Former Bellator and M-1 Global Heavyweight kingpin, Alexander Volkov, will throwdown with one of the few men taller than him, Stefan Struve, this Saturday (Sept. 2, 2017) at UFC Fight Night 115 inside Ahoy Rotterdam in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Volkov is far from the Heavyweight norm. The 6’7” Russian is not the most powerful athlete, but he throws a ton of volume and wears down opponents. He’s also younger than much of the division, a mere 28 years old despite his 34 professional fights. Like his opponent, we witnessed some of Volkov’s growing pains, as a pair of Bellator losses saw him released in 2015. That turned out to be a benefit for UFC, as it picked him up following a pair of M-1 Global wins, and he’s already broken into the promotion’s Top 10 rankings in just a few fights.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
A black belt in Tsu Shin Gen and brown belt in Kyokushin karate, Volkov is a very interesting striker. The lanky kicker does his best work on the offensive, stalking his foe and keeping them on the edge of his range with long strikes. Since this is a match up between two similar enough fighters — the two tallest kickboxers at Heavyweight, if I’m not mistaken — many have talked about the differences between the two. Overall, Volkov does make better use of his range, which is the topic of this week’s technique highlight.
In most of his fights, Volkov is the aggressor. Unsure of how to navigate his range, most opponents tend to circle the far outside, attempting to make their way inside with sudden bursts or lunging shots. Those punches may sometimes land, but for the most part it’s Volkov controlling the flow of combat.
Volkov does a lot of his damage with kicks. He really loves kicking with his lead leg, suddenly stabbing his opponent’s mid-section by quickly bringing his toes up to the target. He’ll occasionally throw a right leg teep as well. To mix it up, Volkov digs to the inside of the leg as well, and he’ll occasionally finish combinations with a left high kick.
When Volkov faced a Southpaw opponent in Timothy Johnson, he switched up his approach a bit. As Johnson rushed in, Volkov would plant and send a hard knee up the middle into his opponent’s mid-section. That’s a technique he’s utilized in previous fights, but it never worked quite as cleanly than against the thick Southpaw wrestler.
Another important weapon from Volkov is his jab. On the whole, Volkov tends to box too much like a Karate fighter: He steps forward with a series of straight, left-right-left punches. That said, when he sticks to just whacking his opponent on the nose with a stiff jab, it’s hard to deny the effectiveness.
Volkov’s defensive soundness falters in the pocket. As mentioned, he tends to just alternate hands, essentially brawling when he doesn’t need to. His length helps ensure that some of his opponent’s punches come up short, but he also gets hit in this type of exchange. On the bright side, Volkov doesn’t exclusively throw 1s and 2s at this range. When slugging it out in the pocket, Volkov does a nice job of mixing in right uppercuts and hooks into his offense, which can sneak through his opponent’s guard and end things early.
Volkov’s wrestling is an interesting case. On one hand, the Russian was out-wrestled by both Cheick Kongo and Tony Johnson, which led to his Bellator release. That’s hardly impressive stuff, but in other fights with good wrestlers — such as the bout with Tim Johnson — Volkov has more than held his own and shown quality technique. In short, I question whether there was an injury or motivation issue in those two losses, because they’re really outliers compared to Volkov’s usual performances.
On the whole, Volkov isn’t usually one to look for takedowns. He’ll take top position given a sloppy shot or knock down, but it’s mostly reactive. The exception is a brief single takedown opposite Johnson, and he’s looked for clinch trips as well.
Volkov’s takedown defense is more important, and he does a lot of things well in that regard. First and foremost, his size and range mean that most fighters try to shove him into the cage before wrestling. From that position, Volkov does two things particularly well. For one, he dips down and gets his head in good position, driving his forehead into his opponent’s jaw. This prevents level changes and makes it easier to circle away from the fence.
Aside from that, Volkov makes full use of his length by spreading them out when his opponent attempts to hit a double leg. With his stance split wide, it’s very difficult for opponent’s to lock their hands and complete the shot.
In an excellent example of Volkov’s defensive grappling, he was able to counter Blagoi Ivanov — World Series of Fighting (WSOF) Heavyweight champ and Sambo master — to land a rear naked choke. Ivanov committed hard to an outside trip and landed it, but Volkov’s body type allowed him to hip heist directly into mount instead. Ivanov tried to scramble, but he instead gave up a quick submission.
A jiu-jitsu purple belt, Volkov doesn’t often look for submissions. He’s scored just three in his reasonably lengthy career, one of which is the above GIF. That’s a pretty simple technique to analyze: grab the neck and squeeze. Similarly, Volkov hasn’t actually been submitted since 2010, so those losses are hardly relevant today.
In his bout to win the M-1 Global title, however, Volkov did show a pretty slick technique opposite Denis Smoldarev. Smoldarev is a hulking wrestler and was finding success in clinch tossing Volkov to the mat, but “Drago” was slowly gaining momentum as his foe fatigued. In the third round, Smoldarev landed a sacrifice throw into a triangle choke. Because of Smoldarev’s wide shoulders, Volkov had difficulty finishing the triangle in usual fashion, so he adjusted. Instead of clamping down from the triangle position, he crossed his ankles and straightened his legs out. It’s another effective way to squeeze on the trapped neck, and Volkov was able to force the tapout.
Check it out below at the 24-minute mark, directly from M-1 Global’s YouTube page:
Volkov is the youngest man in the Heavyweight division’s Top 10, and he also ranks among the most experienced. “Drago” is primed to go on a title run, and that starts with extending his UFC win streak to three opposite a Top 10-ranked challenge in Stefan Struve.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.