Volkanovski and Holloway complete title trilogy at UFC 276

FILE – Alexander Volkanovski lands an elbow on Max Holloway during a featherweight mixed martial arts championship bout at UFC 245, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, in Las Vegas.  Alexander Volkanovski has already beaten Max Holloway twice in UFC featherweight title fights, and that still hasn't been enough to settle this rivalry on virtually everyone's mind.  (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

FILE – Alexander Volkanovski lands an elbow on Max Holloway during a featherweight mixed martial arts championship bout at UFC 245, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, in Las Vegas. Alexander Volkanovski has already beaten Max Holloway twice in UFC featherweight title fights, and that still hasn’t been enough to settle this rivalry on virtually everyone’s mind. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

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Alexander Volkanovski has already beaten Max Holloway twice in UFC featherweight title fights, and that still hasn’t been enough to settle this rivalry.

It’s a measure of the excitement generated by the first two fights between these two electrifying forwards. It’s also an illustration of sport-wide respect for Volkanovski, the Australian with a 21-game winning streak, and for Holloway, the former 145-pound Hawaii champion.

Besides being brilliant fighters, they’re two highly rated guys in a sport with some unsavory characters.

Volkanovski and Holloway will once again head to UFC 276 at T-Mobile Arena on the Las Vegas Strip on Saturday night, each hoping to end this trilogy with a decisive win.

“It’s a legacy fight,” Holloway said. “We’re at the higher end of the pound-for-pound ranks, and these fights don’t happen very often. People are calling us the main event of this card, and that says a lot about how good this fight is.

The mixed martial arts promotion’s biggest event of the summer is headlined by Israel Adesanya’s fifth middleweight title defense against Jared Cannonier. The UFC’s typically stacked 4th of July weekend card also features Brazilian kickboxing star Alex Pereira against middleweight contender Sean Strickland, along with the returns of Robbie Lawler, Suga Sean O’Malley, Jim Miller and Uriah Lobby.

But the most compelling matchup is Volkanovski (24-1) against Holloway (23-6), who held the featherweight belt from 2016 until Volkanovski took it from him in December 2019 with a relentless tactical performance. Holloway lost to Volkanovski for the second time in July 2020 in Abu Dhabi in an extremely slim decision.

Few rivalries span three fights when the first two fights haven’t been split, but this is no ordinary rivalry. Volkanovski has defended the belt twice since that second fight with Holloway, while Holloway edged out Calvin Kattar and Yair Rodríguez in a pair of thrillers to stay in prime position to reclaim his belt.

“It’s the biggest fight I can do right now,” Volkanovski said. “Everyone wants to see it, and that’s it. I give him credit. He was stubborn. He says, “Nobody’s taking that No. 1 candidate spot from me.” He stayed there and took out all the guys and didn’t let them shoot me, and now he gets the shot. Of course. That’s exactly what I would do in the same situation.

While Holloway and Volkanovski trade verbal jabs like all top contenders, there’s a clear respect between the top two featherweights in UFC history who aren’t named Jose Aldo. Holloway was gracious about his second loss while making sure no one thought he was okay with the decision in which he beat the champion in each of the first three rounds and then fought off a tenacious fifth.

“If you look from the first to the second fight, I’m two different fighters, and it will be different fighters again,” Holloway said. “I have to go 50 minutes with this guy, 10 rounds with this guy. This one, it will be blessed if we exceed three (turns).

Holloway’s formidable chin kept him going against Volkanovski’s power, but Holloway soaked up an impressive amount of cumulative damage over 25 fights in his first decade in the UFC. Volkanovski thinks he can punctuate this rivalry by becoming the first opponent to record a knockdown of Holloway.

“If I could take that chin and turn it off, that’s really sending a statement, because no one has,” Volkanovski said. “He takes damage. It can’t last forever, but let’s see if it holds up in this fight, because I’m going to land some big punches. Let’s see if that legendary chin holds up.

Volkanovski and Adesanya are teammates at City Kickboxing in Auckland, New Zealand, where Adesanya (22-1) went from kickboxing star to MMA champion.

He is a heavy favorite to beat Cannonier (15-5), who won his first UFC title at age 38. Cannonier is on an impressive streak of five wins and one narrow loss to former champion Robert Whittaker over the past four years.

Adesanya has been talking about Cannonier as a future opponent for years, but he still expects to extend his title reign in the main event of UFC 276.

“His fighting spirit and his essence, I recognize that, because I’m an empath myself,” Adesanya said. “I can kind of feel the energy of a great man and a great fighter. I love dealing with these guys, and I saw that in him early on. I tried to boost it very early. He failed once, then came back and proved his worth as the next contender.

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Naomi C. Amerson