Siyar Bahadurzada (top) file photo: Marcelo Alonso | Sherdog.com
Four days before he’s scheduled to fight, Siyar Bahadurzada gets the news: his opponent, Nick Thompson, is injured, out of their match, to be replaced by his longtime training partner and perpetual substitute, Derrick Noble. Bahadurzada, like most anyone looking to spread information in this day and age, takes to Twitter.
“Good news, tweeps... Nick Thompson won’t fight me,” he writes. “Pre-fight brain damage -- impressive, huh?”
"Brain damage sounds like a bit much," Thompson laughs when asked to clarify. "I suffered a concussion in practice, getting ready for the fight. Coupled with the [Taisuke] Okuno fight, the neuro thinks it best to not be hit in the head for a little bit."
As a wise man once said, sometimes these things happen in MMA. These things happen even more frequently when it comes to MMA tournaments.
Born of necessity and familiarity, the MMA tournament has morphed in both structure and significance since the sport’s primordial days. Promoters have largely (and wisely) abandoned the old school one-night configuration -- which required winning athletes to trudge back and forth from their locker rooms two or three times in one show, often sporting increasingly severe bruises and abrasions -- in favor of spreading the fights over multiple events.
Early tournaments were used as platforms to develop meaningful champions, or propel promising young fighters to stardom. Promotions nowadays generally prefer to award title shots on the perceived merits of individual bouts. With few exceptions, blue chip prospects are given the boxing-style slow build by shrewd trainers and managers, who steer them clear of such volatile competitions.
Instead, today’s tournament has become a sort of MMA way station; a halfway house where journeymen and ex-champions can rehabilitate their careers by stringing together a series of meaningful performances over a relatively short period of time. Exhibit A: Shine Fights’ September tourney, where 10-year veteran Drew Fickett appeared to turn the page on his troubled life story with a trio of stirring first-round submissions.
On Oct. 16, Ultimate Glory -- the promotion ran by Shooto Holland head Martijn de Jong -- will open up its 2010-2011 MMA World Series, an eight-man welterweight tournament spaced out over three events and filled with a curious assembly of international fighters. Originally listed among the scheduled participants were such stars as Shinya Aoki and Paul Daley, but those names were quickly withdrawn, replaced with some of the UFC veterans and big show also-rans who typically fill out this sort of field. There are, however, some intriguing names in the mix.
Siyar Bahadurzada is not the kind of guy you’d expect to find in this sort of bracket. In May, the 26-year-old Shooto champion inked a four-fight deal with Strikeforce, the type of contract which would be the desired endgame for your typical grand prix competitor. To some MMA pundits, the tournament seems designed to serve as a showcase for Bahadurzada, who trains under De Jong at the renowned Dutch academy Golden Glory.
The youngest fighter in the field, Bahadurzada is rightfully seen as the odds-on favorite to win the tournament. His powerful muay Thai combined with a solid submission game makes him a formidable opponent for any of the remaining seven fighters. But, speaking about a week out from the show, Bahadurzada is more guarded about his chances.
“Since the tournament is not all on the same night, it’s actually just a regular fight for me. I asked them to match me up with somebody who’s tough,” he says. “I always wanna fight the tough fight. I don’t want an easy opponent, I want to prove myself.”
At this point, Bahadurzada is still scheduled to meet the American veteran Thompson in the tournament’s opening round. Thompson has expressed some indignation over being slotted against the hometown favorite, perhaps pegged as an “easy win.” Bahadurzada seems taken aback at the implication.
“No, no, it’s not an easy win,” he interjects. “If he thinks that, it’s not the right thing. Nick is a very experienced, good fighter, and someone who I respect a lot. I’m really looking forward to fighting Nick, because he’s kind of a big name in America, someone who almost every American MMA fan knows.”
A few days later, the news comes of Thompson’s withdrawal. Bahadurzada remains upbeat, even going as far as to say that he “loves sudden changes before the fight... [because] that’s all I’m looking for in MMA!”
Still, with the less notable Noble now on his plate, the late change only serves to reinforce the question: why would Bahadurzada choose to fight in the Glory tournament when he’s already under contract with one of the biggest MMA promotions in the world?
“I’ve been signed since the beginning of May, and I haven’t gotten any offers,” Bahadurzada says, wistfully. “I’m ready, man. I’m just waiting for a call to tell me when I’m gonna fight. As soon as Strikeforce calls, I’ll prepare and be ready to fight.”
That’s one I hadn’t considered: the MMA tournament as a holding pattern.
