When Ludovit Klein stepped into the Octagon for the first time in September 2020, his name was etched into the history books as the first athlete from Slovakia to compete on the biggest stage in the sport.
A landlocked nation bordered by Poland to the north, Ukraine to the east, Hungary to the south, and Austria to the west, Slovakia has a population of roughly 5.46M, and Klein feels an immense responsibility to represent each and every one of them whenever he makes the walk to the UFC cage, as he’ll do again Saturday against Nate Landwehr.
“It’s my biggest dream came true,” he said of being the first Slovak fighter on the UFC roster. “I want to show the world that such a small country like Slovakia can have fighters on the biggest stage, at the highest level, and can meet the best in the cage.”
The 26-year-old featherweight thrilled his home nation and legions of fight fans in his promotional debut, finishing durable New Zealand native and City Kickboxing representative Shane Young in just 76 seconds; a crisp head kick starting the finishing sequence.
Klein missed the divisional limit for the short notice pairing by five pounds, which rankled Young, his camp, and many observers, but he had no issues on the scale in his sophomore appearance earlier this year when he had ample time to ready for his bout with recent Ultimate Fighter winner Mike Trizano.
Unlike the bout with Young seven months earlier on Fight Island, things did not go Klein’s way in May, as the American wrestler claimed a debated unanimous decision win, ending Klein’s eight-fight winning streak in the process.
“Those two fights were a huge experience for me in my career,” said Klein, who carries a 17-3 record into his showdown with Landwehr on Saturday. “When I fight in the UFC, I can feel the pressure from media, from socials, and from fans, and the quality of the fights makes me be much more responsible.”
One of the ways Klein has sought to address the pressure that comes with competing at the highest level is by completing his camps alongside some of the best fighters on the UFC roster at Sanford MMA in Deerfield Beach, Florida.
While it’s certainly possible for small gyms in countries with less established mixed martial arts infrastructure to produce world-class talent, the best way for those athletes to elevate their game is to work alongside others with the same or greater skills, under the watchful eye of coaches that know what it takes to guide a fighter to success on the world stage.
After finishing his camp for the Trizano fight in Florida, the talented featherweight lengthened his stay in South Florida this time around, knowing that more time spent in the impressive facility working with the all-star cast assembled there would help elevate his game as he looks to get back into the win column this weekend.
“I came for two months this time because I love it here,” he said of the elite outpost that is home to contenders Gilbert Burns, Derek Brunson, and Michael Chandler, and coaches Henri Hooft, Greg Jones, and Kami Barzini. “The level of these fighters is so high. There is a great energy at the gym, and I can feel the confidence I get from being there.
“I’m always excited to go to my training every day, and I can see I’m better and better every day. I appreciate it that I can be here and train with best on the world.
“For sure I’m coming back for my next camps, but I don't feel like moving over here,” he added with a laugh, answering the question asked of everyone that leaves home to compete their training camps, whether they’re traveling international or domestic. “I have my own Miami in Slovakia.”
This weekend’s matchup with Landwehr is one of those “funny how things work out” scenarios we’ve seen with greater frequency during this Pandemic Era in the UFC, where a competitor that got a short-notice opportunity because of another’s withdrawal ends up landing across the Octagon from that athlete soon after.
Landwehr being forced out of his bout with Young last fall opened the door for Klein to make his debut, and now, with both men coming off setbacks, they’re square off on Saturday.
Even before replacing him, the 27-year-old Slovak was familiar with Landwehr from his days competing under the M-1 banner, where he held the featherweight title and was discussed as a potential opponent for one of Klein’s teammates and training partners.
“I know he was a champ in M-1 Global because my teammate Ivan Buchinger was the former champ before him, and I know they were supposed to fight together in the past,” explained Klein. “He is tough fighter and I can't wait to compare our skills in the cage.”
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Landwehr put himself on the UFC radar with a seven-fight winning streak that began with a victory over promotional veteran Diego Saraiva and culminated with a second successful defense of his M-1 Challenge title.
Since then, “Nate the Train” has showcased his unrelenting style inside the Octagon on three occasions, sandwiching a wildly entertaining unanimous decision win over Darren Elkins between first-round stoppage losses to Herbert Burns and Julian Erosa; his non-stop aggression endearing him to the UFC audience in just three appearances and less than four rounds worth of cage time.
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Though he’s well aware of Landwehr’s toughness and tenacity, there is no part of Klein that sees anything other than victory on Saturday night; the only thing that is undetermined is how he gets his hand raised.
“When I’m imagining this fight in my mind, I can see different scenarios; I just don't know yet which one will be the winning one,” he said. “You will see it October 16th.”
Once he earns this victory and returns to his winning ways, Klein wants to hit pause for a moment and spend some time with his family following an extended stay in South Florida, resetting before searching for another opportunity that will bring him one step closer to breaking into the Top 15.
“I want to move forward and get to the Top 15 as soon as possible,” he said when asked what’s next. “But after the fight, I want to take some quick rest to be with my family because I have been in preparation for this fight a long time.”
And just how long does he see himself kicking back and relaxing?
“I know myself,” he laughed. “It’s going to be like seven or eight days, and right after that I will be back at the gym because I can't live without it.”