Former Bellator Heavyweight kingpin, Alexander Volkov, will battle kickboxing champion, Alistair Overeem, this Saturday (Feb. 6, 2021) at UFC Vegas 18 from UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada.
I don’t think anyone truly knew what to expect when Volkov signed onto the roster in 2016. Young, experienced, and with some quality wins on his resume, there was reason to be excited. However, relatively recent losses (at the time) to Cheick Kongo and Timothy Johnson really dampened any major excitement. Volkov has suffered some struggles along the way, but he’s consistently proven himself a top-tier Heavyweight. “Drago” is a genuine threat to the title, and at 32 years of age, he likely has many quality years ahead of him.
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 not the average Heavyweight slugger. Instead, Volkov is a man who relies on consistent output at distance — namely, lots of kicks — to break his opponents down and pick them apart. Largely, his style has remained unchanged over all these years, he’s just grown more refined.
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. His high kicks really demonstrate his Karate background, as Volkov raises his knee before unfurling his foot with a dangerous snap.
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.
Volkov’s best kickboxing performance may just be his last bout opposite Walt Harris, a fellow rangy striker who fights as a Southpaw. In that bout, Volkov really did tremendous work with his snap kicks. Faced with an opposite stance opponent, little setup was required for Volkov to dig hard right toe kicks into the mid-section. He kept his foe on the defensive with stiff jabs and lead hooks, leaving Harris stuck on the outside and vulnerable to the toe stab (GIF).
Volkov’s boxing is simple but effective. He’s actually got a rather sharp jab, and unlike many Heavyweights, is unafraid to stick back at his opponent when pressed.
Faced with a fellow overly tall man in Stefan Struve, Volkov demonstrated that his skills go beyond height and length. Opposite “Skyscraper,” Volkov did far better than Struve with basic range strikes, namely the jab and lead leg kick. Repeatedly, Volkov slipped his head off the center line and stabbed at Struve’s skull with a long jab, interrupting whatever combination or step knee Struve was looking to throw.
Perhaps Volkov’s biggest improvement from his Bellator days is his boxing. Back then, he was guilty of merely alternating straights from either side. Nowadays, Volkov is more likely to hook off the jab, and he’s found good success in mixing the uppercut into his combinations.
All in all, Volkov wins fights because of his educated lead side weapons. His lead leg is so effective with snap kicks and quick switch kicks that opponents really struggle with that extended distance. His jab and left hook have grown similarly punishing, forcing foes to really overcome a lot of punishment to gain the pocket.
Volkov is rarely one to wrestle offensively, though he does deserve big props for successfully cage double-legging Curtis Blaydes! More important, he’s a distinctly inconsistent defensive wrestler.
There are several defensive elements that Volkov does well. 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.
Volkov tends to struggle more when forced to wrestle in open space. Fighters have simply run him over with double legs when able to time a shot well, as he does stand rather tall. Werdum is not an amazing wrestler, but he routinely off-balanced Volkov with his single leg takedown prior to fatiguing as well.
Blaydes repeatedly took Volkov down, both in the open with running double legs and along the cage, where Blaydes’ own size helped mitigate Volkov’s usual advantage of lankiness. In that loss, Volkov showed he still doesn’t have a great answer for consistent and determined takedown attempts along the fence.
A jiu-jitsu brown belt, Volkov doesn’t often look for submissions. He’s scored just three in his reasonably lengthy career, and similarly, Volkov hasn’t actually been submitted since 2010.
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 directly 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, squishing his foe’s neck and arm with his thighs.
It’s another effective way to squeeze on the trapped neck, and Volkov was able to force the tapout.
In an older but excellent example of Volkov’s grappling, he was able to counter Blagoi Ivanov’s wrestling 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.
Defensively, Volkov proved that the effectiveness of basics against Werdum. When Werdum took him down, Volkov reacted calmly, keeping his guard locked and looking to control wrists. It cost him a couple rounds on the scorecards, but it also exhausted Werdum to keeping have to score takedowns then fight his hands free. As a result of his defensive fundamentals, Volkov didn’t absorb much damage and simply outlasted Werdum.
Volkov may be hitting his stride. The volume kickboxer appears to be punching with more power, a likely result of muscle gain. If an improvement in strength can also solidify his takedown defense, Volkov may change his role from dark horse contender to genuine title threat.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 18 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET.
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Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional 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.