Born in Russia, forged in Ireland.
I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Ask John Kavanagh, ask Owen Roddy, ask all my sparring partners these past ten years.
My coaches have always been there. They forged the Russian Hammer into existence. Coming from where I come from gives me a toughness that I carry into every fight but those guys, John and Owen and Shay Caffrey, made a fighter out of me. I couldn’t have done it without them.
Fighting is always something I wanted to do but I came late to the game. As a kid I remember asking my mum if I could take up boxing.
“No, you’ll get your nose broken,” she replied. Funnily enough my nose is the only thing I haven’t broken – hands, ribs… you name it, but not my nose.
Maybe UFC 223 on April 7th in Brooklyn will take care of that. Or maybe I will break Alex Caceres.
Yeah, fighting is something I always wanted to do but my mum wanted me to go to university, so I ended up filling in the CAO like every other Leaving Cert student.
”Actually, I wanted to be a gangster!
I come from an immigrant family and grew up in Russia in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union… and rise of the mafia. It was a really tough time for my parents. It wasn’t easy to move out of Russia, but Argentina was where we were able to go. My stepdad was a mechanic, he could fix any car or engine, so we stayed there for two years before another recession found us.
The Celtic Tiger was booming in Ireland.
When you are forced to move around a lot, struggling to find jobs, you don’t have much money so training and playing sport became a luxury I could not afford. You have to worry about a roof over your head every night or food on the table every morning, never mind training to be a fighter.
”Our fight was survival.
I was 16 years old when we moved to Ireland and it wasn’t Dublin right away – that also took a little time, and many tough days. We lived in Tralee but moved again when my stepdad got a job up in Letterkenny. So, I have been around my adopted country. Donegal is where I graduated from secondary school, while also washing dishes in a restaurant, but I moved to Dublin for college after getting a spot in DCU to study business. My Dad got another new job, so we could stay together.
One day walking into college I saw an ad on the wall saying, “Would you like to learn some self-defence?” There was a picture of two guys covered in blood, fighting. I smiled and scribbled down the details. I used to watch all this stuff, boxing, MMA – I just didn’t have a chance to do it. This was my chance. I went down and trained for two weeks before asking my coach (who it turns out was John Kavanagh’s student, Phil Graham, a blue belt), “When can I have my first fight?, Phil was laughing at me, thinking “This guy is crazy.”
In the same place as jiu jitsu there was a Polish boxing club, so I did jiu jitsu twice a week and boxing once. After a while Phil realised I was serious, I wouldn’t shut up, “When can I fight?”, and I kept showing up, so he said, “If you really want to fight you need to train at SBG Ireland with John Kavanagh.”
”So, I went down to find John. Got a trial. That was it. I was training with John Kavanagh in Straight Blast Gym.
That’s when the real work began.
I had a job in the bank, so it was a rough time for me, I barely got any sleep because I had to get up early in the morning for a cardio session, work all day, go training at night, then home and sleep straight away. On Saturdays I did commentary for Setanta Sports, as they showed UFC events in Russian. Slept all day Sunday and back to work Monday. Normal people would dream about nice cars and holidays, but I used to sit in work dreaming about sleep. At lunch time I would get some food then go for a half hour nap.
Every sport is tough. It is never easy to make it. You hear about the success stories, but they never show you the other guys who just keep going. Rafa Nadal is great but what about the guy ranked 127 in the world? It takes as much dedication as Nadal to become the number 127 ranked tennis player. The difference is the skill of Nadal. They put in the same work, they just don’t get the same money.
That’s why this fight means so much to my career. There is real pressure now, but I absolutely love the environment. Fighters like to talk about their records being 10 and zero or 20 and zero but the truth is, and not many people know this, most of those records are padded. My record isn’t padded – 13 wins, one draw, 14 losses.
Never in my life have I taken an easy fight. When I’ve been offered two or three at the same time I always picked the hardest opponent.
Boxing or just fighting in general has been an underground sport, more than it’s been mainstream, so there are a lot of people who don’t understand what really goes on. They see a boxer who is 20 wins and zero defeats but behind those twenty wins there is usually nothing. Opponents are picked off the street. They can’t fight. They are there to take a beating. They are there to lose.
