<
>

Alexander Volkanovski chasing 14th straight MMA victory at UFC 221

Alex Volkanovski celebrates after his victory in Auckland Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

He's the former concreter and rugby league enforcer turned MMA rising star with a weak spot for KFC, and now Alexander Volkanovski is eyeing up a 14th straight carcass at UFC 221 in Perth.

The Australian featherweight is looking to make Canadian Jeremy Kennedy his fourth consecutive UFC victim as part of that impressive winning streak, the two men facing off early in the preliminaries for Perth's maiden UFC event headlined by the Interim Middleweight title fight between Yoel Romero and Luke Rockhold.

The 29-year-old, who hails from Shellharbour, a two-hour drive south of Sydney, is now a stark contrast to the rugby league front-rower who once held the dream of making it in Australia's National Rugby League competition (the NRL) that is generally regarded as one of the toughest sporting competitions on the planet. But having first got into mixed martial arts to tune up for the rugby league preseason, the fighter known as 'The Great' soon felt right at home.

"Yeah, the NRL was [a goal] when I was younger, I thought I could make it," Volkanovski tells ESPN. "But I think when I started doing MMA I would have been 22 or 23, and realistically if you haven't made the NRL by then, it's looking pretty hard.

"I made all the representative sides and, in our comp, I got players' player of the year and I always got players' player of our team. I used to do really good, to be honest, without tooting my own horn. I was pretty good at it, and a lot of people thought I was mad when I wanted to make the decision to [move] to MMA because I used to be pretty good at what I did; that was being a 97kg front-rower, and I used to run the ball pretty hard. But UFC was my calling and I went and took it on, and now I'm in there."

Down from the "ball" he describes himself as when charging into opposition tacklers at 97kg, Volkanovski set about reducing his weight to find his ideal MMA division. But that wasn't always an easy mission, particularly on the site of his father's concreting business.

"I wouldn't say I miss it, that's for sure," Volkanovski chuckles when asked to recall his concreting days. "But I do it here and there just to help my old man [father] out. But a funny story? Cutting weight, because I remember when I used to fight [while still concreting], dropping the weight [wasn't easy] because after a good [concrete] pour everyone likes to drink beer and eat chicken -- KFC and things like that. So it's not really a funny story, but having a piece of chicken on the sly; that used to kill me."

Avoiding the Colonel's secret herbs and spices wasn't without its challenges, but Volkanovski's background in rugby league, a trait he shares with fellow Australian fighter Tai Tuivasa, otherwise provided the perfect preparation for the brutality that transpires inside the Octagon.

"I wrestled before rugby league so I always had a pretty good wrestling background, a good base, and that helped with my football," he says. "It just meant my balance was always so good; a strong core, good hips and just things like that just really played a factor in how I ran the ball and tackled. But not just that, rugby league makes you tough as well, especially me playing front-row. You can imagine me, 5"6', if I'm lucky, running straight at guys that are like six/seven-foot mountains ... you've got to be pretty fearless, you've got to be pretty tough, and it made me who I am today."

Kennedy, too, is riding a 3-0 unbeaten UFC streak, but Volkanovski sees little in the Canadian's repertoire to be concerned about -- least of which his attempt to paint himself as a "bad boy".

"I've said that I want the bad boys. So he's hash-tagging he's a bad boy, he reckons. But I reckon he looks too nice, he's a good kid. But if he wants to play the bad guy, I'll be happy to punch him in the face."

Alexander Volkanovksi

"I know a bit about him, I've watched a little bit of footage. Realistically, he's a grinder. He's fit; he's tough and he goes forward and he doesn't really let up. And I believe I'm pretty similar to that as well; we're both pressure fighters who like to really grind our opponents down. But I believe that's sort of all I need to worry about with him, even though he does do it well. I think I can do it better, and I think I've got a lot more tools. I've got my hands, I finish fights with my hands as well.

"It's funny, Jeremy Kennedy, because he knows that I've said after a couple of interviews or after my fights, I've said that I want the bad boys. So he's hash-tagging he's a bad boy, he reckons. But I reckon he looks too nice, he's a good kid. But if he wants to play the bad guy, I'll be happy to punch him in the face."

Volkanovski has recorded two of his three UFC victories on Australian soil, and he can't wait to "put on a show" for the fans in Perth in just under a fortnight's time. It is also another step in his quest to surge up the featherweight rankings.

"I love the fight game, there [isn't] a better job in the world. But I've got a job to do Feb. 11, and we're both 3-0 in the UFC, so this is really what is going to push us through. This is really what is going to push us through the ranks, so I'm very pumped for this fight. This is obviously the biggest fight of my life and I can't wait."