Artem Lobov had been so close so many times. Just one more win, one more knockout, and he would get that call from the UFC. It never came.
What did fall on his doorstep was a chance to win a contract through Season 22 of The Ultimate Fighter. All the stars were aligned. He was in shape, he was fired up, and his friend and longtime training partner Conor McGregor was going to coach the European team on the show. All Lobov had to do was beat Mehdi Baghdad and he was going to be on the show.
He fought his heart out but lost a majority decision. The dream was over. Perhaps forever.
“There were a thousand things going through my mind and I was thinking I guess I have to go back now, back to Ireland, get a job again, and forget my UFC dream and start working and that will be it,” Lobov recalled.
For most who lost in the TUF 22 elimination round, it was back home, back to the regional circuit, and more time trying to figure out the next step. Lobov went back with McGregor and his SBG Ireland teammates to the team’s temporary Las Vegas digs and wondered what was next. It was the longest weekend of his life.
“I had a tough fight, so I had a few bumps and bruises, and when you've lost a fight, the bumps and bruises hurt a lot more than if you win a fight,” he said. “So I was sitting a little bit depressed, very sad and planning my next move. And not really looking forward to what's ahead.
“Conor was saying that he was going to try and bring me back as a coach on the show, but at that point, I didn't really even want that. Coaching is not really something I'm interested in at the moment. I expected I would have to go back and get a job in the bank again and try to progress my finance career.”
Checks and balances would have to wait for the 29-year-old Nizhny Novgorod, Russia native though, as news eventually came down that one fighter from each side on TUF 22 who lost an elimination bout would be brought back to the show. For McGregor’s side, the choice was obvious. Lobov was going into the TUF house.
He had his chance again, and this time, he left nothing up to chance, as he blasted out his next three opponents by knockout to earn a spot in tonight’s final against Ryan Hall.
There would be more twists and turns though, as Lobov was originally scheduled to face his TUF teammate Saul Rogers in Las Vegas. Visa issues scrapped that matchup, leaving Lobov in an odd situation, He wanted to fight Rogers to avenge a split decision loss from 2011, but instead gets Hall, who he actually trained with in his adopted hometown of Dublin, Ireland after taping concluded. But after all that has happened, Lobov is willing to fight anyone.
“I'm going to be honest - I was really looking forward to the rematch (with Rogers),” he said. “I was chasing that guy for many, many years. After we had our fight, it was a split decision loss for me, so I really wanted to avenge that loss. And then once he joined Straight Blast in Manchester, which is an affiliate gym to us, I had to kind of give up on that dream, and there was no way I could ever get that rematch. And actually, the way things worked out on The Ultimate Fighter, it was the only possible way in my life that I could ever rematch Saul Rogers, so I was like 'This must be destiny.' So I was really looking forward to that rematch.
“Having said that, I don't really mind who I fight. My philosophy has always been 'Anyone, anytime, anyplace,' and I stick to that. So when (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva sent me an email saying that my opponent had changed, I just told him, 'Look, I'm going to be there Dec. 11, no matter what, and if you want me to fight a tiger that night, well, then I'll fight a tiger.
“Whoever's in that cage, I'm going to go at them, and I'm going to go for them. So it makes no difference to me.”
That attitude has garnered Lobov a diehard fan base and respect from his peers, but it’s also hurt his career. With a 12-10-1, 1 NC career compiled since his pro debut in 2010, he won’t scare anyone on paper or get the hype afforded those with glossier slates. It also meant the UFC wasn’t calling. But Lobov stuck to his guns, and he will likely never change. So in terms of padding his record against a series of cupcakes, it wasn’t happening.
“I understand that that's how it works, this was the way in and everyone is doing it,” he conceded. “But my heart would never let me do this. I will have no self-respect if I ever took that road. I would rather never make it into the UFC than take the easy road there. And I've never had any regret about it because I knew that nobody could ever say Artem Lobov was afraid or that he turned down a fight or didn't do it the right way. I knew that if I wasn't going to make it, at least I went about it the right way and I lived from my point of view.”
Another aspect of that point of view is that he has chosen to never surrender in a prizefight. Yes, he has been submitted before, but he never tapped. Against a heel hook master like Hall, that can be an issue tonight, and Lobov knows it.
“Ryan is a really nice guy,” the man known as “The Russian Hammer” said. “He spent some time training with us very recently, and I've actually helped him with his striking a little bit, and he has helped me with my jiu-jitsu a little bit. So it was kind of surprising to me and somewhat disappointing to find out that he's going to be the guy that I'm fighting. But I don't really mind in that sense. The one thing that I have mixed feelings about is that I have a few losses, but one thing that I have never done is tap out.
“I have never, ever tapped out in a fight. I've been choked out a few times, I've had my arm broken, but I never, ever tapped, which is a bit of a problem with Ryan. If you don't tap out with him, you might not only not be able to fight ever again, you might not be able to walk ever again. So I'm not sure how I feel about that. Obviously if you get into that situation, I don't think I will tap. I never have done it in the past, and I don't plan on doing that ever. It's a bit of a dangerous situation I'm in at the moment, I think, but I look forward to that. I don't really mind. If it is going to be my last fight, well so be it, I'm going to make it a good one.”
If you are of the opinion that Lobov isn’t like the other fighters, you’re spot on in that assessment. Yes, this is a sport, but it’s also a fight, and Lobov is the purest of fighters.
“I was always in this for competition, to test myself,” he said. “I felt that the ultimate form of competition is fighting. A lot of people say that they would fight anyone or they want to fight the best, but then when you look at the guys they fought, and it's not exactly the case. I always said it, and I stood by my word.
“When I look to have a fight, I always look for the best guys around. I never, ever padded my record, I never didn't take a fight. When the offer comes in, my conversations with the matchmakers are very short. Usually it's just one word. I just reply 'yes.' And after I discovered the use of emojis, they got even shorter. I just send the thumbs up. To me, it is more than just sport. To me, it's a fight and it's like going into battle. And if the enemy was to arrive at your door, you couldn't tell them 'Well, come back tomorrow,' or 'I need an eight-week camp.' You would have to fight. So that's how I see it. When the offer comes in, I'm ready to fight.”
And friend or no friend, he will fight Ryan Hall tonight. It’s what Artem Lobov does.
“I just love fighting,” he said. “There's nothing I would rather do on a Saturday night than be in the cage throwing absolute bombs. This is what I love to do, so whether it's the big stage or the smallest show on the planet with five people watching me, I don't really mind. I just want to be in there doing what I love.”
What about fighting on a Friday night?
“Even better,” he said, laughing. “I'm going to be free on Saturday, so maybe I can get a fight on Saturday night as well.”