<
>

Volkanovksi the humble local hero whose focus can't be swayed

play
Volkanovski's memory of schoolyard scrap (2:38)

Driving around his hometown in the Illawarra region, Alexander Volkanovski looks back on his schoolboy days, and one particular showdown in the schoolyard. (2:38)

Alexander Volkanovski comes from a family of concreters.

Growing up a few streets from the shore of Lake Illawarra, in Mount Warrigal, 90 minutes or so south of Sydney, the family home always retained a gravel driveway.

"We're concreters right, that driveway's done now, we lived in it for 10/15 years or something, we never did anything to it ... and then we knew the guy who lived in the house, so we [did] the driveway for him," Volkanovski says while bursting into laughter. The irony is real.

And so too is the region's love for Volkanovski as he takes ESPN on a guided tour of the area where he grew up and still lives today, just a few weeks out from his UFC featherweight title showdown against Max Holloway in Las Vegas.

The Illawarra region is about as far from the bright lights of Vegas as you can get. But it has been the perfect base for Volkanovksi and his mixed martial arts career.

There is his old rugby league club, Warilla Gorillas, and their homeground which, like most of eastern Australia right now, could use a week's worth of rain; the trees on the banks of Lake Illawarra where he used to play after school and swore went on forever; his favourite old pizza shop; Lake Illawarra High School [where he experienced one of his earliest tastes of pugilism] and the Central Hotel that will be full to the brim with locals cheering on a man who has gone from talented rugby league hardman to the UFC's No. 1 featherweight contender.

"You want to get to the pinnacle of whatever you start, especially when you take it professional and UFC is the pinnacle," Volkanovski says of his journey. "I've always said that I ain't just going to make the UFC, I wanna get to the top. And now I'm there, fighting Max Holloway, one of the greatest featherweights of all time - it's a toss between him and Aldo - but I'm about to fulfill that.

"I'm not cocky but I'm very confident; I know I'm winning that."

Volkanovski's hometown is rugby league heartland and the 31-year-old played the game for years before switching to mixed martial arts. He was handy at it, too, but, in his own words, probably just shy of the level needed to play professionally and therefore support his family, which is coincidentally the driving force behind his UFC rise.

He still remembers the Warilla Gorillas song, though, and busts out a few bars for ESPN as he glances through the gates and recalls some of his fondest memories in the blue and gold. There was the odd party, too, including a few Mad Mondays - for those reading in the United States, the concept of a Mad Monday is worth researching - but Volkanovski says he was never a guy who took things too far.

And those rugby league days came before kids as well, which have only further solidified Volkanovski's determination and work ethic to be the best athlete possible.

"I've always been a pretty responsible type of guy; I guess after footy games you have a bit of fun and stuff like that," Volkanovski opens up to ESPN. "I was never a guy who looked for trouble, but it did always find me. But I'm not a massive drinker and stuff like that; I'm pretty sensible. With having kids now, I do everything for them, they're my life. And it's perfect for my fight game because nothing motivates me more than them.

"When I'm dying at training, feeling like a busted a---, I'm thinking 'you need to win for these kids, you can't lose', like I always say 'I refuse to lose'. I can't lose because it's four steps back if you lose; that's money taken away from my family, that's more time taken away from my family to get that money. I've got to make that cheese."

Volkanovski is on a winning streak few others in the entire UFC can boast.

The Australian has rattled off seven straight wins in the featherweight division while his last defeat in any form of combat sports came way back in 2013. Volkanovksi is fighting with irresistible momentum and the nature of his victories over Chad Mendes and Jose Aldo suggest he could be the greatest threat yet to Holloway's 13-fight winning streak at 145 pounds.

Volkanovski has an unwavering self-belief that should not be confused with overconfidence, nor a lack of respect for his Hawaiian opponent.

"He's a humble, respectful champion," Volkanovski says of Holloway. "I like that, I like how some people don't have to be fake or anything like that. He's just real and people love him for it and that's how I believe I'm going to be when I'm the champ as well.

"Stylistically, what he does really well is that gas tank and that pressure; he's so good at being in someone's face and giving them that claustrophobic feeling. I'm very similar in that way but I like to use all my tools, whether its takedowns, kicks, punches, whatever; I'm in your face.

"So all these things that he does good, I can do; it works so well for him and it works so well for me in the division ... [but] I've got a lot more places where I can go; my wrestling background, my grappling and then I've got my power and things like that. I can lean in so many different directions.

"I believe that with his striking power, his punching volume; if things don't go to plan for him, where does he go? The fact is I'm not going to slow down; I just believe that I'm the guy. If you know the fight game, you know I'm the guy. And that's why there are a lot of analysts out there that are like 'this is the fight' ... people that know the game know I'm a real threat to Max. There's obviously a lot of doubters ... but I can't wait to prove them wrong. I can't wait, it's going to be good."

Bringing a UFC title to the Illawarra would be right up there, if not the pick of, the region's sporting achievements. They include a National Rugby League title [as part of the merged St George Illawarra Dragons], Illawarra Hawks [for whom potential No. 1 NBA Draft pick LaMelo Ball currently plays for] and their 2001 NBL title, and Wollongong Wolves' back-to-back titles in 2000/2001 in the now defunct National Soccer League.

But there is something more in the homegrown Volkanovski, the concreter made good, who now stands on the cusp of global sporting stardom.

Holloway is his immediate - and toughest - challenge but in no way does a victory over the Hawaiian represent Volkanovski's ultimate goal. The Australian is determined to be remembered as one of the UFC's greats.

"I need to be successful, you can be a champion and things can go downhill pretty quickly," Volkanovksi says as we drive away from Shellharbour - and past a pub where he got in a fight that he swears he didn't start - and make tracks for home.

"I'm going to be champion and I'm going to stay champion. I'm going to build my brand and then live off that. You build that legacy to live off, but again I'm doing it for my family, not for my legacy. Winning one or two fights is not enough to look after your family. You need to win and win big; win that belt and be the champion.

"And that's one more thing, you get that trash talking and you want people talking, I get that, I totally get that because it does hype people up. Some people be fake to get there and I don't hate them for that; if it's working for them, good on them. But at the same time, I've always thought that I'm going to be respectful, I'm going to be humble, I'm going to be me and I'm going to get to that position by earning it. It was earned, not given."

Pulling up outside his house, our guided tour complete, Volkanovski explains it's time for an upgrade of his abode. It's "too small" he says and not befitting that of a UFC World Champion. As he grabs his bag from the boot [trunk], an orange Holden Commodore emerges and releases a fan who just wants to wish the Australian featherweight well.

The punter reveals he used to train with Volkanovski a few years back as they talk for a couple of minutes, before the UFC star flicks the driver a quick thumbs-up and heads for his front door.

A man of the people. A concreter. A rugby league player. A father. A former accidental brawler.

And maybe, come Saturday, a UFC featherweight champion of the world.