Alexander Volkov believes he’s earned himself a big-fight opportunity after beating Greg Hardy in the UFC on ESPN+ 21 co-main event.

Volkov (31-7 MMA, 5-1 UFC) returned from a 13-month layoff Saturday to defeat former NFL standout Hardy (5-2 MMA, 2-2 UFC) by unanimous decision at CSKA Arena in Moscow. The former Bellator heavyweight champion was originally supposed to fight in the event headliner against Junior Dos Santos, but the card was shuffled on three weeks’ notice when he got a replacement opponent.

The Russian was the betting favorite coming into the fight, but did not beat Hardy as emphatically as some predicted. Volkov was unfazed by the nature of his win, though, and said he had to fight smart due to the danger his opponent presented.

“It was a lot of pressure before this fight,” Volkov said through an interpreter on the UFC on ESPN+ 21 post-fight show. “I was very, very cautious because Greg was very hard and tough. He ate a lot of my punches and didn’t flinch and I know that while his style is very unorthodox, I have to be careful and work my way without any chance for him to win.”

Hardy had never previously been beat on the scorecards, and Volkov said he felt he could test his opponent’s card by extending the fight. Hardy tried to get the fight to the ground, too, but Volkov emphasized the importance of keep it both standing and in his desired range.

“My first goal was to stop his way of fighting, because usually that’s what I do with my opponents,” Volkov said. “I make them to go with my game. It’s not that he wanted to stand there and bang with me, he had too. All I worked before the fight was to make him stand there and fight with me. I know there my class is much higher than his.”

Volkov got back in the win column after suffering a comeback loss to Derrick Lewis at UFC 229 in October 2018. It was his first victory in 20 months, and now “Drago” once again feels like a player in the heavyweight division.

He took a major risk by fighting an unranked opponent like Hardy on short notice, but now Volkov wants a name. He had canceled fights with Dos Santos (21-6 MMA, 15-5 UFC) and Alistair Overeem (45-17 MMA, 10-6 UFC) in 2019, and he would like to get them back next year.

“I returned to the title race,” Volkov said. “I want to be at the top. I will be the best. … I want as fast as possible. I have unfinished business with ‘JDS’ and Overeem. Both of them is good choice.”

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