Confidence or arrogance? Ilia Topuria toes the line ahead of UFC 298 title fight

Ilia Topuria will meet Alexander Volkanovski in the main event at UFC 298 on Saturday. (Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)
Ilia Topuria will meet Alexander Volkanovski in the main event at UFC 298 on Saturday. (Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)

It doesn’t take much to get Ilia Topuria to start telling you what he really thinks. All you have to do is ask and then wait. And honestly? You won’t have to wait long.

I found this out recently when I questioned him about his claims that, after he beats UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski (26-3) at UFC 298 in Anaheim, California, this Saturday, he won’t look to defend the title against any of the top-ranked contenders in that division.

“Tell me one name in that division,” Topuria (14-0) shot back. As in, one name who deserves a crack at the title that, as far as Topuria is concerned, might as well already be around his waist.

So fine, I gave it a shot. How about former champ Max Holloway?

“For me, he’s really bad,” Topuria replied. “All you have to do is look at his nose. That’s how bad he is. He takes every punch.”

All right then, how about Yair Rodriguez?

“Volkanovski used him like a wet rag,” he said. “Who else?”

Brian Ortega? Here the undefeated Topuria offered no verbal assessment, opting instead for that noise you make out of the corner of your mouth when someone has said something plainly absurd.

“I will be waiting for a new challenger,” Topuria said at last, as if hoping to put an end to the whole line of questioning. “Someone really good.”

Here’s where it’s worth pointing out, just for the sake of clarity, this man is not the champion right now. He might be talking like he’s not only won the belt but cleared out the division and is now despairing at the lack of worthy contenders, but in fact none of those things has happened yet.

Instead, the 27-year-old Topuria, who’s had just 14 pro fights in MMA, will get his first crack at UFC gold when he faces Volkanovski, a man who’s been the 145-pound champion for longer than Topuria has been in the UFC. Most outside observers will tell you that this is not just the biggest career opportunity Topuria has ever had, but also the toughest test of his young career.

The way Topuria sees it, however, the outcome is essentially a foregone conclusion. He’s predicted an “easy fight” when he takes on the champ. He sees himself winning via stoppage some time in the early rounds. If he were to simply win the UFC title with a dominant decision?

“That wouldn’t be impressive for me,” Topuria said. “For me, I would be impressed if I lose, if he can beat me. Then I would be impressed. But if I knock him out in the first round, second round, this is what I’m expecting.”

Ilia Topuria is undefeated in his MMA career at 14-0 and has finished four of his six UFC fights. (Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Ilia Topuria is undefeated in his MMA career at 14-0 and has finished four of his six UFC fights. (Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

It’s normal for a fighter to project confidence headed into a bout. After all, you probably wouldn’t accept these fights if you thought you were going to lose. But what Topuria is working with here seems to be well beyond confidence. Predicting a tough but decisive victory over one of the division’s all-time greats, that would be confident. Predicting an early finish in an easy fight, that’s something else. It’s what the ancient Greeks might have called hubris, that unmistakable excess of pride that has a way of resulting in painful lessons in humility at the hands of the gods.

But to hear Topuria tell it, it’s not arrogant to be sure of yourself when you know you’ve earned it.

“My confidence comes from hard work,” Topuria said. “I know that I can lose. That's why I work hard. That's why I put so much dedication in, because I know that I'm a normal human being, just bones and meat. I'm a normal human being like you. If I don't work hard, I can lose like anyone. … Overconfident would be if I didn’t work hard, if I just take it for granted that I’m talented and I’ll win all my fights just on this. But if you saw me training, you would go and bet all your money against Volkanovski. You would say this is the most secure bet you ever made in your life, and you would double your money.”

Try as you might, it’s hard to imagine being that confident in any wager on the fickle world of fight sports. And yet Topuria seems to have no doubts. He’s not only promised us victory, he’s promised us dominance. He’s insisted that the fight will be so one-sided, no one will be the least bit interested in a rematch. He’s promised and then overpromised and then doubled-down on guarantees of total and unassailable victory.

Is that mere confidence? Is it arrogance? Is it the kind of hubris that earns a mortal a thunderbolt in the teeth? As it often goes in the fight game, a lot may depend on whether Topuria can back it up. Like Muhammad Ali told us, it ain’t bragging if it’s true.