Ilia Topuria stops Alexander Volkanovski in 2nd round, claims featherweight title at UFC 298

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ilia Topuria boldly declared himself a UFC world champion in his social media biography for months before he actually became the first Georgian to win a title.

When Topuria finally got the belt strapped around his waist at UFC 298 on Saturday night, he cried at the feeling of dreams coming true.

Topuria stopped Alexander Volkanovski in the second round to claim the featherweight title, ending the Australian champion’s four-year reign with a devastating series of strikes.

Topuria (15-0), who lives and trains in Spain, controlled the first round of his first UFC title fight with sharp punching before he sensationally finished off Volkanovski with more of the same.

Topuria staggered the 35-year-old Volkanovski to the cage with a left-right combination before putting him on the canvas with a perfect right hand followed by a big left. Topuria finished the champion on the ground with 1:28 left, improving to 7-0 since joining the UFC in late 2020.

“I feel so happy right now,” Topuria said afterward with a combination flag of Georgia and Spain wrapped around his shoulders. “They’re going to tell you you can’t do it. They’re going to knock you down and doubt you. But guess what? The only person you need to have your back in this life is yourself. Just trust yourself, work tirelessly, have faith and everything is possible. Look at me now.”

Topuria perfectly seized a moment several years in the making. He had stormed to the top of the list contenders for Volkanovski’s belt with six consecutive UFC victories in less than three years, capped by a blowout decision over Josh Emmett last summer.

Volkanovski (26-4) had made five consecutive successful title defenses since winning his belt in late 2019, but his reign ended with his first featherweight loss in UFC competition. Volkanovski also lost twice in the past year to lightweight champion Islam Makhachev in a failed bid to become a two-division champ, and he didn’t show his usual relentless work rate against Topuria before the fight abruptly ended.

Topuria didn’t lack for confidence during the promotion of this fight. He repeatedly spoke of Volkanovski’s reign in the past tense, and he even swiped the title belt off the table in front of Volkanovski at their news conference Thursday.

UFC President Dana White is hoping to make his promotion’s debut in Spain with Topuria’s next fight. White was delighted by Topuria’s self-confidence in declaring himself a champion even before he won the belt.

“He definitely believes in himself,” White said. “That’s definitely putting yourself out there. You could call that a lot of things. Manifesting. Cocky. He came out and made it a reality tonight.”

Volkanovski showed up to their news conference dressed like an old man, lampooning the notion he was too old to compete with the 27-year-old Topuria. Volkanovski even had the support of billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, who walked out with the champ and wore his cornermen’s gear in his front-row seat at the sold-out Honda Center.

When they finally in the cage, Topuria backed up every word and action — to the delight of both of his home nations.

“Today is a historic moment for the country of Georgia,” said Georgian bantamweight Merab Dvalishvili, who beat Henry Cejudo earlier at UFC 298. “Everybody woke up early. Every restaurant was booked. They were watching in stadiums. They’re celebrating now all night.”

Former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker won a unanimous decision over Paulo Costa in the penultimate bout of the mixed martial arts promotion’s first pay-per-view show in Southern California in more than two years.

Whittaker (25-7) rebounded from a loss to future middleweight champ Dricus De Plessis last summer with a comeback victory over Costa (14-3), who staggered Whittaker with a brilliant spinning head kick in the final seconds of the first round.

Whittaker was left with a bloody face, but he largely controlled the next two rounds on his feet against a largely inert Costa, who apparently injured his leg.

Earlier, former two-division UFC champion Cejudo dropped to 0-2 in his comeback bid with a unanimous-decision loss to Dvalishvili. Cejudo had previously said he would retire again if he lost the bout.

Cejudo, the former U.S. Olympic wrestling gold medalist and UFC champ at flyweight and bantamweight, curiously retired at the height of his MMA reign in 2020. Now 37, he began his comeback last May with a loss to Aljamain Sterling.

Cejudo got carried across the cage at one embarrassing point against Dvalishvili, who trains on Long Island. Dvalishvili won his 10th consecutive fight overall and his ninth at bantamweight.

Chinese light heavyweight Zhang Mingyang had the most spectacular finish on the undercard, knocking out Brendson Ribeiro with a dynamite combination in the first round of his UFC debut.

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AP sports: https://apnews.com/sports

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