Six months ago, the first time Alexander Volkanovski was scheduled to defend his featherweight crown against Brian Ortega, all was chill. A sportsmanlike battle to be the best at 145 pounds was the lone hook.
Back on March 17, Ortega (15-1, 10 finishes) told The Post over the phone there was “no beef” with the champ: “It’s business. He has not said one bad thing about me. I have not said one bad thing about him.”
A day later, Volkanovski (22-1, 14 finishes) echoed the challenger’s words to The Post: “There’s no beef, man. We’re both pretty chill dudes.”
A lot can change in six months.
For instance, the two men did not, in fact, square off. Vokanovski was ruled out after contracting COVID-19 — which he told The Post earlier this week “got into the lungs” but swears he is fully recovered — just two days after making those comments and seven days before the planned March 27 fight. Big change.
And what had been a relatively drama-free buildup in the spring was far from it in the months and days leading up to Saturday’s UFC 266 headliner at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Once recovered, Volkanovski remained in Las Vegas instead of returning home to Australia and starred opposite Los Angeles native Ortega in the latest season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Big change.
Volkanovski and Ortega spent plenty of time together on the reality series … enough to find out what happens when fighters stop being polite and start getting real. No longer are they a pair of “pretty chill dudes;” On “TUF,” a miffed Volkanovski called his foe a “s–t person;” Ortega removed the tires from the champs car, leaving barnyard animals in their place.
Par for the course on the revived series, but nonetheless contributing to a, yes, big change in how Volkanovski views the first fresh challenger to his belt since beating Max Holloway via razor-thin decision last year in an immediate rematch after claiming the 145-pound crown.
“Right now, it is different,” Volkanovski said Monday, contrasting his feelings toward Ortega from the spring to now. “I feel like there is a little bit of beef there. I can’t wait to go out there and put my hands on him.
“He showed a different side of him that I didn’t know the first time,” the champ continued, “so that’s why this is different this time and I’m gonna put him away.”
Volkanovski, a former semi-pro rugby player before achieving world-champ status in the UFC in 2019, doesn’t think that “different side” came across in full on the finished episodes of the show. In his estimation, the producers made Ortega, 30, look more involved as a coach than he was.
But the champ tells a different tale.
“I think they did Ortega a solid by acting like he’s a caring sort of dude, but I think he’s a pretty selfish, sensitive dude,” said Volkanovski, who will turn 33 on Wednesday. “You didn’t really get to see that on the show, but I’ve seen that.”
The champion says he and his coaching staff sought to prank Ortega back after the car incident — which Volkanovski appeared to take in typically good-natured stride on the show — with a different practical joke targeting the challenger’s ride. And they might have done so, the Aussie says, had Ortega pulled strings behind the scenes to put the kibosh on anything having to do with his vehicle, and he cites that as his opponent being “a sensitive little b—h.”
In the aborted attempt to prank Ortega’s car, Volkanovski and his fellow coaches secured the car keys, which had been left at the gym. Swearing that they would not have done anything damaging to the car and instead “have a bit of fun,” he said the show’s producers stopped them before any plans were laid out. The champ says he never drew boundaries with the shows producers regarding what could and could not be done in terms of pranks and was unaware if Ortega had anything contractually protecting his car.
“He acts like he doesn’t care and puts on a big smile, but behind closed doors, he’s carrying on and crying about something,” Volkanovski said.