When looking at the field of this past seventh season of the Bellator heavyweight tournament, it featured multiple fighters who had fought for titles in organizations like Strikeforce as well as UFC veterans, but it was the tallest yet lightest fighter in the entire field who worked his way to the top.
Alexander Volkov, a 6'7 24-year old striker out of the Rusfighter team in Omsk, Russia defeated former Strikeforce standout Brett Rogers, UFC veteran Vinicius Queiros and then former Bellator title challenger Richard Hale to not only win the tournament but actually be crowned the new Bellator heavyweight champion.
With Cole Konrad's surprise retirement, the heavyweight title had been vacated earlier this year, thus a gap in the Bellator title picture needed to be filled. Volkov defeated Hale via five round unanimous decision this past Friday night (Dec. 14, 2012) in the main event of Bellator 84 to fill the void and enter his name into the Bellator lexicon.
On a team that features incredibly talented combatants like Andrey Koreshkov, "Tiger" Sarnavskiy and Alexander Shlemenko, it was Volkov who was the first Russian to be crowned a Bellator champ.
"Drago" spoke with MMAmania.com during a guest appearance on The Verbal Submission last night about how it feels to be a champion, the adjustments he made to win the final four rounds against Hale and how he plans to spend that $100,000 in prize money in this exclusive interview.
Check it out:
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Out of all the talented fighters out of your Rusfighters Gym, were you surprised to be the first to become a Bellator champion?
Alexander Volkov: Yes, I can say that it came to me as a surprise. Of course I was preparing for this tournament really, really hard and then I found out that the winner of this tournament would automatically become the new Bellator heavyweight champion. I think personally that Alexander Shlemenko has earned this more than I do because he has been fighting for the organization for almost two years and because of that, I feel a great amount of responsibility. I represent my country, myself as the Bellator champion so it's a great responsibility.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): After finding out about the five round title fight during the tournament, did you have to make any adjustments to your training to specifically prepare for a five round fight?
Alexander Volkov: I always train to the maximum of my abilities so even though I learned it would be a five round championship bout about three weeks before the date of the fight, I didn't have enough time to make adjustments but at the same time, I was ready for five rounds because I always train hard and I consider conditioning and stamina as one of my best qualities as a fighter.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Let's talk about last Friday's fight. Richard Hale landed a really big right hand in the first round that hurt you, but he never got close again after that. What adjustments did you make during the fight to not let him do that again?
Alexander Volkov: Of course both myself and Richard Hale, we were studying each other's bouts before the fight in preparation to fight each other. In the first round we both tried things that would hopefully grant us success and I noticed that every time when I tried to punch him with my right hand, all the combinations that included the right hand punch, he was prepared to counter me with his right hand and he actually caught me with his right hand towards the end of the first round.
I had to make adjustments and in the later rounds, I used my left hand jab more and my leg kicks because they were landing. Also if you noticed when I used the combinations where I kicked with my right foot, he always grabbed it so he was ready for that. In the later rounds I used the jabs and left kicks because all of them were landing and he just couldn't find a key to counter that. I was winning without him even touching me.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Now you also had the exact same reach as Hale at 81 inches but you were still able to keep him at distance with yours. Can you go into specifics about how you were able to keep him at bay despite being able to punch the same length?
Alexander Volkov: Even though we have the same reach, I was still a bit taller than him. If he wanted to hit me, he had to punch at an upward direction while I was punching in a downward direction and I was faster and a bit more accurate with my punches and that gave me more of an opportunity to attack him while he wasn't able to engage and attack me.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): It looked like you were trying to counter him for most of the fight. Was it frustrating that he wasn't engaging often and giving you many opportunities?
Alexander Volkov: Well my coach and camp studied his fights very carefully and we noticed that when his opponents rush in, he's very good at counterattacking. He has many wins by KO or TKO by catching his opponents coming. My goal was to counter attack him and when he wasn't engaging, I tried to provoke him by landing my leg kicks or jabs, even if I landed them when he was defending, I was still trying to provoke him, to make him attack and that's where I was countering and that's why I was actually getting him.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Being champion is great, but do you wish that you had had an opportunity to fight the old champion Cole Konrad before he retired earlier this year?
Alexander Volkov: Well we can say that what happened in the past, stays in the past. Right now I am champion and I'm very glad about it and I'm ready to face anybody that Bellator would put in front of me and I'm ready to fight any contender whoever he may be. I'm ready.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Are you planning on going back to Russia now after your three month stay in Orange County, or are you going to stick around to help Alexander Shlemenko prepare for his February title fight against Michael Falcao?
Alexander Volkov: All the guys on our team are leaving for Russia this Wednesday because we want to spend the holidays with our families. We spent the last three months in California and all of us are really homesick. I know that Shlemenko will come back in January to prepare for his fight and I will come over whenever the date of my next fight will be announced. I will come a few weeks earlier to acclimate before the fight to prepare.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): At 6'7, you only weigh 232 pounds. Do you ever see yourself filling out more and being a more hulking presence or do you like being a lighter, faster heavyweight?
Alexander Volkov: I don't have a goal to gain weight no matter what. I think that I have good conditioning for being a professional heavyweight fighter and I have enough physical strength to compete at the heavyweight level. I train a lot, I do a lot of cross-fit and weight training and if my weight goes up naturally, I'm okay with that. My goal is not to gain weight or put on weight, but to fight at the weight where I feel myself most comfortable and right now, I feel myself most comfortable at this weight.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): What's life like being such a tall fighter? Are plane rides and car rides uncomfortable at times?
Alexander Volkov: (laughs) Well I can say generally speaking it's uncomfortable but I'm 24 years old and I got used to it. I always was this way, so the world to me has always been like that. I do not know how to be short. It's uncomfortable but I'm okay with it. (laughs)
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Do you ever play World of Warcraft with your teammate Andrey Koreshkov?
Alexander Volkov: (laughs) No, I don't play this game.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Alexander Volkov is actually a pretty popular name in Russia. Do you ever get confused with the tennis player, the painter, the Olympic volleyball player or the politician in Russia?
Alexander Volkov: Well frankly speaking, not yet because I am not that popular in Russia yet to be confused with someone else. So far, not yet.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You've fought so often in your career, six times a year your first two years competing and then five times a year the last two years. Do you hope you can keep fighting that often next year now that you're the champion? Do you think that's even possible anymore?
Alexander Volkov: I feel very comfortable when I compete often. I like to fight often because this way I feel prepared both physically and mentally. As far as I know, since I'm champion now, Bellator will not let me fight anywhere now depending on my title. I don't know when it would take place so I am planning on compensating by competing in grappling events because this way I don't risk getting injured because these competitions don't involve striking but at the same time, I'll be able to practice my jiu-jitsu skills and I'll stay active. I won't get the ring rust.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Do you think the fact that you fought so often throughout your career gave you an advantage in last heavyweight tournament with three fights in three months?
Alexander Volkov: I can say that of course, the fact that I used to compete often was helpful but speaking about this tournament in particular, the motivation was different. Here, I felt a lot of responsibility in front of my team, in front of my country and it was such a great opportunity for me that I couldn't let go. I was mentally and physically ready just for the chance that I got in Bellator and my team got. I was very, very focused and determined to win.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Can you put into words how it felt when you had that title belt wrapped around your waist for the first time?
Alexander Volkov: I felt a great pride for my country.
To listen to my entire conversation with Alexander Volkov, click here (interview begins at 1:03:00 mark)