After briefly flirting with lightweight, Alexander Volkanovski returned to featherweight and showed on Saturday night why he’s still the best at this weight.
Volkanovski reasserted himself as champion with a technical knockout on Yair Rodriguez at 4:19 of round three in UFC 290.
Rodriguez was the interim champion after Volkanovski was temporarily promoted to lightweight, but the Aussie left little doubt as to who the better fighter was by taking his record to 26-2 in a five-round fight.
“There was a bit of fear… knowing how dangerous he was,” Volkanovski said. “That’s the honest truth. I put it in my head. This week I flipped the switch because I respect him. Now I’m a champion. I’m the king of the division. Nobody ever stopped me.”
Also in attendance was former President Donald Trump, who is running for the Republican nomination in 2024. He entered the venue just before the start of the main event, walking alongside UFC President Dana White and causing cheers from the sold-out T-Mobile Arena of 19,204. Trump shook hands with star Las Vegas Raiders defenseman Maxx Crosby, a big UFC fan seated behind him. NBA champion Denver Nuggets’ Jamal Murray also had a floored spot.
White said the goal cost $9.75 million.
“I don’t think you could have rounded off International Combat Week any better,” White said. “The energy was second to none. It was a perfect night.”
Volkanovski, a minus-390 favorite according to FanDuel Sportsbook, brought Rodriguez (16-4) to the mat near the 2-minute mark of the first round and left him there to set the pace. That became an issue as the second round was similar, with 34-year-old Volkanovski also firing multiple shots in Rodriguez’s face.
Rodriguez, who hails from Mexico, then picked up the fight with Volkanovski in the third round, preventing the ground and hitting him with a series of kicks to put him on defense. But with a minute left, Volkanovski slammed 30-year-old Rodriguez to the mat and smacked him left and right before referee Herb Dean intervened.
Rodriguez was taken to the hospital.
This was Volkanovski’s first fight since his unanimous loss to lightweight champion Islam Makhachev on February 11. That ended Volkanovski’s 22-fight winning streak, and after the brief promotion to lightweight, he dropped back to featherweight for that fight.
Prior to his rise, Volkanovski had won five title fights, making him the all-time best featherweight champion. He was also under discussion as the top current pound-for-pound fighter, and Volkanovski is second to Jon Jones in the official UFC rankings.
“I really come for all the records,” said Volkanovski. “I’m pretty close to getting a few of those but I still have a lot of goals to go.” I may be in that position right now but I guarantee I’ll be in the gym next week busting my ass off again .”
The Volkanovski-Rodriguez match was a highlight of the International Fight Week card that featured a second championship bout.
Brazilian Alexandre Pantoja captured the flyweight belt by defeating Mexican champion Brandon Moreno, winning by split decision. Both fighters were taken to a hospital after the fight. White said Moreno had a broken hand.
Judges Derek Cleary and Junichiro Kamijo gave the Pantoja the win, 48-47 in the five-round bout, but Ben Cartlidge saw the fight very differently, with a 49-46 result in Moreno’s favour.
Pantoja (26-5) collapsed on the mat after the decision was announced. He has beaten Moreno (21-7-2) in all three encounters.
“I worked so hard,” said Pantoja. “I left everything I had behind.”
Moreno, a minus 196 favorite, dominated the second round but struggled to defend Pantoja’s ground play in the other four rounds. Despite this, the fight was fairly even for the most part, and the blood on both fighters’ faces showed just how much each lusted after the other.
Moreno won the belt almost a year ago and successfully defended it in January.
Robbie Lawler, who was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame on Thursday, retires on a good note after knocking out Niko Price just 38 seconds into the first round of his welterweight bout.
Lawler, 41, ends his career with a 30-16 record and one non-contest. He broke down in tears upon seeing a video paying tribute to him after the fight, and the crowd roared and called his first name.
“It was a tough training camp,” Lawler said. “Nothing felt good. Today was the first day I felt good.”