As he puts the finishing touches on preparations for his latest UFC title defence, Alex Volkanovski has opened up on his biggest fight outside the cage and how it left him in a ‘bad headspace’.
Alexander Volkanovski cannot remember when simply texting someone first gave him head noise.
Only that, for years, it has.
With the fighter revealing how the fear of having his words misconstrued or, worse, rejected “could haunt me all day”.
Watch UFC 273: Volkanovski vs The Korean Zombie LIVE on Main Event available on Kayo & Foxtel, Sunday 10th April from 12pm AEST. ORDER NOW >
Same as when at, say, the local shopping centre, this greatest UFC featherweight now, and perhaps ever, would spend no less than 20 minutes chatting with every fan who stuck out a hand — and often while wife Emma waited on, running late for an appointment — just to ensure “they didn’t leave thinking I was as rude prick”.
There, Volkanovski became consumed by the criticism of others.
Which is why increasingly when confronted by TV cameras as champion, the Australian found himself making claims he didn’t mean.
Or taking uncharacteristic shots at rivals.
“Just saying the things,” he says, “I thought people wanted me to.”
Which even until a few weeks ago, was a problem.
“Because I was struggling,” Volkanovski concedes.
“Like a confused kid, I was always trying to please people. Or couldn’t tell anyone ‘no’.
“Which isn’t to say I was a complete mess.
“But was I in a bad headspace for a while there? Yeah, I was.”
Which makes no sense, right?
Especially for a fighter dubbed The Great.
A breakout Aussie superstar who isn’t simply undefeated in all 10 UFC appearances, or now on a tear stretching nine years and 20 fights, but looking on Sunday to make a third straight title defence against Chan Sung Jung, aka The Korean Zombie, at UFC 273.
Yet amid all this, you should know Volkanovski has also been fighting what some psychologists call FOPO.
Or Fear Of Other People’s Opinions.
An obsessive, mental battle which made headlines during the 2020 NRL season, when Penrith superstar Nathan Cleary opened up on a fear “which paralyses you”.
Now like Cleary, Volkanovski is also partnering with a sports psychologist to overcome issues which, he says, have existed right throughout his rise to stardom.
Likely longer, too.
“Because I’ve always cared about what people think,” he says.
Which as a Wollongong concreter, was never too problematic.
But as UFC featherweight champ?
“I became a victim to it,” he says.
Didn’t matter if it was people suggesting Max Holloway was the real winner of their second fight. Or questioning Volkanovski’s ability to finish.
Eventually, even scrolling Twitter was ugly.
“Because critics became my focus,” he admits.
“I was always trying to prove them wrong, shut them up, get them on my side.
“Everything said about me, written about me, I was taking it to heart.
“I was letting it run my life.”
Which only recently, the champ has started to control.
“And recently,” he says, “as in weeks.”
Yet to understand exactly what Volkanovski is freeing from, you must first explore an issue he calls “haunting”.
Take, for example, that most recent win over American Brian Ortega, where the champ twice freed from deep chokes to win a UFC classic.
“Which initially, had me on a high,” he says. “But soon after getting home, it all faded and I started focusing on negatives again.
“Which sounds silly, right?
“But if negatives are all you look for, you’ll find them.
“And whether it was people still talking about Max, or my fights having gone to decision, it was doing my head in.
“So then every time I fronted a camera, I was saying what I thought people wanted to hear.”
Like Volkanosvki’s surprise sledging of Ortega, who he branded “a f…ing drug cheat”.
“And for the wrong reasons,” he admits now.
Same deal more recently, when suggesting Holloway was faking injury after withdrawing from their slated trilogy bout.
“And because I’m fighting Zombie, I don’t even want to raise this,” Volkanovski says of a rival he’s now beaten twice.
“But with all the trilogy stuff, it felt like I was the only one chasing it.
“Because I wanted to silence the haters.
“Prove something to them.
“So suddenly I was chasing the trilogy more than Max himself.”
Outside the cage talk, Volkanovski was struggling, too.
“The fighting stuff I’ve got covered,” he says.
“But even writing a text message, I’d spend hours thinking ‘could somebody read this the wrong way?’.”
Yet then a few weeks ago, came a moment on which everything changed.
But as for the trigger?
“Ah, it’s personal,” Volkanovski says.
“But there was a situation where I had to say ‘no’. Where for my mental state, this all had to stop.”
And as for opening up with professionals, too?
“You’ve no idea how much it’s changed me,” he says.
“It’s still hard to talk about … and I’m still working through stuff … but I have a new confidence now.
“A weight gone from my shoulders.
“I’m ready to just be me.”
Originally published as UFC 273: Aussie star Alexander Volkanosvki opens up on conquering his mental demons