There are no hard and fast timetables for how long it will take an emerging talent to make his or her way through the regional circuit and on to the big stage of the UFC. Truth be told, there are no guarantees that it will ever happen, given the unpredictable nature of the sport, the prevalence of injuries and the scores of aspiring fighters that burn out or fade away before reaching the highest level in the sport.
When Misha Cirkunov debuted on the Canadian regional scene in January 2010, the hulking light heavyweight with a strong pedigree on the mat looked like a can’t-miss prospect who would ascend the ranks and arrive in the UFC in a relatively short amount of time. A talented judoka and wrestler during his high school years, the native of Latvia who moved to the Toronto area when he was 13 took gold in the Abu Dhabi Combat Club North American Trials three years earlier and it seemed like only a matter of time before he would cross the threshold into the Octagon.
More than five years and 11 fights later, the now 28-year-old Cirkunov is finally preparing to step into the UFC cage for the first time, carrying a four-fight winning streak (all finishes) into his promotional debut this weekend against Daniel Jolly in the opening bout of Sunday night’s UFC Fight Night event in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
“Fighting is one of those sports that is very tough physically, very tough mentally – it’s a tough sport in general – and then on top of that, you have to prove to everybody that you belong,” Cirkunov, who encountered many of the same problems that have stalled the climb of other top prospects on their way to the UFC, reflects. “You have to do a lot of work and you can get injured and, on top of that, you have to find someone to fight you and you cannot make anyone fight you. It’s just frustrating, challenging and it’s been a really, really long journey.”
After amassing a 5-2 record in just over two years to begin his career, injuries and a lack of opponents limited the humble, hard-working light heavyweight to just a single fight in both 2013 and 2014. Winning both long before the first round expired didn’t exactly make opponents want to line up and share the cage with the deft grappler, but Cirkunov continued to press forward and got the break many emerging talents on the regional scene need before advancing to the next level at the start of the year: a fight with a UFC veteran. That bout came in the form of Rodney Wallace, who he stopped in two minutes in January.
“It was challenging mentally and physically, but luckily this year things have kind of turned around,” he says of the unpredictable nature of fighting on the regional circuit. “I got opportunities to fight this year and right away they gave me a title fight at Hard Knocks (Fighting Championship) against a UFC veteran where I was scheduled to fight for five rounds.
“This year really went my way – I got the opportunities that I always wanted and here I am. The UFC finally called me and I’m very excited to have this opportunity and I’m not going to miss this opportunity. I’m going all-in and I’m very excited to be in the big leagues and representing Canada.”
While ambition makes every fighter want to reach the big leagues of mixed martial arts in a timely fashion and no one likes dealing with the frustrations of cancelled fights and stalled progress, having finally gotten the call to the Octagon has allowed Cirkunov to look back on his journey, and the light heavyweight prospect sees a silver lining to his extended run on the regional scene.
“In this game, there’s no such thing as being over-prepared. Everything takes time – it takes time to develop the skills, to learn how to wrestle, how to do judo, how to punch, how to grapple. Everything takes time and I’m just happy that I took the time to develop all of my skills.
“It’s one of those things like going to war,” he continues. “You want to learn how to shoot, how to reload the gun, how to use a grenade; you want to learn all those things before you go into real combat.
“I felt like even though my journey getting into the UFC was longer, I think that I’m more prepared for my debut. I feel like I’m ready to fight anybody and I’m not really worried about big names, or not big names; I look at their skills and I think I can fight most of those guys. I don’t really see myself having that many weaknesses and I can definitely put up my skills against any other guys in the UFC 205-pound division.”
And he’s joining the light heavyweight ranks at a time when the weight class is at a bit of a crossroads.
Longtime champion Jon Jones was stripped of his title and suspended indefinitely, replaced at the top of the division by his nemesis, Daniel Cormier, and while former title challengers Alexander Gustafsson, Anthony Johnson and Glover Teixeira all remain near the top of the 205-pound food chain, there are a host of veteran names that have made the permanent move down in weight or are showing signs of decline, with very few fresh, young talents working their way up the divisional ladder.
While Cirkunov is only at the first rung, many believe the newcomer is capable of making a lot of noise in what was always the UFC’s marquee division, though he refuses to downplay the level of talent already assembled in the 205-pound weight class.
Instead, the promising young fighter is simply excited to be heading to Saskatoon, taking the final steps in one journey and beginning another.
“I’ve been hearing from people that 205 is a little bit open, but I don’t see the (light heavyweight) division being really open. I don’t take the 205-(pound) division lightly – there are a lot of tough fighters and anything can happen because we wear those four-ounce gloves. I don’t take the division very lightly and that pushes me to work hard and I’m just excited to be in the position I am now.
“We have a lot of tough fighters – a lot of veterans and a lot of amazing fighters,” he adds. “I’m just excited to finally be on a stage with them and I’m excited to fight all of them one at a time. If the UFC wants to take it one at a time or they want to push me up the ladder faster, whatever they want, I’m just happy that I’m finally working in the best organization in the world and being in the position where I am now.”