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Ilia Topuria, the man to finally dethrone Alexander Volkanovski?

UFC Fight Night: Emmett v Topuria Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

It’s always fun to write something about a fighter shutting down their doubters, but truthfully, nobody has been doubting UFC Jacksonville’s Ilia Topuria.

His short-notice debut saw him derail Youssef Zalal, who actually had a bit of hype behind him during those empty pandemic shows. Then, he blitzed Damon Jackson in a few minutes, proving the grappling ace has nasty hands. Fast-forward a couple years, and Topuria is now better known for his pugilistic talent than Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt.

He’s been very obviously really darn good the entire time.

Tonight’s main event slot at UFC Jacksonville against the ultra-tough and experienced Josh Emmett proved to be more showcase than step up. That wasn’t necessarily known to be the case ahead of time though. Despite his consistent excellence, Topuria has been known to dive headfirst into a fire fight and take defensive risks — a dangerous combination against one of the best punchers at 145 pounds.

Instead, Topuria showed why he might just be Alexander Volkanovski’s greatest threat. He proved that he’s a fluid fighter, very capable of adjusting himself to the game plan as needed, just like the champion.

In this performance, that meant tightening everything up and remaining defensively responsible. Topuria pressured like he usually does, but never before has Topuria been so focused on working from the edge of his jab. Though he eventually scored knockdowns off the left hook and right hand, it was really his jab and low kick that chewed Emmett up and left him vulnerable.

Speaking of, low kicks? Topuria’s kicking game has never existed before this fight in any consistent manner, yet he tore up Emmett’s lead leg. That’s impressive development or a skill he just hasn’t needed to use — both are scary prospects! Lastly, sealing the fifth round with his wrestling after four rounds of boxing was just a great display of Fight IQ.

This victory atop Topuria’s excellent run should earn him a title shot — no pitstop versus Max Holloway necessary. Though the title first has to be unified between Alexander Volkanovksi vs. Yair Rodriguez at UFC 290 in a few weeks, it’s hard not to start thinking about Topuria’s prospective chances against “The Great.”

There are numerous reasons to be optimistic about his odds. On the feet, Topuria can absolutely strike with the champion. He’s incrediblly fluid, and he has the kind of movement necessary to keep up with Volkanovski. Better yet, he may just exceed him in raw speed and power.

On the floor, Topuria has been largely untouchable. His wrestling and jiu-jitsu both appear to be elite. I could see either man scoring the occasional takedown, but it’s hard to imagine one holding the other down barring extreme fatigue or a knockdown.

Then, there’s the elephant in the room. Volkanovski is 34 years of age, which is highly significant at Featherweight. Even as he continually looks like the best fighter alive, it’s important to note that Volkanovski’s fall is statistically likely to be sooner than later. Topuria, meanwhile, is a decade younger ... and he’s still improving rapidly.

In other words, every day forward ages Volkanovski and improves Topuria.

Conversely, there is one massive issue in Topuria’s game that could foil him against the Aussie: kick defense. Topuria stands like a boxer, his legs loaded and lead knee faced inward. Emmett landed a majority of the low kicks he threw, and he’s nowhere near the technician with that tool that Volkanovski is. After enough low kicks, all of Topuria’s physical gifts and technical skills will fade away.

It’s not an easy fix, either. Topuria’s stance is ingrained in his habits and style. It’s relevant to everything he does. Nobody who primarily boxes likes having their lead leg attacked — it’ll always be an issue.

The bottom line, however, is that Volkanovski has an incredible challenger ahead of him if he’s able to work through “Pantera.”

For complete UFC Jacksonville: “Emmett vs. Topuria” results and play-by-play, click HERE.

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