He’s a world-class wrestler with a deadly kick and a right hand punch so brutal it’s scary to see and hear up close.
But Alex Volkanovski has a weakness.
As the Australian-born UFC champion bursts through the door shirtless and smelling of sweat, having just finished a four-hour morning training session, his daughters Ariana, four, and Ariel, two, rush up to show off their new toys.
Volkanovski has fought and beaten the toughest men in the world, but these two little girls are his kryptonite.
‘They’ve got him wrapped around their little finger,’ Emma Volkanovski says of her highschool sweetheart, a man she has known since he wooed her on MSN messenger when they were 16.
‘At home he’s just your average dad, just wants to spend as much time as possible with the kids.
‘When we meet new people I think they are surprised to see he’s just an average guy and he’s very, very involved with the kids.’
Tomorrow, Volkanovski will defend his UFC Featherweight title in a special arena on a private island off Abu Dhabi, taking on Hawaiian superstar Max Holloway – the same man he took the belt from in convincing fashion last year.
But the skyscrapers, private islands and riches of the United Arab Emirates are far from normal life for this world champion.
His father was born in Macedonia and his mother immigrated to Australia from Greece, while he left school to be a concreter and at one point thought of a career in rugby league – but that was before he found fighting.
UFC Featherweight champion Alex Volkanovski (left) has taken and beaten on some of the greatest fighters in the world, but his wife Emma (right) says his two little girls Ariana (left), four, and Ariel (right), two, are his kryptonite
The 31-year-old allowed Daily Mail Australia to join him in his home and during his day of training, during which he showed a softer side to the brutal fighter most people see on TV
After winning the UFC title last year Volkanovski bought a new $1.2 million home, a reward for himself and his family after years of sacrifices
Volkanovski is preparing to defend his UFC Featherweight title against Max Holloway, the man he won it from (pictured), on Sunday at Fight Island
Yas Island, a private island in Abu Dhabi bought by the UFC to host fights during the COVID-19 pandemic, will be the venue for Volkanovski’s title defence
Incredibly, the man who is among Australia’s greatest current athletes – on par with tennis superstar Ash Barty in terms of recent international dominance – lives and trains in Windang, home to about 3,000 people on the NSW south coast.
Volkanovski normally prepares for his fights by spending three weeks at a renowned gym in New Zealand, but the coronavirus travel ban means this time he has hired two cabins in his hometown and flown in a crew of Australia’s top fighters.
He has them over regularly for BBQs and has even asked them to babysit his daughters.
But the world champion’s title defence wouldn’t have happened without help from friends in high places, namely millionaire Mark Bouris.
The Wizard Home Loans founder and host of The Apprentice Australia is a big supporter of Volkanovski and put in some calls to ensure the champion would be able to train without being affected by strict COVID-19 restrictions.
On the Monday in which he invites Daily Mail Australia to join him in camp, he rolls into the gym about 7.30am with close mate and training partner Brentin Mumford. About half-an-hour later a team of five other fighters join them.
It literally takes just a few seconds of watching Volkanovski warm up to realise why he has reached the heights of the sport.
While those in his training camp laugh and joke around, he always retains a steely focus.
Volkanovski’s morning begins with physiotherapy, before strength and condition training – his first of three sessions that day
The Australian normally completes his training camps in the lead up to a fight in New Zealand, but because of COVID-19 has had to prepare in his hometown of Windang, on the NSW south coast
It is easy to see why Volkanovski has reached the heights he has, leaving no stone un-turned in his bid to become champion – and stay there
He counts out every single repetition ensuring not to cheat himself, almost as if it could be the difference between winning and losing
Volkanovski has called in a team of fellow fighters to work with him during his training camp. Some of them he met years ago at camps in Thailand, others were recommended to him by top coaches – all are appreciative of the opportunity to train with a UFC champion
Chris Jeffrey (back), the fighter’s strength and conditioning coach at BaiMed sports in Wollongong, has been super impressed by Volkanovski’s dedication which has not deteriorated even after winning the title
‘He’s just elite,’ Chris Jeffrey, his personal trainer at BaiMed sports, says.
