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Sweden's Abedi Stoked For Homecoming

"I’m honored and happy to be a part of this historic event. I’m honored to fight in my home country." - Papy Abedi

UFC welterweight Papy Abedi“Trainers Hate Him.”

Chances are you’ve been a captive audience to that cheesy online headline before. Whether the musclebound freaks / cartoonishly ripped dudes featured in those ‘Get Buff’ ads are factual or fictitious, I have no idea. What I do know is that Papy Abedi could easily stump as poster boy for those outrageous promos.

The Zaire-born, Sweden-built fighter rivals Georges St-Pierre for most beastly physique in the 170-pound division. Yet, in Abedi’s case, the 33-year-old is super buff and super-shredded despite rarely lifting weights. The judo black belt tells of the time he accompanied a friend to a bodybuilding competition. On a whim, the friend entered Abedi’s name into the competition.

“Without any training at all he earned a silver medal in the fitness competition,” said MMA trainer Andreas Michael said of his soft-spoken protégé.

You could also say that Abedi settled for a silver medal in his UFC debut as well. He stepped into the Octagon a sterling 8-0 against Thiago Alves. The ensuing clash of wills saw the Brazilian overwhelm Abedi en route to a first round submission win.

I asked Abedi if he felt he had been “thrown to the wolves” too soon.

“I wanted to test myself and I always want to fight the best,” Abedi, speaking Swedish, said courtesy of Michael’s English translation. “But it was early, in my first UFC fight, to fight one of the best in the weight division. I still feel that if I had the type of training, preparation and sparring that I have now – because I changed teams for this fight … the fight would have been completely different. So it was early for me, but it was a healthy experience that will help me grow and become a better MMA fighter. I needed to work with people that know how to bring the best out of me.”

The “new team” Abedi referenced includes San Diego-based Alliance MMA, home of UFC champ Dominick Cruz, Phil Davis, and Brandon Vera, among others. Since Cruz and company are holding their camp in Vegas, to accommodate filming The Ultimate Fighter Live, Abedi spent three weeks in the desert advancing his education. It was Abedi’s first foray training in the U.S.

“It was a good experience working with such good UFC athletes and a great champion like Dominick Cruz,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot for my wrestling and cagework game. If I had trained like this for Thiago Alves the outcome would have been a lot different. So it’s been an awesome camp that my head trainer, Andreas, put together. I’ve developed a lot as an MMA fighter working with the best.”

Indeed, it is hard to miss the emerging trend at Alliance, where the number of European fighters continues to climb. Britain’s Ross Pearson, lightweight winner of season nine of The Ultimate Fighter, is a regular face at Alliance sparring sessions. UFC light heavyweight Cyrille Diabate (France) has held part of his camp there. And Sweden’s Alexander Gustafsson, one of the premier prospects at 205 pounds, has tallied several months with the deeply talented squad.

Gustafsson was the first Swede to make the trek, a decision inspired by the only loss of his pro career, to Phil Davis two years ago.

“After that loss, we sat down and talked and I told Alex, ‘We have two choices: Either we can go to Wolfslair – which had Rampage, Bisping and Cheick Kongo and all of those guys – or we could go to Alliance,” said head trainer Michael. “We decided that the best thing, mentally and physically, was for him to go to Alliance and work with the person that he lost to. We chose to work with Alliance to work on Alexander’s wrestling there. So we packed our bags and went to work with Alliance and Alex got his confidence back. Alliance is our co-team. They are one of the best teams in the world. “It’s a family growing together. Everyone is willing to learn and work hard and there are no egos in the way. So we made the same choice taking Papy there.”

Abedi, who speaks four languages and is presently studying English, confesses to being a bit of a homebody. And that sensibility shaped his experience in Las Vegas.

“I’m a family man with two kids and a wife,” he said. “I don’t really like staying up late and things like that. I’m not into night life. I prefer to stay at home with family.”

Back in Stockholm and peaking in his camp, Abedi is excited to represent his countrymen during the UFC’s first-ever show in Sweden, scheduled for April 14. His opponent will be James Head (7-2), a BJJ purple belt under highly respected instructor Rafael Lovato Jr. who also has extensive boxing experience and four knockouts to prove it.

Some fighters really dissect and hyper-analyze their opponents. Abedi, who has finished seven of his eight victories, leaves the film study to his coaches.

“There’s not a lot to say about him (Head) because everyone in the UFC is a good fighter,” Abedi said. “It’s going to be a good match. I’ve trained very hard and I hope James Head has trained hard as well because I want to put on a really good show for the fans in Sweden. The arena sold out in three hours. I’ve got the home advantage, the crowd, my family and friends behind me. It’s a friendly and familiar environment. At the same time, there’s a lot of stress and pressure because it is at home. But I’m honored and happy to be a part of this historic event. I’m honored to fight in my home country.”