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UFC 284: Alexander Volkanovski unfazed by Islam Makhachev's comments about his height

In nearly every interview he has done prior to his first defense of his lightweight title at UFC 284 on Saturday, champion Islam Makhachev has made some mention of featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski's height — or lack thereof.

Like most of Volkanovski's opponents, Makhachev is taller. The Russian, who won the belt in October by dominating Charles Oliveira in Abu Dhabi, is 5-foot-10, or 4 inches taller than the 5-foot-6 Volkanovski.

"There's breaking news," Volkanovski said of Makhachev referencing his height. "I've been short all my life. I was short when I was in rugby league. I've been short since I've been fighting and in all the things I've done [athletically]. I've managed to deal with it, I guess. I'm a short fellow, and I've always had to find ways in and all that stuff, so I've built a whole style around myself and my height."

Indeed, Volkanovski has managed to do fairly well in MMA despite his height. Since his only career loss, which came at welterweight in his fourth pro bout to Corey Nelson, Volkanovski has done nothing but win. He has reeled off 22 consecutive victories, including 12 in a row in the UFC.

It should be noted that while Volkanovski is 4 inches shorter, he has a slight reach advantage, with a reach of 71 inches compared to Makhachev's 70. It's probably wise to realize he's short, not small.

He described himself to Yahoo Sports "as a brick wall" as he has moved back up to lightweight.

UFC featherweight champion Alex Volkanovski, posing in front of a mural of himself in Sydney shrugs off opponent Islam Makhachev's taunts about his height. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Zuffa LLC)
UFC featherweight champion Alex Volkanovski, posing in front of a mural of himself in Sydney shrugs off opponent Islam Makhachev's taunts about his height. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Zuffa LLC)

Volkanovski's first five fights were at welterweight. Saturday's bout will be the sixth lightweight bout of his career and his second in the UFC. When he made his UFC debut against Yusuke Kusuya in 2016 in Melbourne, it was at lightweight.

Volkanovski, who is No. 1 in the UFC's pound-for-pound rankings, a spot above Makhachev, isn't too put off by his opponent's verbal taunts. And he thinks there are advantages there for him.

"It's a fact that taking someone short down is a lot harder," he told Yahoo Sports. "Scrambling is a lot harder. Controlling that lower center of gravity is going to be a lot harder. I don't think there's a strategic reason for him to be talking like this, other than maybe he thinks it's getting into my head. Maybe he thinks I think I'm tall, and he's trying to make me realize I'm short. Maybe it's something like that."

The statistics show that Makhachev has a decided edge in wrestling. He connects on 65% of his takedown attempts and stuffs 88% of the attempts against him. Volkanovski's figures are 36% on takedowns and 73% on takedown defense.

Makhachev is from Dagestan, where wrestling is more than a sport. It's a way of life. There have been 17 Olympic wrestling gold medalists from Dagestan and scores of amateur world champions.

For some reason, though, Makhachev has been talking about striking with Volkanovski.

"Honestly, I want to knock him out because everybody says [that] Islam [is] a grappler or wrestler, but I want to show people my striking,” Makhachev said in an interview with Carlos Contreras of ESPN Deportes. “He is a short guy, and I really believe I can knock him out."

Volkanovski chuckled at the notion that Makhachev, a highly pedigreed wrestler, would opt to stay in the pocket and slug with him.

"He's been talking, I guess, trying to hype up the fight, but we all know he wants to shoot and try to hang onto me," Volkanovski said. "He doesn't want to try to strike with me, and he'll find that out pretty quickly."

Volkanovski still hasn't decided how much weight he wants to put back on after the weigh-in, when he'll have to hit the championship level of 155 pounds. He said he could walk to the cage weighing the same as Makhachev, but he's going to try not to be any bigger than 170 pounds.

He'll need some bulk to defend against Makhachev's takedowns and grappling, but eventually, it's a case of diminishing returns the more weight he adds.

"Me putting on extra weight just for the sake of it, I don't think that's going to make me stronger," Volkanovski said. "It might make me a little more top-heavy if I'm on top and all that type of stuff, but I need to keep him puzzled on the feet, keep him uncomfortable on the feet because remember: We start on the feet. It's important to remember that. We start on the feet, and I want to keep it there. I'm going to be sharp, keeping him busy, in and out, puzzling that brain of his and make him get desperate and try to grab ahold of me and really try to get me down. He'll be uncomfortable on his feet, and I'll need the [quickness] for movement and things like that."

Volkanovski said he thinks he'll have an advantage because of his fight IQ. He didn't begin to fight MMA until he was 22 and has become one of the sharpest fighters in the game in the ensuing 12 years. He's a large underdog despite being the pound-for-pound best in the world. At BetMGM, Makhachev is -375, while Volkanovski is +290.

Volkanovski said it's because people forget how well he thinks about the game.

"I'm a very, very quick learner, and I adapt very well," he said. "Obviously, I've got that never-give-up attitude, the mindset to never die, just keep going, all that type of stuff. That's just who I am.

"I'm a problem solver, and I have the fight IQ, all that stuff that really, I believe, separates me from my past opponents. That's what people are forgetting. They see these problems Islam presents to me, but they forget I'm a problem solver. I figure these things out, and it's what has made me who I am."

DALLAS, TEXAS - JULY 30: UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski of Australia cheers from the crowd for teammate Kai Kara-France of New Zealand in his UFC flyweight championship fight during the UFC 277 event at American Airlines Center on July 30, 2022 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Alex Volkanovski is a +290 underdog to lightweight champion Islam Makhachev, who is a -375 favorite. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)