Given the way he handled himself inside the Octagon in February, you wouldn’t have been out of line to assume that Ismail Naurdiev was already a fixture in the UFC welterweight division.
Paired off with surging Brazilian Michel Prazeres, who entered on an eight-fight winning streak split between lightweight and welterweight, Naurdiev played to the crowd in Prague as he was introduced by Bruce Buffer, fist-bumping “The Veteran Voice of the Octagon” in the process. When the action got underway, he calmly and coolly stuffed Prazeres’ first takedown attempt, showcasing excellent balance and feeding the veteran a steady diet of kicks to keep him from crashing forward without hesitation.
Just over two minutes into the first, Naurdiev stung Prazeres with a three-piece combo that started with a head kick and finished with the Brazilian reaching for a desperation takedown, eager to close the distance and find time to regain his composure. Seconds after Prazeres put him on the canvas, Naurdiev hit a beautifully timed reversal, ultimately climbing into mount, transitioning to the back and briefly threatening with a rear-naked choke.
Every time the streaking Brazilian hunted for an opening, Naurdiev countered, continually stuffing increasingly labored takedown attempts and reversing positions on the ground while peppering Prazeres with punches and kicks whenever they spent extended time on the feet.
It was a gutsy, veteran effort that produced a unanimous decision victory and halted Prazeres’ winning streak; the kind of performance you would expect from a divisional stalwart, not a 22-year-old newcomer who took the fight on short notice, three weeks after his last appearance.
“The whole world was thinking I was going to lose,” Naurdiev said of his first foray into the Octagon against Prazeres in February. “Everyone told me, ‘Hey man, don’t take the fight; it’s too early’ and blah, blah, blah, but I’m really self-confident and I knew I would win the fight.
“The only problem was that I had only two weeks to prepare,” he continued, “but I believed in myself, saw the opportunity and I knew if I beat him, it would be huge for me, so I took the fight.
“If you want to be the best, you have to fight the best. I was ready, I believed in myself and it feels really amazing to show the world what I can do.”
The excitement in his voice is obvious and infectious, like a child’s laugh, and it’s abundantly clear how much this opportunity means to the young welterweight.
Like many aspiring fighters, Naurdiev dealt with his fair share of naysayers and doubters who tried to dissuade him from chasing his UFC dreams. They said all the sensible things friends and family members who don’t want to see someone they care about heartbroken when they run into roadblocks or fall short of reaching their goal.
Like many of his contemporaries, the Salzburg resident initially hedged his bets and found a career track just in case, entering a four-year certification program to be a truck mechanic, getting in training sessions before and after work.
On the day of his UFC debut in February, Naurdiev posted a split screen image on his Instagram account. On the left, a tired, unhappy looking Naurdiev at work in 2016, and on the right, him posing at the weigh-ins in Prague, a UFC snapback twisted backwards on his head, the caption summing up his feelings.
“They told (you) you’ll never make it, it’s impossible,” it begins. “Now they tell everyone how they met me.”
“I remember the picture,” Naurdiev said, laughing, when asked about the image. “I sent it to my cousin because he was asking me, ‘What are you doing? Do you want to hang out or something?’ and I just sent him that picture and I was like, ‘No, I’m working. Sorry.’
“I was so sad and wasn’t happy with this life. Every day was the same: get up every day and go to work, work 8-10 hours, come home, sleep and do it again. I knew I had to make something else happen for me because that wasn’t for me.
“(But now,) it feels so good,” he added, perking back up. “I’m only 22 years old and I’m already in the UFC. This week, I’m going to get my second victory. It feels amazing. It feels like a dream.”
Saturday evening, Naurdiev will cross another dream off his list as he competes in Las Vegas for the first time, facing off with fellow welterweight upstart Chance Rencountre in the second fight on the loaded UFC 239 fight card at T-Mobile Arena.
Following his victory over Prazeres in February, a reporter asked Naurdiev backstage if he would prefer to remain a fixture on the different events the UFC hosts throughout Europe over the year, but the energetic and amiable neophyte quickly offered his best “Double Down Trent” impression, telling the reporter, “Vegas, baby! Vegas!”
Although the UFC gave him what he wanted in terms of location, it didn’t come through on his second request — a bout with a Top 15 opponent. Instead, Naurdiev faces off with Rencountre, who dropped his own short notice debut to Belal Muhammad late in 2017 before rebounding with a first-round submission win over Kyle Stewart last time out.
Injuries have sidelined several of the names in the Top 15, while others are currently booked, but given the way he handled his debut against the streaking veteran grappler Prazeres, Naurdiev could already be in a position where he’s viewed as a high risk, low reward fight for the more established names in the division, leaving him with limited options and a date with Rencountre this weekend.
“I wouldn’t fight me either,” he said when asked about the matchup and the possibility of fighters opting against sharing the cage with him following his impressive debut victory. “We wanted the toughest fight, but I understand that it’s too early after one victory to call out somebody. I beat Michel Prazeres, who was on an eight-fight winning streak — beat him all three rounds — and I thought after that victory I deserved a Top 15 opponent, but nobody was ready or they were injured or whatever.
“But it doesn’t matter,” he continued. “I’m in the beginning of my UFC career. I’m only 22. I have a lot of time, so it doesn’t matter who they give me. I’ll fight everyone.
“After every fight, I’m going to move closer to the rankings and then we can start choosing. For now, I’m going to fight everyone; it doesn’t matter who it is.”
And just like that, the vibrant energy of a 22-year-old beginning to live his dream is replaced by the same sharp focus he showed in the cage in Prague.
Sure, he wanted something else — a bigger name, a more established opponent — but not because he’s trying to get insta-famous and make an expedited ascent up the divisional ladder.
“I want to fight the best because if you want to be the best, you have to fight the best,” said Naurdiev.
His debut was one of the most impressive of the year.
Saturday night, it’s time for the encore.