How Alexander Volkanovski’s Rugby Career Led To Australia’s First UFC Championship

It's not the most conventional journey to the top...

How Alexander Volkanovski’s Rugby Career Led To Australia’s First UFC Championship

Playing in the Rugby League helped prepare Alexander Volkanovski to become one of the best featherweight champions in the UFC.

Some MMA fighters come from a wrestling background, others from Jiu-Jitsu or kickboxing. Then there is Alexander Volkanovski, the first UFC champion from Australia, who started his career as a professional athlete playing one of Australia’s most popular sports.

Who did Alex Volkanovski play rugby league for?

Born on 29 September 1988, Volkanovski was a youth national Greco-Roman wrestling champion who later pursued a rugby career. Volk played semi-professional rugby for the Warilla Gorillas in Australia’s Group 7 Rugby League, but when he was 22 years old, the Australian champ decided to give MMA a try so he could keep himself fit during the rugby offseason. 

RELATED: Alexander Volkanovski Net Worth: The Success Behind Austalia’s Favourite Son

To this day, he fondly recalls the first time he entered a mixed martial arts gym.

“I remember walking in, this was the first time I ever went into my coach’s gym.” And I was going to do it more for pre-season (for rugby). I remember there was a guy at my school, he was a bit older, he looks at me and goes, ‘What are you doing here? You’re going to get smashed.’ This was before I even walked in the door. I sort of brushed it off, I could’ve turned around and never done an MMA fight or trained MMA at all, but I didn’t really care and just went in.” said Volkanovski via

The following day, Volkanovski and the same guy grappled at the gym. Surprisingly, the newcomer ended up “smashing” his opponent and he never came back to the gym. That’s when Alex realised that he wanted to fight full-time.

And so after helping the Gorillas win the Premiership in 2011 while winning the Man of the Match award for his performance in the Grand Final against Gerringong, Volk thought he had achieved what he could in rugby. So he made the career shift.

Volk made his professional MMA debut on 19 May 2012 for the Revolution Promotions in Sydney. He went on to win championships for Roshambo MMA, AFC, Wollongong Wars, and PXC. After four years in the Australian circuit, Volkanovski finally got the call from the UFC and was booked to fight at UFC Fight Night 101 in Melbourne. 

Alexander the Great knocked out Yusuke Kasuya in his UFC debut. Volk would go on to win his next six fights, including a unanimous decision win over former champion Jose Aldo at UFC 237 in Brazil. That win earned him a crack at the UFC Featherweight title held by Max Holloway. On 14 December 2019, Volkanovski became the first Australian-born fighter to win a UFC belt by defeating Holloway in a thrilling five-round fight at UFC 245. He would assert his mastery over Max with a repeat win at UFC 251.

Volkanovski successfully defended the belt five times before losing to Ilia Topuria at UFC 298. His six title fight wins rank second behind Jose Aldo’s 8 in the featherweight division. He was at some point in 2022 and 2023 the UFC’s No.1 ranked Pound-for-Pound fighter and is currently one of the promotion’s biggest stars.