Balance and harmony. Two words you wouldn’t necessarily associate with Ilir Latifi. The Swedish light heavyweight, 31, is dubbed “The Sledgehammer” thanks to his mountainous physique and a fighting style that has seen him demolish his two previous opponents in five minutes of combat.
Yet when he talks of his mindset as he enters the Octagon, that sense of imminent destruction couldn’t be further from the truth.
“It is about controlling your feelings,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with fear. But when the time comes for me to go to the Octagon, my mind is totally clear. I feel nothing. It is all about balance and harmony.”
It is one of many surprising aspects of Latifi’s extraordinary rise to the top of the new breed of European stars making their mark on the UFC. On October 4th the Sledgehammer will return at UFC Fight Night Stockholm as a genuine main card attraction in his homeland.
Yet it could have been so different. In late 2012, after a number of setbacks and struggling under the financial pressures of the early years of prizefighting, Latifi questioned his career choice.
“Those were hard times. Really hard. I asked myself if it was worth it,” he said. “The sacrifices you make, being away from friends and away from family for so long. The hard training. And you’re not making any money.
“But somewhere inside me there was an inner voice, telling me to keep going. I always knew I had the capacity to do this. That voice told me to believe in myself. And to keep working hard.”
Hard work. Two words that become etched in your mind once you spend any time in Latifi’s company. His team-mates at Allstars Training Center wax lyrical about his dedication in the gym. He attributes his work rate to the teachings of his parents, native Albanians, who fled their homeland in the late Sixties in search of work and a new beginning.
“My parents are both hardworking people,” he explained. “They worked from the very first day they arrived in Sweden. It is so hard to come to a new country and start a new life. I’m so grateful for what they did for our family and the opportunities that Sweden gave them.
“They taught me that nothing, nothing comes easily in life. Whatever you do – in school, in work, or in sport – you must work hard to achieve it. You have to earn it.”
The influence of his parents was enough to guide Latifi away from the pitfalls of life in an area of Sweden with precious few opportunities.
“I grew up in Rosengard. It was a tough neighbourhood, a tough place to grow up,” he said. “It was hard for kids to find a job, but easy for them to choose the wrong path in life. So many kids I knew chose crime. I was lucky that my parents gave me a good upbringing. Then when I found wrestling, I fell in love it with it. I had such a great will to succeed. That was my focus.”
His passion for wrestling blossomed into a stellar amateur career. He then switched his attention to MMA, following in the footsteps of his older brother Arben, a pioneer in Scandinavian MMA.
“I was waiting to make my debut. Fights kept getting cancelled. I was training hard but not getting opportunities. Then I had the chance to fight in Bulgaria, so I took it.”
An opportunity seized. Though his long-awaited foray into the professional fight game ended in surreal circumstances.
“I remember the crowd was so crazy,” he said. “I was so pumped up. This was what I had been waiting for. After the first contact, I pushed my opponent so hard against the ropes that the ringpost was forced out and the whole ring collapsed. It was so unlucky.”
Unlucky. A word synonymous with his early years in combat. In Europe word of Latifi’s talent spread as he plied his fighting trade from Malmo to Moscow, but at key moments bouts were cancelled and global recognition continued to elude him.
Latifi took up jobs as a nightclub doorman and working with disadvantaged teens to keep himself afloat financially. The monastic lifestyle required to compete at a world-class level doesn’t always lead to monetary reward. It was the pressure of paying the bills that led him to question his future.
Until that inner voice intervened.
Out of the darkness
Then, out of the darkness, Latifi was thrust into the limelight in spring 2013.
Three days ahead of his scheduled UFC headline bout with Gegard Mousasi in Stockholm, Alexander Gustafsson was forced to withdraw after sustaining a cut in training. The call was made to Latifi to step in at late notice against a man with genuine world-class credentials. Despite the gap in experience and having just 72 hours to prepare for the fight of his life, Latifi didn’t hesitate.
Another opportunity seized.
“I believe in destiny. That moment was just meant for me,” he said. “My road to that fight was so strange. But I wasn’t stressed. I didn’t feel any fear. I didn’t feel any doubt. I wanted to fight. That was my destiny.”
Though his UFC debut ended in defeat, the Swede impressed all observers with a gutsy display that saw him last the distance. Now, some eighteen months later, the Sledgehammer returns to Stockholm under vastly different circumstances.
Return to Stockholm
Following sensational first round wins over Cyrille Diabate and Chris Dempsey, he faces Pole Jan Blachowicz at the Ericsson Globe Arena knowing that victory would propel him into the upper echelons of a division rich in talent. Though he’s considered a heavy favourite, Latifi places little value in the odds. He prefers to put his faith in hard work.
“My training is on a different level,” he said. “I’m preparing with Alexander Gustafsson. I’m preparing with the best. When you train that hard every single day in the gym, the fight is easy.”
He promises that the latest step toward his destiny will be an explosive evening for his countrymen.
“I love fighting at home. We’re bringing the UFC home. We’re bringing the best show in the world.”
Tickets for UFC Fight Night Stockholm on Saturday 4 October can be purchased here.