Hall Of Fame
It was a unique introduction to Makwan Amirkhani. While the last few of the 30,000 fans in attendance at UFC Fight Night: Gustafsson vs. Johnson were leaving Stockholm’s Tele2 Arena into a freezing Swedish January 2015 night, a small auditorium in the massive stadium’s catacombs was packed with a few dozen reporters.
A few hours earlier, UFC debutant Amirkhani had blown up the huge arena with a blistering eight-second flying knee knockout of veteran featherweight Andy Ogle. Given that some, including commentator Joe Rogan, seemed to think that the stoppage might have been a tad early, I thought it would be a good idea to ask Amirkhani at the press conference about his thoughts on a potential rematch. Turned out it wasn’t that good.
Halfway through the question, Amirkhani knit his brows and interrupted.
“C’mon, man,” Amirkhani said, now smirking. “Eight seconds. You want less than that?”
The place burst into laughter, and even the notoriously stoic Gegard Mousasi couldn’t hide a grin. That quote is one of a series that would make headlines the next day and propel Amirkhani into somewhat of an instant sensation.
Six nights before, he had watched the UFC on television for the first time ever when Conor McGregor starched Dennis Siver in Boston. How long does it take to realize how far you’ve just come over the course of eight seconds and a bunch of flashy quotes in a business you knew virtually nothing about one weekend earlier?
“I haven’t even realized it now,” Amirkhani says, just days away from his third Octagon appearance on February 27 – a UFC FIGHT PASS bout against Mike Wilkinson in London’s O2 Arena.
“I did some boxing today with some professional boxers and it was funny how even the boxers wanted pictures. It’s like that everywhere I go in Finland. It’s not just because of UFC, it’s because of the person I am. I think people like the personality that I have. Being honest and a good person is everything.”
Building that kind of character often requires overcoming struggles earlier in life, and Amirkhani is no different, having forged his personality through tough times that now often fall behind the cheerful appearance that draws most of the attention.
Born in Kurdistan, Amirkhani fell ill to a mysterious sickness as an infant that almost killed him, and then he almost got kidnapped from the hospital. A few years later, his family fled to Finland. Even though safe, Makwan was still handed a tough start to his new life.
“When we came, there was snow. People were white, and I was the only brown-skinned person, so the other kids were looking at me like I was from another planet. When we were speaking our language with my brothers, they’d make fun of us. In that time, it was rough, but now I’m looking at it with a smile.”
Another thing that Amirkhani can’t help but to smile about now is his start in combat sports. As it is not uncommon in families from the Middle East, his father insisted he take up wrestling at a young age to build character and strength. So Amirkhani did.
“I didn’t like it at first,” he says. “I was the youngest kid, I was the skinniest, so I had to suffer because I had to do the same amount of exercises even though I was smaller.”
He would even hide under his bed before practice. Once he got used to the grind, though, competition became a passion – first on the wrestling mats, then in a cage, though he didn’t see it as a career.
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“As a poor kid without money, fighting and MMA was something to get some pocket money. Until I got to the UFC.”
Once there, Amirkhani made the most of his unlikely chance and blasted right through his first two opponents in a combined 108 seconds, still remaining somewhat of a mystery. So what can we expect from his third showing this weekend in London against Wilkinson?
“This fight won’t take too long,” he answers, quick like a shot. “Every night (when) he’s going to sleep, he’s thinking ‘what am I going to say to my family when I come home and I got my ass beat in front of my own family?’ That’s what he’s thinking. Every. (Expletive). Night.”
Fighting words. After engaging in trash talk with Masio Fullen ahead of their bout last June, Wilkinson is his second foe in a row that Amirkhani is trading verbal blows with before the actual fight. Why does he keep getting into that? Can’t the division handle the swagger of “Mr. Finland”?
“Yes, they’re scared,” he states, matter-of-factly. “They’re like dogs, they don’t know what to do. All they can do is bark. I see it from Mike Wilkinson. He’s afraid of my confidence.
But there’s nothing that he can do. We’re going to do some boxing – I’m gonna beat his ass. I’m gonna drop him. I’m gonna knock him out.”
Strong words from someone who never really trained MMA as a whole until about a year ago. Part of this confidence might be that Amirkhani knows that even if the boxing part doesn’t work out, he can always fall back on his roots.
“If he wants to wrestle with me, it’ll be like me teaching wrestling to him, it’ll just be a really happy day for me if we do wrestling. It’ll be like training. When we’re grappling, it’s like me being a black belt with some white belt guy. So, whatever he wants to do, I’m ready and I’m always one step ahead.”
And with that, our chat concludes. Or does it?
“See you at the press conference,” Amirkhani says.
I can feel the smirk through the phone.