arms before he competes next, and would need to reassess his next move. He could chase the lightweight championship again or defend the featherweight belt again. White, during the post-fight news conference, said Volkanovski had earned the right to dictate his next steps.
“Whatever he wants to do, we’ll probably roll with it,” White said.