When UFC president Dana White first mentioned buying an island so the sport could keep hosting fights despite the pandemic, many laughed – but it wasn’t a joke.
The early chat in the gym that morning is about what the temperature will be in the arena come fight time. It isn’t uncommon for the mercury to regularly soar above 40C in Abu Dhabi in July.
‘Will there be air conditioning? We just don’t know yet, but we’re asking the question all the time. It can make a big difference,’ Volkanovski says.
Although now the champion, Volkanovski has the look of an underdog in his eyes and feels he is yet to receive the respect past champions Conor McGregor, Jose Aldo and Holloway instantly received after they won the same title.
‘Have I got a chip on my shoulder? Yeah,’ Volkanovski says.
‘You’re always going to get doubters and haters, but you can’t dwell on that and it gives me motivation.
‘A lot of people are like: “What’s it like now that you’ve got to defend the belt now, you’re not chasing something?”
‘I’m chasing something, I’m chasing that win no matter what. I’ve got something to prove, I’ve got a family to feed, it’s much bigger than just me. I’m fighting for Windang, I’m fighting for my family and I’m fighting for Australia.’
When Conor McGregor won the same belt Volkanovski now owns, he bought himself a $300,000 Rolls-Royce.
The Australian drives a Mazda CX-5 with two child seats strapped into the back.
The early chat in the gym that morning is about what the temperature will be in the arena come fight time. It isn’t uncommon for the regularly to soar above 40C in Abu Dhabi in July
Outside the gym after their strength and conditioning session, Volkanovski enjoys a rare light moment with his squad before moving on to the Freestyle Fight Gym in Windang
While some of his bigger name competitors such as Conor McGregor own $300,000 Rolls Royces, Volkanovski (pictured) drives a Mazda CX-5 with two childseats in the back
Volkanovski previously weighed 97 kilograms and was a front rower in rugby league (left) but today weighs in at around 66 kilograms for his fights – something that shocks many of his opponents
The world champion’s title defence wouldn’t have happened without help from friends in high places, namely millionaire Mark Bouris (pictured with Volkanovski) who put in calls to police commissioners and government officials to ensure the Australian didn’t have his plans disrupted by COVID-19 restrictions
Volkanovski admits he has a chip on his shoulder after the first fight with Max Holloway, after many people rated the fight as a close contest despite the Australian believing he won easily
Volkanovski’s coach Joe Lopez watches over his charge who he has guided from the first day when he arrived at his gym for an open day
‘You’re always going to get doubters and haters, but you can’t dwell on that and it gives me motivation,’ Volkanovski says
Volkanosvki takes a short break during his intense wrestling session. He will return to the same gym in the afternoon for two hours of intense sparring
At the Freestyle Fighting Gym – just a few hundred metres from his home – he is greeted by his longtime coach Joe Lopez, who sets a timer on the wall for five minutes – the length of a UFC round – before Volkanovski gets to work wrestling with different training partners.
Lopez says Volkanovski impressed as soon as he walked into the gym around 10 years ago.
‘We actually had a seminar here at the gym and then after the seminar we had open sparring, and Alex was pretty big in those days, he was a heavyweight – he was 90-plus kilograms,’ the 57-year-old says.
‘I had another heavyweight, he’d had about four or five fights, and he was supposed to be the best thing around.
‘Alex was going to go next, because he was a novice, he’d never fought before, but another one of the trainers didn’t realise and just threw him straight in.
‘I remember I was up the back of the gym and I ran down, but before I could get in the ring to get him out Alex had taken this guy down and submitted him, and then throughout the round he submitted him a couple more times.’
From the gym the champ heads back home to his wife and two daughters.
After leaving school Volkanovski took up work as a concreter and played rugby league on the weekends, before turning to fighting
Volkanovski and his wife Emma met at Illawarra High School when they were just 16. ‘We’re literally high school sweethearts,’ she told Daily Mail Australia
Emma smiles proudly whenever she talks about her husband, whether it’s telling the story of how Volkanovski began chatting her up on MSN messenger or or how they risked everything for a chance at winning a golden UFC world title – and succeeded
Emma said that with the COVID-19 restrictions meaning her husband’s current training camp is taking place at home, she has regularly tried to give him some alone time away from his two little girls: ‘But he insists he doesn’t want that,’ she says
The then UFC-hopeful looks on proudly as he holds his young daughter Ariana in his arms shortly after her birth in 2016
As his two little girls fight for dad’s attention, it’s easy to forget that in the next room sits a gold world title belt worth more than $300,000.
