For the first time in more than a decade, Ilir Latifi is readying to compete at heavyweight.
After beginning his career with bouts in the big boy ranks, the Swedish “Sledgehammer” carved out a place for himself in the light heavyweight division, turning success on the European scene into a short-notice call-up to the UFC and a dozen fights with many of the top talents in the 205-pound weight class. But like many of his contemporaries in the fight game, Latifi began to experience difficulties shedding the requisite pounds needed to compete at light heavyweight, prompting him to give greater thought to an idea that had remained in his head since the early days of his career.
“I’ve always seen it as a possibility to fight at heavyweight and, over the years, with the weight cuts getting heavier and heavier, I made that decision to make the transition,” said Latifi, who squares off with Houston native Derrick Lewis in the opening bout of Saturday’s UFC 247 pay-per-view main card at Toyota Center. “I’ve always done pretty big weight cuts, but the last couple of fights, I felt like it really took a toll on my body, so I made the decision.
“Everything is attached in some way,” added Latifi, who has struggled with back issues throughout his career and believes the rigorous cuts to make the light heavyweight limit certainly didn’t help things. “Sometimes you’ve got to listen to your body.”
It also doesn’t hurt to have a little previous experience to draw upon either.
Throughout his career, Latifi has trained with elite heavyweights, including former UFC champions Junior Dos Santos and Andrei Arlovski, and he fought Sambo world champion and current UFC competitor Blagoy Ivanov, in the Bulgarian’s hometown of Sofia, with the outcome sounding like something straight out of a WWE show.
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Listed on each of their respective resumes as “No Contest (Ring Broke),” Latifi said, “It was two fighters who were very pumped up for the fight. I was making my debut in his hometown, and it was like the first clinch. I charged to the ropes and the whole ring post broke — the metal pole — and they couldn’t fix it, so that’s why it became a no contest.”
Although not as dramatic as the ring collapsing when Brock Lesnar super-plexed “The Big Show” a few years ago on Smackdown, the fact that Latifi has shared the ring, the mats, and countless sparring sessions with the kinds of talents he’ll face going forward at heavyweight eliminates some of the question marks that usually accompany a fighter changing divisions.
The public often view changing divisions as a fighter’s attempt to jumpstart a stalled career, attributing the shift in weight classes to a lack of results more than anything else. On paper, Latifi having suffered back-to-back losses heading into this weekend’s debut in the UFC heavyweight ranks gives credence to that line of thinking, but the reality is that the 36-year-old had mentioned making the move — and facing Lewis specifically — even before he stepped into the cage with Volkan Oezdemir last summer in Montevideo, Uruguay.
“I always want to fight the best guys and I fought many of the best guys at light heavyweight,” began Latifi, explaining why he liked the idea of a matchup with former title challenger Lewis, who snapped a two-fight skid in November and is undefeated when fighting in his adopted home state of Texas. “Making that change up a division, I liked the idea of seeing a spectacular matchup — one of the smallest light heavyweights against one of the biggest guys at heavyweight — and why not? That’s what this sport is about — making spectacular, strange matchups — and so that’s why I said why not?”
In addition to not putting his body through the punishment of making the light heavyweight limit any more and getting to be a part of an intriguing clash of social media darlings on Saturday night, moving to the heavyweight ranks could potentially open up elements of Latifi’s game that weren’t available to him thus far in his UFC career.
While conventional thinking about weight-cutting and picking the right division to compete in used to focus on maximizing one’s size and strength advantages, those notions have shifted in recent years, with more emphasis being put on conditioning, quickness, and being as healthy as possible on fight night, even if that means being slightly undersized.
And in the two heaviest divisions in the sport, Latifi has a shining example to follow in the form of Daniel Cormier, an equally compact heavyweight who rose to the top of both divisions simultaneously.
“I have a lot of advantages by not having to do the weight cuts, but I’m fighting much bigger opponents,” he said, not wanting to over-sell the positives that come with changing divisions or take anything away from the talented, tenured residents of his new division. “I’m fighting guys that punch hard. Derrick is no joke; he puts everything into his punches.
“There is a lot to think about — some negative and some things are positive — and it’s about putting everything together the right way.”
If he’s able to do that, there will be a new name, albeit a familiar one, to consider in the heavyweight title chase.
“This win would be a great one for me and put me up there in the rankings,” he said. “It would be amazing.”
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