John Hyon Ko, The AllStar’s Senior MMA Correspondent, is in Phuket on a six-month fight training camp. He is documenting his experiences over the coming months as he prepares for his first MMA fight in September.
I had no intention to spar that day. And certainly not with a UFC champion.
But when Alexander Volkanovski came into Bangtao Muay Thai & MMA for a no-gi session on the last morning of his holiday, I had to take the opportunity to roll with one of the greatest fighters of this generation.
I asked him to save me the last roll and the featherweight champ was happy to oblige. If no one has told you yet, Volkanovski is one of the nicest people you will meet in this sport.
It was the first sparring session not only since I started training camp, but since the pandemic began. Before Covid came around and halted the world for a few years, I trained jiu-jitsu in the gi for around three years. Competed in two tournaments and earned my blue belt.
Sitting there watching Volkanovski spar with other young fighters gave me a sense of what kind of sparring partner he was. He seemed to be very conscious of what level his partners were at and that gave me some relief.
Once we got to rolling, I automatically felt the skill difference and strength. I have never tangled with someone his size that strong. I’m about six inches taller than he is and easily 20 pounds heavier. Made no difference, which is the beauty of jiu-jitsu.
He was taking it easy on me for the first few minutes and that is where I learned the most. There were certain advantageous positions he allowed me to obtain and I did not capitalize on any of them.
I attempted two anaconda chokes. Volkanovski was so thick that I could barely lock it in. On the second attempt, I thought I had it deep but then he just flexed and spun out of it like nothing. That is when I realized I was going to do nothing against him.
He had my back and trapped one of my arms with his leg so I only had one arm to defend the choke. It didn’t matter. The squeeze from around my neck was alarming. I had around 3 seconds to get out but once he locked in the other arm to stop blood circulation to the brain I had to tap.
I had a split-second moment before the tap where I thought about just going to sleep. However, I remember the last time I decided to do that, and the blood vessels in my eyes popped. It looked disgusting for a few weeks.
I was grappling with this random fighter a few years back at a gym in Seoul and he had me in a triangle choke. I was stuck but still breathing yet no way out. Eventually, he made an adjustment and started to squeeze with his legs. I felt the room getting darker and my eyes were going to pop out of my face.
At the midway point of our roll, Volk whispered to me, “You want to feel the real Hulk?” And I naively replied with, “Of course.”
Volkanovski seemingly threw me and caught me at the same time and submitted me in like 5 seconds. I felt like a child in a washing machine just tumbling around. If I imagine Volkanovski going all six minutes like that, I would have been submitted an endless amount.
Throughout the whole experience, Volkanovski repeated words of encouragement to finish the round and roll to the end. That was something I really appreciated.
The day after, I was extremely sore. The back of my ribcage was tender from the squeeze of his legs when he took my back and choked me. I felt the impact on my legs from trying to explode out of dangerous positions as well.
Having my first sparring session after a few years with Volkanovski was perfect. He shattered all my fears of running into a crazy person on the mats who is trying to kill me every second of the time. Being a neophyte, I have to be very selective about who I spar with since I do not want to sustain a stupid injury.
But rolling with Volk gave me some confidence in moving forward with my martial arts journey. After the bell rang to end the round, people were very supportive and surprised by my movement. This really has lit a fire under me to go and seek more challenges against other top fighters.