When asked whether he plans to vacate his Shooto 183-pound world title as his career at welterweight moves forward, Bahadurzada’s answer is unexpectedly poignant.
“If they plan a Shooto fight for me in between fights, I’ll keep defending my title, because that’s where I started and I love Shooto, to be honest,” he emotes. “Shooto means a lot to me. It’s something that lies deep inside me, and I cannot give it up.”
The sentiment likely rings true for another World Series competitor, Luis Ramos. The fighter known as “Beicao” (Portuguese for “big lip”) has spent the better part of his nine-year career traveling the Brazilian circuit, but has always found a home in Shooto’s South American branch, which is headed by his Nova Uniao trainer, Andre Pederneiras. On Aug. 6, Ramos captured Shooto’s vacant 167-pound world title; a potential latter-round meeting between “Beicao” and Bahadurzada -- which the Golden Glory product says he would welcome -- could mark the first time two reigning Shooto world champs have squared off outside of Shooto.
The matchup isn’t very far-fetched. Like Bahadurzada, Ramos seems primed for success in the tournament. Also similar to Bahadurzada, the 29-year-old downplays his status.
”I actually don’t consider myself a favorite,” says Ramos. “I consider myself an athlete who goes in search of his dreams, and I will try to give the maximum for each victory, whatever the cost.”
Fresh off of two weeks of high-altitude training in Colorado with teammates Jose Aldo, Marlon Sandro and Leo Santos, “Beicao” returned home to hone his standup with famed Brazilian boxing coach Claudio Coelho. He also ironed out his wrestling and jiu-jitsu, skills which should come in handy against ground specialist and expat countryman Roan “Jucao” Carneiro, Ramos’ opponent in the Glory tournament’s opening round.
“Fighting another Brazilian in the first round surprised me,” says Ramos. “I thought I would face him if we traveled through to the next round. But, today I am the employee of Ultimate Glory, so I’ll fight whomever they want me to fight.”
Ramos isn’t the only fighter to be taken aback by his appointed opponent: despite having been announced as a participant months beforehand, Russian fighter Sergey Golyaev only learned that he would meet Canadian John Alessio four days prior to the event.
“I’m revolted that organizers waited ‘til the last moment and didn’t tell me who the opponent is,” says Golyaev. “I haven’t had time to look at anything about him yet, except for his photo. Also, I heard that he is a good puncher, and that his wrestling skills are good. My trainer and me, we will be investigating him, looking for keys for his defense.”
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Golyaev has faced a litany of notable lightweights over the course of his nearly 10-year career, most famously winning a controversial split decision over Takanori Gomi in November 2008. Golyaev is precisely the type of fighter whose career could benefit greatly from racking up some “name” wins in the tournament. Back home, he says, such fights are tough to come by.
“In Russia, there is only one large organization, and it tries to monopolize the sport under itself,” says Golyaev, who doesn’t mention the organization by name, but is clearly referring to M-1 Global. “The only strong fighters they need are on their team, and if you are not on their team, you do not fight, or you fight for pennies. I don’t want that!”
Though he’s a natural 155-pounder, Golyaev says the opportunities that the tournament structure affords him make jumping up in weight worthwhile.
“For me, the tournament format is very convenient. I have enough time to prepare for subsequent fights, and there’s the possibility I can take on outside fights,” he explains. “I’d say that, for now, this is a single performance at welterweight, and in the future I plan to continue to fight at my native weight, 70 kilograms.”
Asked what plans he might have for after the tournament, should he win, the Russian rattles off the usual wishlist -- UFC, Strikeforce, Dream, Sengoku -- but also says he can’t be thinking about that with a tough, short-notice opponent still ahead of him.
“I do not look so far in advance. I’m just adjusting to the upcoming fight. But my plans are grandiose,” says Golyaev. “It is going to be difficult, but many forces -- not only mine, but also my trainer’s, Igor Plaksin, and my sparring partners -- were necessary, and I have no right to let them down.”
In the last and least heralded of the opening round pairings, another Golden Glory product, Tommy Depret, will take on “Brazilian Swede” David Bielkheden. It’s a fight which has been overlooked for a reason: Depret has yet to notch any truly significant wins in his MMA campaign, while Bielkheden is best remembered for tapping out to punches in his March 2008 UFC debut against Diego Sanchez.
Still, one man will have to win the contest and advance to the semifinals. The likely outcome is that the winner of this fight loses to either Bahadurzada or Ramos, but MMA being the unpredictable beast that it is, those plans could be derailed in an instant. Today, guys like Depret and Bielkheden are journeymen headed nowhere fast -- but three wins and $150,000 can change a lot of things.