It’s been a hell of a year for Australian former rugby league player Alexander Volkanovski.
The 31-year-old followed up his 2018 wins over Jeremy Kennedy, Darren Elkins and Chad Mendes with the two biggest wins of his mixed martial arts career as he defeated Brazilian legend Jose Aldo at UFC 237 in Rio, then outworked world champion Max Holloway at UFC 245 in Las Vegas to capture the UFC featherweight title.
Now, as Volkanovski sits back with his family and his shiny new UFC world championship belt, the Aussie knows that he faces the biggest challenge of his career in 2020. Winning the title is one thing, but hanging on to it is something else – especially in one of the most exciting, talented divisions in the sport.
Usually, the reigning champion of a division has one or two key names they know they have to prepare for. But for Volkanovski, that list is significantly longer. There are FIVE fighters who all have legitimate claims for a title shot in 2020, and Volkanovski could find himself facing any number of them as the UFC looks to run its biggest schedule ever next year.
Here’s the murderers’ row of contenders jockeying for position to face Volkanovski for the belt, and why they’re worthy of a shot at the Aussie’s newly-won gold:
Last four: WIN vs Brian Ortega (R4 TKO), LOSS vs Dustin Poirier (decision at 155lbs), WIN vs Frankie Edgar (decision), LOSS vs Alexander Volkanovski (decision)
Holloway’s reign as UFC featherweight champion had taken him from a young prospect to arguably the greatest featherweight champion in UFC history. The amiable Hawaiian’s crowd-pleasing fighting style and relentless cardio helped him power past every contender he faced… except Volkanovski. And, after such an impressive title reign, it only seems just that Holloway gets the opportunity to rematch Volkanovski for the belt in 2020.
A rematch between the pair seems the most likely first title defence for Volkanovski, who told reporters in the post-fight presser that he’d be happy to give Holloway a rematch. But, then again, he said he’d also be a true fighting champion and give opportunities to those who deserve it. So if Holloway isn’t ready, or if the UFC wants to shake up the division a little, they could go in a different direction…
“THE KOREAN ZOMBIE”
Last four: WIN vs Dennis Bermudez (R1 KO), LOSS vs Yair Rodriguez (R5 KO), WIN vs Renato Moicano (R1 KO), WIN vs Frankie Edgar (R1 KO)
THE KOREAN ZOMBIE DOES IT AGAIN! 🇰🇷💀
He stops Frankie Edgar in the first round! Scenes at #UFCBusan!
Relentless 👊 pic.twitter.com/xLp8bLz2Fd
— UFC on BT Sport (@btsportufc) December 21, 2019
Recency bias often plays a big part in matchmaking in the UFC, and that makes South Korean star Chan Sung Jung a strong contender to earn the first shot at Volkanovski next year. “The Korean Zombie” has looked outstanding since his return from national service in Korea, and only a freak last-second KO to another member of this list, Yair Rodriguez, has blotted his copybook since his return to the sport.
Other than that stunning KO against Rodriguez, Chan has looked every inch a number-one contender, having finished each of his last three wins by first-round knockout. And his demolition of Frankie Edgar in his last fight proved that he’s ready for a shot at the gold.
He’s in a crowded group of contenders, but he deserves a shot. Will he get it first?
Last four: WIN vs Kyle Bochniak (decision), WIN vs Brandon Davis (R2 sub), WIN vs Jeremy Stephens (decision), WIN vs Calvin Kattar (decision)
Zabit made it six wins from six in his UFC career…
— UFC on BT Sport (@btsportufc) November 10, 2019
Russian phenom Zabit Magomedsharipov has long been considered a contender for a future shot at 145-pound gold, but has never been at the very front of the queue. He’s almost there now, thanks to his wins over Stephens and Kattar, but his lack of finishes at the top level may just count against him when the matchmakers assess who gets the next shot.
Magomedsharipov has a diverse skillset and, like his colleagues on the list, has an exciting, crowd-pleasing fighting style. But unless the fight takes place in Russia, it’s perhaps less likely that he’ll get the nod, especially given Chan’s stunning performance at the weekend.
Last four: LOSS to Frankie Edgar (R2 TKO), WIN vs Chan Sung Jung (R5 KO), NO CONTEST vs Jeremy Stephens (eye poke), WIN vs Jeremy Stephens (decision)
WHAT. A. FIGHT! 😍
On the UFC's 25th birthday, Korean Zombie and Yair Rodriguez gave us a main-event for the ages 🙌
— UFC on BT Sport (@btsportufc) November 11, 2018
Yair Rodriguez is a super-exciting Mexican star who crucially holds a knockout win over another member of this list, Chan Sung Jung. But his overall form might not quite stack up against “The Korean Zombie” in terms of being a compelling next challenger. He’s there or thereabouts, but needs that definitive statement victory to make him undeniable, and his two fights with Stephens probably aren’t quite enough to do that.
He’ll get his shot at gold in the next two years, but he might not be in the best position to get the next one.
Last four: WIN vs Renato Moicano (R3 sub), WIN vs Cub Swanson (R2 sub), WIN vs Frankie Edgar (R1 KO), LOSS vs Max Holloway (R4 TKO)
"Do you. Believe. What we. Just. Saw?!" 😱
Brian Ortega became the first man to finish Frankie Edgar with one of the best KOs of 2018 💥
— UFC on BT Sport (@btsportufc) December 7, 2018
Brian Ortega has been out of the loop since his December defeat to Holloway back in 2018. He hasn’t fought since then, and has been working hard behind the scenes on rebuilding his fight team and putting the pieces in place ahead of a comeback. He was all set to face “The Korean Zombie” last weekend before an ACL injury spoiled those plans and now he’s looking to battle his way back to fitness for 2020.
If his performances prior to his defeat to Holloway are anything to go by, we should expect him to bounce back better than ever. Before his rare below-par performance against Holloway, Ortega was finishing everyone in sight. And when he returns to the cage, he’ll do so as a bona-fide contender. But the one-year layoff will almost certainly mean he’ll have to pick up a big win over a fellow contender before he’s handed another shot at the title.
HOW WE’D BOOK THE FEATHERWEIGHTS FOR EARLY 2020
Max Holloway undeniably deserves a rematch for the UFC featherweight title so, assuming he’s fit and ready to go, he should get the first crack at Volkanovski in 2020. As for the rest of the division, the remaining four should go head to head in a mini-tournament to decide who gets the next shot at the gold.
Ortega vs Chan and Rodriguez vs Magomedsharipov would both be outstanding matchups and, if you wanted to really showcase the division, you could hold all three fights on the same card to put the winners all on the same timeline and make booking the next fights all the easier.
Then, the most impressive winner of the two contender fights could move on to face the winner of Volkanovski-Holloway 2. Or, if there’s a delay, they could face off for the clear number-one contender spot.
However the UFC matchmakers decide to play it, 2020 looks like being an exciting year for the featherweights, and with so many contenders and so many permutations, it should be a fun division to watch for the fans.