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'Build that legacy': Volkanovski has embraced the haters, now for Ortega

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Volkanovski shares memories of first stepping foot into an MMA gym (2:22)

Alexander Volkanovski and coach Joe Lopez take us back to the UFC featherweight champion's earliest days in the Freestyle Fighting Gym in Windang, New South Wales. (2:22)

Alexander Volkanovski's second UFC title defense has been a long time coming.

But after a COVID-19 diagnosis and the associated recovery, a twist-of-fate opportunity as the successful coach on the latest season of The Ultimate Fighter [TUF], and another fight camp, the 32-year-old Australian is now finally ready to fight Brian Ortega.

The rivalry between the two featherweights has only been enhanced by the duo's stint as coaches on TUF, making this one of the most anticipated UFC showdowns of the year.

But Volkanovski has long been fighting a battle on another front, too. Despite first dethroning Max Holloway as the featherweight champion of the world, and then again prevailing in a split-decision rematch, Volkanovski continues to have his credentials questioned.

But where he had let the negativity annoy him in the past, Volkanovski has since shifted his mindset. He has also set himself the challenge of not only being a clear leader as Australia's greatest UFC fighter, but to also have his name sit alongside any Australian athlete of his generation.

It is quite the target for a guy who originally only got into mixed martial arts to help with his rugby league preseason.

Volkanovski's coach, the affable Joe Lopez, perhaps best explains the journey so far.

"I guess at the beginning you don't know [how good someone can be], but as I got to know Alex, what kind of person he was, [I knew I had something special]," Lopez said of Volkanovski. "One of my goals was always to have someone to get into the UFC, and once we got together we both had the same dream and we just moved ahead.

"And once we got here, we said we want more than just to be a UFC fighter, we want to be a UFC champion. And now our next goal is to build that legacy, and slowly but surely now we're into the second fight of the legacy."

If Volkanovski takes care of business and defeats Ortega in Las Vegas on Saturday night [Sunday afternoon AEST], he will become the greatest Australian UFC fighter of all time.

Compatriot Robert Whittaker had just the one successful title defense before he was dethroned by Israel Adesanya, although a rematch between the two trans-Tasman rivals is on the horizon with Whittaker having gone away and rattled off three straights wins since that defeat in 2019.

Still, Volkanovski sees this fight against Ortega and the next few years that follow as an opportunity to write the feature chapters of his own remarkable Australian sports story.

"Building myself up and being one of the greatest athletes in Australia, that is exciting," Volkanovski told ESPN. "I haven't really talked about it, but it is definitely something that I want to do, to do Australia proud. I've got the backing from Australia and I want to keep winning the belt, keep defending, and showing that we have great athletes on this side of the world in all sports.

"We've got so much talent over here and me going out there defending on one of the biggest promotions in the world is really saying something. Going out there and defending is what really needs to be done to prove yourself to the world, to Australia, to all the other athletes here.

"I want to be something that Australia's proud of, not only that he's a great champion, but a great human being. But I also want to be one of the best [UFC] athletes in the world."

For many of the UFC's passionate fans, Volkanovski's title reign shouldn't have extended beyond his rematch with Max Holloway.

Having dominated the Hawaiian superstar to claim the featherweight belt at the end of 2019, Volkanovski only emerged from their second fight six months later via a split decision. It was a fight that divided the UFC world, while there was no doubting how UFC President Dana White had seen the fight.

"You can't leave it to these guys, we got some bad judging...did anybody in here score it for Volkanovski," White asked of the media in the post-fight press conference.

The nature of the fight and White's assessment set the "haters" squarely on the Australian.

Overcoming such negativity isn't always that simple. While it is easy to say you're going to ignore those who seek to bring you down, it is human nature to want to know what is being said about you, perhaps never more so than in the current social media era.

Volkanovski admits he fell victim to that, too. But he has since been able to move past it, he says, instead learning how to use the negative energy to his own advantage, to fuel the hunger that has driven him on this long and winding road to his eventual showdown with Ortega.

"As they say, you know you've made it when you get the haters," Volkanovski told ESPN. "I used to worry about what people had to say; I used to go out there and want to impress the haters and get them on my side. I would waste energy worrying about what they had to say...but now I don't worry about that.

"The people that back me that's all I care about. And I know that people, whether they change their mind or not, it doesn't matter. But I guarantee that once I keep doing what I plan on doing, I keep defending that belt, showing that I'm the best featherweight in the world, they're going to jump on board.

"And if they don't, whatever. But I ain't gonna try and impress them anymore, I'm just gonna be me and do my thing, enjoy the process, stay motivated -- keep hatin', I'm gonna use it."

There is no question that Volkanovski has ever tried to be anything but himself. His jovial, knock about [an Australian term for someone who is a friendly, often funny individual] personality has made him a celebrity across the Illawarra region he calls home, while those outside that community have got a greater sense of his warmth and genuine nature through television appearances or even his own 'Cooking with Volk' YouTube series.

But at the heart of the Australian is a desire to win. To be one of the best athletes of any kind in his country and one of the best UFC fighters the world has seen. As coach Lopez puts it, Volkanovski's "legacy" matters, and the time to continue building it has finally arrived.

"I'm not a cocky guy, but I am confident in my ability, my pace and my fight IQ," Volkanovski said when asked why he thinks he'll beat Ortega.

"I sound like a broken record but I've proven it time and time again. I'm going to go out there and prove that I am the best featherweight and that's that."