Combat sports are the only sports where this happens, for some reason. You would never see Tiger Woods playing his neighbours in golf, beating them and it being packaged as a tournament victory. Tiger wouldn’t take pride in that because it makes no sense.
In fighting that happens, ALL THE TIME. Young guys get easy fights to build up a reputation, to learn, but not me. I went for the harsher lessons.
I’ve won fights I was supposed to be crushed in. Take my second professional fight against Dave Hill who, at that time, was the sixth ranked featherweight in Europe. Later in his career Dave fought Conor McGregor for a Cage Warriors belt. I should have never have been in there based on how people usually build their records.
I beat him. It went from there. I always tried to challenge myself, if I can beat Dave Hill what’s the point in taking a backwards step? I sought bigger and bigger challenges. In terms of my record, it might not look so pretty, but in terms of developing skills and ability, it has done a lot for me. I’m 31 years old and have only been fighting seven years, but I have developed into a very skilful fighter in a very short space of time because of the opponents I have faced.
I used to be a little Soviet kid with dreams of becoming a fighter. Never did I imagine seeing the inside of The Kremlin but recently I was invited to Moscow to train with the FSO [state guards], the federal security agency. It was a huge honour to exchange knowledge with the men who protect the President of Russia and other high-ranking state officials. An experience I’ll tell my grandchildren about. The FSO are very smart, well trained, with some seriously good fighters among them. It was an education for me as it was for them and an incredible experience for someone who grew up in Russia only seeing the Kremlin on TV. It meant so much to be welcomed inside that fortress. Finding my way back to Russia was a very long journey, but it is far from over.
On to Brooklyn next and UFC 223. I like the match up. Alex Caceres has previously fought in a weight class below 145lbs, at 135lbs, so that will probably make take downs and wrestling harder for him. His striking is very unusual, he likes to go unorthodox, but I’ve sparred with the best southpaw in the business.
”I will figure Alex out. My fights are very rarely boring, I always bring it.
When I come to fight, I think I am on a night out with my girlfriend and the guy has just insulted her. I have to get him back. With those thoughts in your mind you are hardly going to cuddle the guy or play the clock. I want to go in there and take his head off. The public seem to like that.
Training camp has been tough, just how we like it. Dillon Danis is in SBG preparing for his own fight. I always try to find the best training partners. I guess this is how my friendship with Conor was formed. Dillon presents an opportunity to improve my grappling and wrestling. He is one of the best at jiu jitsu in the world and he’s bigger than me, so it is a tough challenge.
”This is how evolution works, your existence needs to be threatened, you need to be under constant pressure to evolve, develop and improve.
Like everyone in SBG, Conor McGregor has supported me from day one. If he doesn’t have to be somewhere else important, he will always be there to support me. I know this.
I was in Sweden for Conor’s debut in 2013, it was incredible, 67 seconds, what a night that was. There have been many great nights since. If he makes it to Brooklyn then great, if not, no problem. Conor always has my back.
I am extremely grateful to the UFC for this opportunity. They get a lot of criticism, but I absolutely love the UFC because without them guys like me wouldn’t be able to do this as a full time job. They give me an opportunity to provide for my family. The reality for guys fighting outside the UFC is they are doing it for free or the love of fighting or to take the next step. There is almost no financial reward.
The card is still impressive with Max Holloway and Khabib Nurmagomedov scrapping for Conor’s belt.
But Khabib wins the main event.
Conor and Khabib, if it happens next, who wins? I think Conor. Look at his style, the way he fights; once Khabib gets his hands on you, yeah, you don’t get out, he is very efficient, very effective and he doesn’t get tired, but you have to be a marathon runner or a sprinter, you can’t be both. Khabib is a marathon runner. The benefit is he can last five rounds without getting tired, but the drawback is he is not fast enough. He always gets caught with shots on the way in. Look at his fight against Michael Johnson; he couldn’t take him down, at all, until Michael Johnson took himself down the first time with the guillotine. Only then could Khabib beat him up a little, slow him down and take him to ground at will. With Conor, Khabib can’t afford to do that. Conor is too fast, too powerful and too precise. Khabib will try to close distance but his lack of speed means he will be caught a lot by Conor’s punches on the way in.
I see that ending in the first round.
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