This Saturday, the best fighter in the world will defend his belt, as UFC champion Alexander Volkanovski prepares to hold the featherweight fort for the fifth time. 

The challenger is not to be overlooked. Though Yair Rodriguez has never earned the same level of praise as Volkanovski, he is an exceptionally dangerous foe. An elite athlete with a near-unbreakable chin, Rodriguez fights like a whirlwind, lashing out with savage kicks and wild spinning attacks, all held together by footwork that is unschooled but remarkably agile. 

Likely Volkanovski will need to use his wrestling to win, but he will have to contend with Rodriguez’s ferocious striking one way or another. And that will mean battling against a daunting five-inch height advantage. 

Fortunately for Alex, this isn’t a first. 

At a mere five-foot-six, Volkanovski hasn’t faced an opponent of equal stature since Chad Mendes in 2018. Everyone else has been taller and longer, often significantly so. And yet Volkanovski has distinguished himself as a master of distance management. Usually it is Volkanovski’s jab that dictates the exchanges, Volkanovski’s footwork that controls the cage, Volkanovski’s kicks that steadily chip, chip away from long range. 

The conventional wisdom is that the shorter fighter must pressure and fight on the inside. But that isn’t how Volkanovski fights at all. More often than not, the featherweight champion fights off the back foot, allowing his taller opponents to walk him down. When he does pressure, he does not barrel forward into close range, but works methodically, patiently, inching forward one small step at a time. 

Today we’re going to look at Volkanovski’s methods: how he controls the distance, how he uses it, and how he blends different slices of range seamlessly together. 

One Step Ahead

It should come as little surprise that our analysis starts… with the jab. 

Volkanovski has a good one, of course. I could hardly call him a master of distance management otherwise. However, being so much shorter than his opponents, he cannot afford to throw it carelessly. When one fighter has reach and height on the other, there is no such thing as a neutral equal position. If both fighters line up to jab at the same time, then the bigger man will simply land first. 

This is where Volkanovski’s footwork comes into play. Here we have a sequence from his fight with the Korean Zombie, Chan Sung Jung, in which he uses a subtle footwork trap to clear the way for his jab. 

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1. Volkanovski takes small steps back, drawing Jung forward. 

2. Instead of moving straight back, he moves to the right.

3. This compels Jung to take larger steps in order to cut Volkanovski off. This is what Volk is looking for. 

4. As the Zombie momentarily squares his stance, Volkanovski suddenly changes direction, stepping past Jung’s lead foot to the left, allowing him to fire a jab straight down the open center.

5. A second jab follows quickly, forcing Jung to slip. 

6. Volkanovski draws back as Jung threatens a counter hook, but he still has the angle. 

7. He uses it to pop off another jab, which falls just short of the mark.

Now, none of these jabs land very well. That’s fine. The wonderful thing about a jab is that it does not need to land to be effective. The jab is a tool for gathering information. Little is given away when it fails to connect, as it requires little commitment, but much can be gained—a better sense of the range, for example, or a useful look at the opponent’s reaction, which can be punished later on. 

The main reason I chose the above sequence, however, is because it gives a clear look at the footwork—which, given the misplaced priorities of UFC cameramen (seriously, am I the only one who likes looking at fighters’ feet? anyone?) is not always the case. 

Pay close attention to the positioning of the lead foot of each fighter. When they are mirrored, directly opposing one another, that is a neutral position. In other words, neither fighter has an angle on the other. In such a position, an exchange of jabs would be preferable for the longer fighter, and so Volkanovski is careful to stay out of range. 

By circling to the right, however, Volkanovski gets Jung’s left foot to chase his. Jung has to do this–otherwise he would allow Volkanovski to blindside him. Alex uses that necessary adjustment to his advantage. As soon as Jung commits to cutting him off, Volkanovski takes a diagonal step in the other direction–in and to the left. In bypassing Jung’s left foot, he moves off the line of his jab, while his own left hand acquires a direct path down the newly opened center. 

You will see this exact idea repeated in the examples to come. 

The jab is not the only way in which Volkanovski controls the distance. Sometimes it is not possible to continue moving away. An opponent moving forward will always have an easier time than the man going backward. In those instances, the best idea is to close the distance on your own terms. 

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1. Volkanovski maintains his range while Jung comes forward.

2. Feeling his back nearing the wall, he hits Jung with a feint.

3. The Zombie bites, loading up to lunge in with a wide left to the body.

4. Volkanovski steps back just enough to evade while coolly intercepting with his jab.

5. Now, while Jung is still regaining his balance, Volkanovski changes levels… 

6. …and drives his shoulder into the Korean Zombie’s chest, like some sort of rugby player or something.

7. A quick snap-down breaks Jung’s posture…

8. …and allows Volkanovski to regain the space on a fresh angle. 

9. Jung resets as Volkanovski continues circling to the right, moving away from the cage. 

10. Jung moves in again, squaring up to cut off Volkanovski’s escape…

11. …and walks right into the champion’s jab. 

Told you you’d be seeing that move again! 

Volkanovski may have turned himself into an exceptional long-range fighter, but he is by no means averse to getting inside his opponent’s reach when it suits him. In cases like this, when the opponent is determined to chase him into a corner, the best course is to crash into them first. 

This is no reckless collision, however. Take another look at Frame 6 (or watch the GIF), and you will see that Volkanovski wastes no time in establishing grips, entering a classic collar-and-elbow position which gives strong, flexible control of the clinch. This demonstrates the value of closing the gap on your own terms. Doing so gains Volkanovski the initiative, meaning that he can use his grips before the opponent has had a chance to adjust. He uses the collar tie to snap Jung’s head down, and the inside tie on the elbow to throw him by while his balance is compromised.

Reversing the Reach Advantage

Now, sometimes clever positioning isn’t enough. There is only so much a shorter fighter can do to work around a reach disadvantage. This is where defense and counter punching come into play. 

Originally a mauling pressure fighter, Volkanovski has spent the last several years developing a savvy counter punching game, not unlike that of Chad Mendes, the last short man to terrorize the featherweight division before Volkanovski’s time. Mendes specialized in using handsy defense–catches, parries, and blocks–to get a read on the range. Instead of working behind a jab, he used pressure to compel the opponent to jab at him and, by picking those shots off with his hands, gathered the intel necessary to start working his own offense…

To read the rest of this technical breakdown article head over to the Bloody Elbow Substack! Support Bloody Elbow with a paid subscription to help us keep producing the best deep diving analysis in the combat sports world.

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Connor Ruebusch
Connor Ruebusch

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