Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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UFC 298: Why Ilia Topuria is dripping with confidence ahead of the biggest fight of his young career

To say that Ilia Topuria is dripping with confidence entering Saturday’s title shot at UFC 298 in Anaheim, California, would be quite the understatement. The unbeaten featherweight contender has been a veritable swirling tsunami of self belief throughout fight week.

From predicting a knockout of long-time featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski (26-3) to changing his social media accounts to read “Undefeated 15-0, UFC Champion,” Topuria (14-0) has let it be known to anyone unaware of his rising stardom just how ready he is to take the mantle as the next big thing in the sport.

The 27-year-old Topuria even broke customary superstitions by posing with the UFC title during a pre-fight photo shoot and has already declared that his first fight after winning the title won’t be against any of the dangerous featherweights behind him in the rankings. Instead, Topuria believes a fight against Conor McGregor at lightweight would be the only logical next choice.

Talk about calling your shot. 

“[I see myself] as one of the greatest in the featherweight division,” Topuria said during Wednesday’s UFC 298 media day. “They are going to remember me, too, as they remember Jose Aldo, Conor McGregor and Alex Volkanovski. I’m going to put myself in that book.”

For anyone looking for a reason behind Topuria’s lavish self-evaluation, his six-fight run of destruction ever since debuting in the UFC back in 2020 should be ample proof enough.

Topuria has improved dramatically from fight to fight as he evolved from folding Jai Herbert in half with a single punch last March to pounding Bryce Mitchell so demonstrably on the ground en route to a second-round submission win that Mitchell openly considered retirement in the aftermath. For his most recent display, Topuria showcased his five-round cardio by dominantly outpointing former interim title challenger Josh Emmett in a main event that aired on ABC.

The problem for most who took umbrage with Topuria’s brashness was that he isn’t fighting just another contender this weekend in the UFC’s 10th visit overall to the Honda Center and first since UFC 270 in 2022. He’s fighting a former pound-for-pound king who has already established himself as one of the greatest fighters in promotional history.

“I don’t see any difference, to be honest [between Volkanovski and any other opponent,]” Topuria said. “It’s like a normal fighter that I have in my way. Everywhere, I’m better than him everywhere.”

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To be fair, Topuria might be catching Volkanovski at the perfect time. The 35-year-old champion enters having lost two of his last three, both times against lightweight champion Islam Makhachev, including a head-kick knockout in their 155-pound title rematch just four months ago.

That fight, however, came after accepting the fight on just 12 days’ notice. This time, Volkanovski will have the benefit of the full camp entering his return to a division where he is 18-0 overall, including wins in all 13 featherweight walks to the Octagon.

Asked about Volkanovski’s negative response to his bold predictions on his social media accounts, Topuria stood his ground.

“To be honest, what I do in my Instagram bio, that’s my thing,” Topuria said. “I don’t know why he’s looking to my Instagram, to be honest. I never saw his Instagram, never. If I saw something about him, it’s because people around me sent it. Do you think I would go through his Instagram and want him to change something, this or that?

“I see myself knocking him out in the first round.”

Topuria drew even more pushback from the trio of featherweight title contenders he said he would never face — Max Holloway, Brian Ortega and Yair Rodriguez — after he told various outlets this week that “each fighter must suck if they lost to Volkanovski.” He went on to share his hope of parlaying a title win into breakout stardom in the form of a McGregor fight. 

“I just think he’s a p—-,” Rodriguez told “Morning Kombat” on Wednesday. “I f—ing dislike the guy. He is delusional but, honestly, I don’t even give a f— about the guy. I would love to f— him up at some point and I think we are going to face each other unless he doesn’t f—ing want to. That’s what I think about him.”

Ortega, who caught up with CBS Sports this week, was just as dismissive.

“You have to win the belt for that to happen,” Ortega said. “That was my first thought. Let’s say you do win and you’re not going to give us a shot. I’m going to make sure to ruin every contender, simple as that. One, you have to win it. Two, I’m going to take all the contenders away from you … If you don’t want to fight us then I’m going to take all your people.”

Even UFC CEO Dana White felt Topuria was getting a little bit ahead of his skis while chatting with Kevin Iole about the McGregor idea.

“I don’t know about that,” White said. “When you’re undefeated and you have never tasted defeat and have been on the rise that this guy is on, that is the way you should be thinking and what your mentality should be. But let’s see how things play out on Saturday night.”

The beauty of Topuria’s aggressive callouts is that should he win the title, there’s already buzz growing for bitter title defenses against any of the three featherweights in question. And even though the McGregor callout is a bit far-fetched, there is the potential of legitimate stardom in his future should the German-born fighter of Georgian descent capture the title on Saturday.

“Who doesn’t want to fight me right now?” Topuria said. “I didn’t become a UFC world champion yet. I have three more days to do it and they are already calling me out. Everybody is. Why? Yeah, red panty nights.”

Topuria doesn’t just have the look and swagger of a headliner, he has a country behind him in Spain, where he moved to at age 15 and discovered martial arts, that the promotion has been anxiously hoping to invade for some time. Only, Topuria doesn’t just represent Spain, he’s an outright star there already, rubbing elbows with multiple global-renowned soccer stars, including Sergio Ramos, who Topuria said will be in attendance at UFC 298.

Yet, for as much clout as Topuria has already acquired in just a short time, his all-around talent is even more impressive.

With knockout power in both hands and an assassin-like patience, Topuria is a handful for anyone at 145 pounds. But it’s his technical knowhow as a grappler, which has produced eight submission wins in 14 career fights, that makes him even more dangerous.

In fact, Topuria has heard the whispers that Volkanovski is planning on using his wrestling advantage to his favor against him. Spoiler alert: he isn’t worried.

“The doubt is always going to be there,” Topuria said. “Every single fight I have had, someone has always said the same thing. There is always somebody saying something of someone is better than I am. [Volkanovski] is very good at what he does. But that’s all he has. There is so much more for me to offer.

“He needs to understand one thing, that he hasn’t seen me. I am not any of these fighters that he has faced before. I am Ilia Topuria and I am going to do something to him and finish him off. He doesn’t have knockout power, he’s not a finisher. I’m a different breed and I’m going to beat him up. Whoever thinks a point of contrary, screw them.”

Asked how much he expects his life to change should he capture UFC gold, Topuria flashed a bit of humility to put his entire endeavor in perspective.

“I don’t care about that kind of things. I just want to be happy, and I’m already very happy with my life,” Topuria said. “Any result is not going to change my life. I’m a happy man and I will wake up as a happy man after this Saturday, too.”

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