It’s very likely that only diehard mixed martial arts fans knew who Volkan Oezdemir was before his short-notice UFC debut against Ovince Saint Preux in February. Then he upset the former world title challenger and everybody knew the man with the coolest name in the sport.
But whether they were in the corner of the Switzerland native or not, he was focused on just one thing: winning.
“I just came here to win my fight and I wasn’t listening to anything,” said Oezdemir, who faces Misha Cirkunov in Sunday’s UFC Fight Night co-main event in Stockholm. “There was only me and my opponent until the day of the fight, and that’s it. I focused on OSP and of course I was following him, so I was watching his fights, and it gave me more motivation because I know what I’m capable of and beating that guy would open the door for me forever.”
The split decision win not only opened the door for the 27-year-old, it ripped it off the hinges, as he’s now ranked fifth in the world at 205 pounds and in a position to move into the title picture with a victory over Cirkunov. Calling this a whirlwind would be an understatement, especially for a fighter who pondered looking at Russia to advance his career.
“I was heading in a totally different direction,” he said of the time before the fight with Saint Preux. “I almost thought I was gonna stay in Russia because the scene is growing and you can make some good money over there, and there was a possibility for me, but the UFC was my main goal. It’s the place to be. So I wanted to wait a little bit and I think I made the right choice.”
He did, but he needed a little help from the MMA Gods, and when Jan Blachowicz was forced out of his match with Saint Preux two weeks before fight night, Oezdemir got the call. He accepted and now he could be a win or two away from a title fight.
"I love challenges and I’m not here to waste my time having safe fights. I just want to fight the best." --Volkan Oezdemir
“A lot of people have to fight their way to the top by fighting a lot of people on undercards and stuff like that, and I was there on the main card right away against one of the Top 10 guys that just fought for the title, and now I’m the co-main event, and everything happened so fast,” he said. “After this fight, I’m pretty sure my name will be mentioned for the next title shot, and I welcome that. I love challenges and I’m not here to waste my time having safe fights. I just want to fight the best.”
The Fribourg native knows a little something about fighting the best, having received his first real exposure to the world of combat sports through a stint training at the legendary Golden Glory gym in the Netherlands. At the time, Oezdemir wanted to train for fun. It turned into something more than that.
“That was the biggest team in the kickboxing world back in the day and there were so many heavyweights and they were the best in the business,” Oezdemir recalled. “Semmy Schilt, Overeem, (Gokhan) Saki, (Errol) Zimmerman, Stefan Leko, Chalid Arrab. There were a lot of Class A kickboxers, and it was tough because everybody was big, everybody was hungry, and it was a war in every training session. When you sparred, you had to go with the proper mindset and I think that built me up mentally, for sure.”
Yet despite the possibility of having to go to war in every sparring session, Oezdemir never looked to take a day off.
“I was young and so hungry that I never felt like that,” he said. “I was loving it. I was the tough kid, 19, 20, and it was what I loved to do.”
So by the time he turned pro in MMA in 2010, there was nothing being thrown at him that he hadn’t seen before, and he won 12 of 13 fights before entering the Octagon for the first time earlier this year. And hearing about his past speaks volumes when it comes to explaining why he wasn’t rattled by a short notice fight against one of the top-ranked fighters in the light heavyweight division.
“The day of the fight is mostly mental,” Oezdemir said. “It’s 30 percent technique, 30 percent cardio and the rest is mental. The main part of the fight is the fight you have with yourself in your head and overcoming difficulties and stuff like that. Having that background (with Golden Glory), of course it helped me. That’s my degree. I’ve been through that a lot, I’ve overcome a lot – tough opponents and tough situations - so I know what I’m capable of.”
That means he’s not rattled about Sunday’s fight, either. And even if the fans see him as an underdog once more, it doesn’t matter to him.
“I think people probably underestimate me,” he said. “Misha is on an eight-fight win streak, he’s 4-0 in the UFC, all by finish, and a lot of people don’t know about me and thought OSP would run over me. I’m pretty sure people will think Misha will run over me too. But I just can’t wait to prove them wrong. I’m here to stop his ascension and make a statement so everybody knows I’m here.”