No matter what happens in the Octagon, UFC newcomer Blagoy Ivanov has been through much worse than having someone trying to kick or punch him. And the thing is, he knows it, making him not just a talented heavyweight, but a dangerous one.
So how can his opponent, former world champion Junior Dos Santos, hope to intimidate someone who faced almost certain death after being stabbed in a club in his native Sofia, Bulgaria and lived to tell about it?
And even after spending nearly three months in a medically-induced coma back in 2012, when the then-unbeaten Ivanov left the hospital as a physical shell of himself, the only thought on his mind was resuming his promising MMA career.
“When I got out, my first thing I thought was that I will come back stronger,” said Ivanov from Boise, Idaho, where he will make his UFC debut against Dos Santos in a five-round main event that will pit one of the best heavyweights on the roster against one of the best heavyweights who was competing outside the promotion.
For hardcore fans, it’s a pivotal battle in a wide-open weight class. For newer fans, they’re wondering who Ivanov is.
Here’s a primer.
A new contender makes his debut.
Owner of a 16-1 with 1 NC pro MMA record, the 31-year-old first came to the attention of fight fans when he defeated Fedor Emelianenko in the semifinals of the 2008 World Sambo Championships. He had already turned pro in MMA at the time, but beating the PRIDE legend led him to more lucrative opportunities that he capitalized on by defeating Kazuyuki Fujita and Ricco Rodriguez.
His hospitalization kept him sidelined until September 2013, but the member of Bulgaria’s national judo team picked up where he left off, going on to win nine of his next ten bouts, with the only loss coming against current UFC contender Alexander Volkov in 2014. And while he made his name outside the Octagon, he always knew he would eventually make his way to the big show.
“I always knew this time would come,” he said. “I watched (the UFC) all the time. I think the best heavyweights are here, and I’m happy to fight with the best guys in the world.”
And while his heart will always be in Bulgaria, Ivanov now makes his home in the United States, a place he has been training in since 2011.
“At first I went back and forth to Bulgaria, but now I’m concentrating more on being here in the United States,” he said. “It was big (adjustment), but I brought my family here and they helped me too.”
For this camp, Ivanov mixed his work with Xtreme Couture in with a stay in San Jose, where he had a couple decent heavyweights in the AKA gym with him. You may have heard of current heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and former titleholder Cain Velasquez.
“It’s a good experience for me with both champs,” said Ivanov. “You learn all the time when you spar with good guys and they push you. It’s a good thing to be educated by somebody.”
If Ivanov is still getting better, that’s a frightening prospect for the heavyweight division, and “Baga” believes that a win over JDS would be enough to not just allow him to crash the rankings, but the title picture.
“I believe one good win will put me on top,” said Ivanov, who promises that fans who may not know him now will know him on Saturday night.
“They will see me and they will see one of the best heavyweight fights.”
Not bad for a guy doctors thought wouldn’t make it out of a hospital bed in Sofia. Ivanov did win his biggest fight, though, and he doesn’t take it for granted.
“You understand that you have to be happy with the small things.”