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Alexander Volkanovski returns to featherweight to reclaim title at UFC 290

LAS VEGAS (AP) – Alexander Volkanovski is coming off a fight in which he lost – and was congratulated for it.

He wasn’t all that comfortable at first about hearing the kudos for moving up a weight class to come close in a fight that Volkanovski said even many close to him didn’t think he had much of a chance to win.

Now he’s back in his more familiar featherweight division, where he won five title fights, to take on interim champion Yair Rodriguez (16-3) for the belt in UFC 290.

Having gone up in weight and come back down, Volkanovski (25-2) said the experience of trying to add more bulk should serve him well.

“It feels good to be at featherweight again and being as sharp as ever,” Volkanovski said.

“Definitely, that bulk made me stronger. Rising to that challenge, to that occasion, put my skills on a whole other level.”

He moved up to lightweight to face Islam Makhachev on February 11 for the championship.

The fight went five rounds, with Makhachev winning by unanimous decision. That loss, before a pro-Volkanovski crowd in his home country of Australia, ended his 22-match winning streak.

File photo of Alexander Volkanovski reacting after winning a featherweight title bout against Max Holloway in Las Vegas. PHOTO: AP

Even in losing, the 34-year-old Volkanovski took a big step in solidifying his reputation as one of the UFC’s top pound-for-pound fighters, trading blows and coming close on the scorecards at 48-47, 48-47 and 49-46 despite facing an opponent four inches taller and 15 pounds heavier.

“So many people thought I’d get manhandled and didn’t think I stood a chance, and there are probably people close to me that thought that,” said Volkanovski, second in the official pound-for-pound rankings to Jon Jones. “The loss did help me.”

He is a substantial favourite at minus-400, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, to recapture the lightweight belt against Rodriguez, a 30-year-old from Mexico. A convincing victory will help cement the claim that Volkanovski is the greatest featherweight in UFC history.

Rodriguez said he can’t add much to the superlatives that have already been attached to Volkanovski.

“He can kind of keep the same pace for five rounds, which is really important in this game,” Rodriguez said. “He’s able to figure out his opponents, the style or the little mistakes they (make) and takes advantage of those situations.”

That said, Rodriguez isn’t entering the fight to be just fodder for Volkanovski to make a triumphant return.

“I just think it’s going to be really difficult for him to beat me,” Rodriguez said. “He probably thinks it’s going to be easier. My style is completely different to what many people think.

Being in front of me in the cage is difficult. It’s hard for anybody.”

Their bout headlines the International Fight Week card that also includes a second title matchup when Mexico’s Brandon Moreno (21-6-2) puts his flyweight championship on the line against Brazil’s Alexandre Pantoja (25-5).

Moreno, 29, is a minus-205 favourite, but the 33-year-old Pantoja has beaten him twice.

“I can feel he’s motivated, like ‘I can do it again.’ I can see it in his face and his body language,” Moreno said. “I’m just changed. I’m just different. I just want to show that to the world. I don’t want to talk that much about it, but man, I’m ready. I’m ready to shine.”

Pantoja said he isn’t relying just on history in trying to win for the third time.

The last one was five years ago, and Pantoja acknowledged that Moreno is a different fighter.

But …

“Maybe he’s keeping that in his head,” Pantoja said of the prior losses.