UFC fans didn’t get a chance to get excited about Ilia Topuria when he made his debut on October 10 against Youssef Zalal on Fight Island, as the unbeaten newcomer accepted the bout just eight days prior.
But over the course of 15 minutes, the 23-year-old featherweight showed that he is another on the growing list of emerging talents currently competing in the 145-pound weight class as he systematically outworked the streaking Zalal to pick up a unanimous decision victory and push his record to 9-0 overall.
“In my first fight, I didn’t have the chance to show the world my full potential because when you take a fight on eight days’ notice, it’s difficult to have a great performance,” said Topuria, being overly critical of a debut effort that saw him earn 29-28 scores across the board to defeat Zalal and halt the Factory X Muay Thai product’s three-fight winning streak inside the Octagon.
This weekend, Topuria aims to make an even better impression with the UFC audience when he ventures into the cage for a second time in a clash with savvy veteran Damon Jackson, who scored a come-from-behind submission win over Mirsad Bektic in his return to the promotion in September.
Rather than returning to his home in Alicante, Spain following his debut victory, the talented newcomer travelled to South Florida and got right back into camp, working with the team at MMA Masters to prepare for his sophomore appearance under the UFC banner.
“When I did the first fight on Fight Island, I didn’t go back home; I came straight from Abu Dhabi to the United States to make a training camp and we were here for eight weeks or something like that,” explained Topuria, who moved to Spain when he was 15 after splitting his adolescent years between Germany, where he was born, and Georgia, where his family is from. “MMA Masters is a world-class gym and they treated me unbelievably; they made us feel like we were home.
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“I sparred with a lot of UFC fighters and they helped me have a great camp,” he added. “It was a little difficult because it was the first time I wasn’t with my family during my training camp. My son had his first birthday and I wasn’t there, which was a little bit tough. The weight cuts — one (before my first fight) and another one now — are a little bit difficult, but it is what it is.
“After this fight, I’m going to take time to rest mentally and rest my body, but for right now, I feel ready to go.”
When Topuria touched down in Las Vegas earlier in the week, he posed with the famed “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, captioning the photo “Soon the world is going to know me” on Instagram.
As an undefeated rising star representing two emerging nations on the biggest stage in the sport, it’s easy to see how those words could prove to be very prophetic in the not too distant future.
Georgian fighters like Merab Dvalishvili and Giga Chikadze have enjoyed breakout campaigns in 2020, while recent Ultimate Fighter winner Juan Espino and lightweight Joel Alvarez have led the Spanish charge inside the Octagon. Now, Topuria is poised to fly the flags of both countries as he looks to establish himself as a force to be reckoned with in the featherweight division.
“It feels unbelievable because I get a lot of support from both Georgia and Spain,” he said of representing both countries in the UFC. “I feel great and I’ve never had bad comments about ‘Why don’t you represent only Spain or only Georgia?’ It has always been positive, people supporting me, and I love it.
“I was raised in Georgia, but I feel like a Spaniard,” Topuria continued. “I started mixed martial arts in Spain and I can’t say, ‘Okay, I’m Georgian’ because I live in Spain, I train in Spain, and Spain brought me to where I am today.”
Following an outstanding debut, Topuria is on the brink of becoming a dark horse contender in the ultra-competitive, talent-rich featherweight division in 2021.
Zalal carried a tremendous amount of momentum into their bout in October, but Topuria showed no signs of nerves or issues with having taken the fight on short-notice while out-hustling “The Moroccan Devil” on his way to the first decision win of his career.
Now, after dispatching a streaking prospect in his initial appearance, he’s paired off with Jackson, a tenacious and resilient veteran who has been a championship staple on the regional circuit and a perennial tough out inside the Octagon. It’s a clear step up in competition for Topuria, but nothing the confident newcomer can’t handle.
“In the UFC, every fight is difficult because everyone is tough,” he began, offering his thoughts on this weekend’s matchup with Jackson. “I know he has a lot of experience, but I know that I’m much better than him in striking and wrestling and the ground game.
“I have a lot of respect for him because he’s a family guy, but Saturday, we’re going to work, and I’m going to finish him inside the first, maximum the second round. I’m sure that I’m going to finish the fight. I won’t need a judges’ decision.”
The reason he’s so confident of victory on Saturday is the same reason he is sure that one day soon, everyone is going to know his name, and that’s because a victory this weekend is only another step towards reaching his ultimate goal.
“I know that in a maximum of two years, I am going to be UFC champion,” he said. “I don’t have any doubts about this.”