Just under a decade ago, Alex Volkanovski made the decision to leave rugby league behind him and venture into the world of mixed martial arts.

It's a decision that changed his life.

At 21, Volkanovski was running out for his local league team on weekends, with his 5'6" (170cm), 97kg frame taking up a spot up in the front row. Now 30, the Australian is one of the top contenders in the UFC's featherweight (66kg) division.

"Five-foot-five, five-foot-six if I'm lucky, and 97kg - as you can imagine I was pretty hard to tackle," he told the Herald.


But while he's left it behind, his time in league has unwittingly helped him on his mixed martial arts journey.

"It's made me a strong type of guy. I'm used to them big boys there, and even now when I fight these featherweights I've always been used to wrestling and going against the bigger boys, so it's made me tough and even maybe confidence-wise it helps.

"It's a tough sport, it's not easy so it's rolled into MMA pretty well and made me who I am today. I'm glad I was a part of rugby league, but I'm glad I made the change because look at me now. It's been a pretty crazy journey."

Volkanovski quickly established himself as one of Australia's brightest prospects in MMA, and made his UFC debut in the lightweight division (70kg) in late 2016 after building an impressive 14-1 professional record.

Winning his debut bout, he made the choice to drop into the featherweight division and in the space of two years has become one of the division's best.

On Sunday, he'll meet UFC featherweight legend Jose Aldo on his home turf in Brazil at UFC 237 in the biggest fight of his career.

"This is just a crazy opportunity," he said. "I could be a star overnight; this is how big this fight is.

"You take out Aldo, in his hometown, you knock him out and you are a superstar overnight. That's what I plan on doing. Who knows what opportunities come after that? I do this for my family and this is a good way I can look after them, taking out Aldo, that's for sure."


Training at Auckland's City Kickboxing gym during fight camps, Volkanovski has been preparing for Aldo and Aldo alone despite the Brazilian being under a cloud due to a knee infection early in training.

Aldo told the Herald there was a point early in the fight camp where he wasn't sure he would be able to take the fight, but he has recovered well and will be ready to go come Sunday. For the 32-year-old Brazilian who admitted his career is coming to an end, the bout against Volkanovski is likely his last opportunity to earn another shot at the title he has held twice before. He has already lost to current champion Max Holloway twice, but recent wins over top contenders have put him back into the title picture.

Volkanovski said he knows what weighs on the fight for both of them, and has promised to make life difficult for Aldo inside the octagon.

"I'm planning on breaking him in there," he said.

"You're not going to be wanting to jump straight back in the cage any time soon, that's for sure."