Emma smiles proudly whenever she talks about her husband, whether it’s the story of how the pair met at Lake Illawarra High School, or how they risked everything for a chance at winning a golden UFC world title.
‘I knew he would do it, but to be there and see it actually happen, it was just a build-up of all the hard work over the years,’ she says.
‘Its been different (having him in Windang this training camp), I see the fatigue this time and so I try and give him a little bit more time without the kids, but he insists he doesn’t want that.
‘I guess he’s just a good dad.’
Asked how he feels about more Australians knowing Irish superstar McGregor than they do of him, Volkanovski isn’t too fussed.
He acknowledges he’s not in a position to fly himself around the world in private jets, but says McGregor has not always been either.
‘Let’s be real, Conor’s making some good coin. He’s got money to throw around, he’s got money to show off,’ the 31-year-old says.
The man who is among Australia’s greatest current athletes lives and trains in the sleepy town of Windang, home to roughly 3,000 people on the New South Wales south coast
It is a long way from Windang to the sandy shores of the UFC’s Fight Island in Abu Dhabi where the Australian champ will take on Max Holloway on Sunday
While he looks at the riches others in the sport enjoy, Volkanovski is proud of the position he has achieved – but is determined to keep on winning
Shirtless and dripping in sweat from his four-hour morning training session, Volkanovski is just moments away from walking inside his home and being greeted by his two little girls who are desperate to show him their newest toys
Before taking his own pre-prepared lunch from the fridge, Volkanovski cuts up fruit onto two plates for Ariana and Ariel
It’s a look that would strike fear into the minds of professional fighters, but when you’ve got a UFC champion wrapped around your finger like his eldest daughter Ariana does, there’s nothing to fear
‘At home I’m just daddy getting bossed around by my two little girls, you know, they don’t care about a golden belt,’ he says
‘Obviously things are going pretty good for myself at the moment but I’m not in a position where I can fly myself in private jets, I’m nowhere near that. That’s not to say I can’t reach those goals… but really, I’m not that type of guy.
‘At home I’m still just daddy getting bossed around by my two little girls, you know, they don’t care about a golden belt,’ he says.
‘But obviously I’m a UFC world champion, so it’s things like going to the shopping centre isn’t always as easy now, because you get people wanting photos and I’m a friendly bloke so it can take a bit longer.’
Everyone from sporting brands to computer gaming giant Call of Duty want a piece of the champion, and he spent a hungover day opposite Joe Rogan recording the world’s top-ranked podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience.
But by far the most important change has been to his address.
Just two months after becoming a UFC world champion, Volkanovski bought a $1.2 million home that backs onto Windang Beach.
Volkanovski holds on tight to the UFC Featherweight championship belt – worth $300,000 – which takes pride of place in his home
‘I need to keep winning and I refuse to lose, because I’ve got kids back home that need me to win,’ Volkanovski told Daily Mail Australia
Volkanovski and wife Emma smile proudly just minutes after the 31-year-old achieved the dream they worked towards for so long. While Emma won’t be going to Abu Dhabi to watch her man on July 12, she is confident that once again her man will see his arm raised
‘I remember when I was buying it, because I’m the kind of person that never spends money on themselves just to look good or anything like that, but it was really good to know I deserve this house and we deserve this house,’ he says.
‘I think my family deserves to live near a beach, we put a lot of our life on hold and now it’s time I can give back to my family, and I do that with the beautiful place we now call home.
‘There’s been a lot of sacrifices and I’m now in a position where I can provide for them.
‘But I need to keep winning and I refuse to lose, because I’ve got kids back home that need me to win.’
While he is always on the front foot when he’s fighting, Volkanovski’s guard comes down when he is at home.
UFC 251 starts at 12pm Sunday, July 12 – you can watch on the UFC Fight Pass or order through Foxtel MainEvent