First came the crack in Alexander Volkanovski’s defence. Then, the crack in his voice. If the first crack was consequential, allowing Islam Makhachev to skim his shin off the Australian’s head, the latter was a consequence in itself – a consequence of one of the best fighters alive staying silent on his struggles with mental health. Silent, until now.
Volkanovski would have emerged from UFC 294 with credit anyway; he stepped in on 11 days’ notice and moved up in weight to challenge a man who had beaten him eight months prior. Even in this surprising, first-round defeat by Makhachev, Volkanovski lost very little. His featherweight title still rests firmly on his shoulder, and he will soon return to that weight class where he has been unbeatable.
But soon may be too soon. In his post-fight press conference, Volkanovski began the dissection of this defeat – his second this year, but just his third as a professional mixed martial artist, with his first having occurred a long decade ago. The 35-year-old started to dissect the technical reasons for this knockout loss, but it soon became apparent what was of greater importance: the psychological reasons for his presence in Abu Dhabi.
“He’s not somebody you should be taking a short-notice [fight] with, but I needed it,” Volkanovski began. “Obviously a lot of people will say it’s for the money and all that, but it was much more than that. It is hard, it is really hard for athletes... Sorry, um... I never thought I would struggle with it,” he continued, ignoring the blood over his eye, instead wiping a tear from beneath it. “But for some reason when I wasn’t fighting or in camp... F***, sorry,” he said, attempting a laugh, looking away and to the ceiling, then gently rapping his hand on the table to bring himself back into the room.
“I was just doing my head in,” he continued, tears floating at the bottom of his eyes. “I needed a fight, and this opportunity came up. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t training as much as I should have, but I thought I had to do it. I had to take it. I’m telling myself, ‘It’s meant to be.’ I was struggling a little bit not fighting, doing my head in. I don’t know how; everything’s fine, I’ve got a beautiful family. But, I don’t know... I think you just need to keep busy. I need to be in camp, otherwise, I’m going to do my head in.
“It’s weird, [it’s not that I] never ‘believed in that stuff’, but I never got it. It was something that – I don’t know – maybe the more and more I learn about myself, the more I understand. I talked about us having a smile on my face, me and my wife. My wife could see it does get hard, I don’t know why.”
Volkanovski pointed to the birth of his third child, in August, and surgery on an injury this summer as reasons why he had not been training. Clearly, the knock-on effect of those moments – as joyous as the former seemed to be – has led Volkanovski’s mental health to suffer. Last week, all the talk was of how brave the Australian was to face Makhachev on short notice; braver was this admission that he is struggling, which simultaneously offers a different lens through which to view his choice to fight. Keeping himself engaged and busy is healthy, but that is complicated by the inherent risk in his profession. “Maybe it was just a silly decision under the circumstances,” he admitted. Perhaps it was, though it was also understandable.
Volkanovski’s next challenge, however, will come outside of the ring. It must. He naturally sees the antidote to his current struggles as a quick turnaround to fight again, likely against the dangerous Ilia Topuria in January. Yet, that fight could go the same way as Saturday’s against Makhachev, if the Australian does not first tackle these thoughts and feelings, and find the right balance for him.
We knew Alexander Volkanovski was brave. That is even clearer now than it was last week. Now, however, he must be sensible, and get to work outside the ring before he can return to work in it.
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