Shamil Abdurakhimov may not have expected to get a main event slot in his fourth UFC fight, but now that he’s here and facing Derrick Lewis on Friday night in Albany, he plans on making the most of this opportunity.
“I signed a contract with UFC to fight against the best fighters,” he said through manager / translator Alexey Yatsenko. “I didn't expect that my fourth fight will be the main event, but I’ll do everything to not to lose my chance. I believe in my victory and I hope that after this fight I will have the opportunity to fight for the belt.”
Currently ranked 15th in the world among the big men, Abdurakhimov will see his stock – and ranking – rise if he can stop the four-fight winning streak of the No. 10-ranked Lewis. And while a title shot may be far on the horizon, you can’t blame the Dagestan native for looking ahead and staying ready, because in this sport, you never know when your number will be called.
It was the same way for “Abrek” on the regional scene, where he compiled an impressive record beating UFC vets like Neil Grove, Sokoudjou and Jeff Monson, but didn’t get the call from the big show. It didn’t matter, as he kept marching forward, leaving such contractual matters to his manager.
“In 2011, I won the Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi (defeating Marcos Oliveira),” he recalls. “Right after my victory, my manager (Alexey Yatsenko) wrote Mr. Joe Silva and received from him an offer to sign a contract with UFC. At that time I was under contract with ADFC, and I should have had one more fight to defend the belt. I was waiting for a long time but the next fight wasn't set. I had a big break and with my team we decided to take part in some fights and after that, we came back to negotiations with UFC.”
Following the win over Oliveira, Abdurakhimov was on the shelf for nine months before coming back in December of 2011 and losing to Tony Lopez. But three wins followed, and by 2015 he was in the Octagon. Abdurakhimov would drop his UFC debut to Tim Johnson, but he has since bounced back with wins over Anthony Hamilton and Walt Harris that propelled him into this week’s main event against the hard-hitting Lewis.
“He is a good fighter with very good punches,” he said of his opponent. “In the present time, a fight against him is a test for any fighter. But in the place where I grew up, there were a lot of good fighters and I have fought against them. He is not a more complicated opponent than other fighters I fought during my career.”
That confidence doesn’t just come from his 17-3 pro MMA record, but from a lifetime of competition. So when the 35-year-old is asked about his late start in pro MMA, it’s a question that amuses him.
“I am from Dagestan, and it means that if you were born a man, you are in sport,” he said. “I was in sport from my earliest childhood and it never was a problem for me.”
Maybe that’s why the UFC’s Dagestan contingent is among the toughest in the world. And that’s no surprise to Abdurakhimov.
“Dagestan people, as in all Caucasus, like sport, especially martial arts,” he said. “This is on a genetic level, and rivalry is very strong in the republic. And, as you know, when rivalry is strong, the level of fighters goes up. Because of that, so many names in MMA are from Dagestan, and that number will increase.”
Yet as the numbers grow and fighters such as lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov close in on world title shots, will the purity of the sport be diluted by the allure of fame and glory? Not likely, at least not when it comes to fighters like Abdurakhimov, whose goals are unchanged from when he first started competing professionally.
“Most important in my life is my family,” he said. “Everything I do, my contract with UFC, my training, my fights, it’s all for my family.”
And at 35, he may just be in his physical prime as a heavyweight, which bodes well for him and bad for his opponents.
“I feel that I’m full of energy and, at the same time, I have a lot of experience,” he said. “I think it all gives me an advantage over 20 and 25-year-old fighters.”
That doesn’t mean his eventual goal is different from those young bucks, so when asked for his 2017 forecast, he smiles.
“I think I will not be original, but I want to become UFC champion.”