Alexander Volkanovski is feeling confident. And for good reason – sporting a freshly shaven head, the Australian UFC featherweight champ arrives in Las Vegas this week hoping to make it 20 wins in 20 fights when he faces off against American Brian Ortega this Sunday.
The fight is long overdue. Volkanovski and Ortega were due to share the octagon in March at UFC260 but the matchup was cancelled after the Aussie contracted Covid-19, an experience that Volkanovski admits took its toll.
“It did knock me for ten at the start,” says the 32-year-old. “I was a little rattled by it and just had to ease back into training. The guys at the UFC Performance Institute, the doctors and trainers, really looked after me and gave me a program to ease back into it. That helped a lot. We just needed that bit of time but now I’m one hundred per cent.”
The fight against Ortega has a unique back story: whereas most fighters won’t see their opponent until they face off at the weigh in before trading jibes at the pre-fight press conference, Ortega and Volkanovski have had several months to get to know one another as opposing coaches on the TV series The Return of the Ultimate Fighter. Volkanovski says it’s an experience he’s used to his advantage.
“You get a lot of reads,” he says of the show, “not only on him as a human being but how he prepares, how he trains. We just soaked up all the knowledge we could. There were definitely things that I saw that I will take advantage of come fight time.”
Whatever Volkanovski is doing, it appears to be working. The man nicknamed Alexander ‘The Great’ has not lost a fight since May 2013. That’s eight years and 19 fights in which he has managed to remain unbeaten. This impressive record has a lot to do with Volkanovski’s natural talent and impressive worth ethic. But also deserving of credit is the industry-leading facilities the UFC fighters have at their disposal. The crown jewel of these facilities is the UFC Performance Institute (PI), which is where Volkanovski is calling us from when we talk.
“I’m just getting a bit of physio at the moment,” he explains. “Getting off the plane after a hard camp, I always come here to the PI to get looked after.”
The UFC currently has two Performance Institutes, one in Shanghai and one in Vegas. Each facility serves to “accelerate the evolution of MMA” according to the UFC’s VP of Performance Duncan French. “This means our ambitions are to influence performance behaviors throughout combat sport and MMA globally, and to elevate the standards of training, nutrition and medical practices to optimize athlete health, wellbeing and performance.”
In other words, think of the PI as the one-stop shop for improving all aspects of the UFC.
“This begins with the 600+ athletes on the UFC roster,” says French, “who can access world-class performance services in strength & conditioning, nutrition, sports medicine, sport science, and psychology free of charge at any time throughout the year.
“As the PI has evolved, we have also moved into talent development, and now have a full-time academy system training athletes in MMA technical skills in an effort to elevate them into the UFC.”
With MMA still in its infancy, the PI serves as something of an incubator, helping to fast-track the sport’s development across all aspects of performance. It’s hard to imagine such a facility on offer within some of the more ‘established’ sports. Sure, the likes of soccer, rugby and tennis have large governing bodies with incredible athlete services on offer, but these are largely partitioned by country or region. They aim to support a specific team or country. The UFC, on the other hand, offers its services and insights to the entire UFC roster from the champs like Volkanovski and New Zealand-based Israel Adesanya, right down to their junior fighters, regardless of where they’re from.
And the rest of the sporting world is beginning to take note. Not only is the PI supporting the wider MMA community, other disciplines have started engaging the PI in order to support their own athletes. The biggest example is with Team China at the recent Tokyo Olympics.
“The PI has helped Chinese Olympic Committee athletes in snowboarding, track cycling, rowing, kayaking, speed skating, and table tennis to name a few,” says French. “All these athletes and teams see beyond the PI as an MMA organization, but instead see us as a resource that truly understands human performance and how we can influence performance regardless of the sport.”
When French goes on to describe the technology on display at the PI, it’s easy to understand why. There’s instrumented mouthguards to evaluate head impacts; special rings that track data on sleep habits and heart variability; even technologies that track the menstrual cycles of female athletes. As French explains, “the list is almost endless”.
But the most exciting thing is the fact a third PI is rumoured to be coming to Australia. It’s an exciting thought, one that Volkanovski says will be “incredible” for developing the UFC Down Under.
But all that’s in the future. For now, Volkanovski is focused on one thing: defeating Brian Ortega on Sunday. The next few days, he says, will be spent at the PI putting the finishing touches on his preparation.
“After a hard camp, we dial everything back training wise. So we’ll train maybe once a day to stay sharp, keep things moving, work game plans. But most of it is getting that weight off, doing the water loading, getting treatments, getting the body moving right for game time.”
Will he make it 20 from 20? From what we’ve seen so far, only a fool would doubt him.