Most aspiring mixed martial artists often enjoy a professional debut on a smaller stage away from the mainstream spotlight. That was not the case for Staten Island, New York, native Dennis Buzukja. He made his first pro appearance at Bellator 208 on Oct. 13 in Uniondale, New York. It was one of Bellator MMA’s biggest cards of the year. For Buzukja, it was a dream come true.
As Buzukja took to the cage on the Bellator 208 undercard, he was not filled with the typical nervousness one might expect from a fighter in his position.
“When I made the walk out, it was like I was on Cloud 9,” Buzukja told Sherdog.com. “I was just so loose. It was the most free I have ever been in my life. I will remember that night for the rest of my life.”
His debut was even more memorable because he stuck the landing and won in impressive fashion. Buzukja made easy work of Ryan Castro, delivering a knockout a little less than three minutes into the fight. It was a plan set in motion from the moment he started to prepare.
“I was expecting a minute and a half of him just rushing forward and me figuring the pace and what he’s looking for,” Buzukja said. “Then I would [find my opportunities] and pick him apart.”
During training, Buzukja laid out a plan of attack and executed it expertly. Knowing Castro likes to employ his jab in fights, the Longo and Weidman MMA rep waited for the perfect opportunity to unload his power right hand and made it count.
“That’s what I get joy from -- seeing what I planned and visualized happening in real life,” Buzukja said. “The true martial artist is the thinking man. The one who thinks more is the winner.”
Buzukja admits he watched YouTube highlights of Fedor Emelianenko as a kid, but the former Pride Fighting Championships heavyweight titleholder did not inspire him to get into combat sports. Instead, it was a famous action movie star who piqued his interest in martial arts.
“The reason I got into training was because I saw -- it sounds a little stupid -- ‘The Transporter’ with Jason Statham,” he said. “I was like, ‘This stuff is pretty cool,’ so I wanted to do it.”
Buzukja learned karate, Japanese jiu-jitsu and boxing during his teens. Eventually, his interest in competing in mixed martial arts was stimulated by the rise of Conor McGregor. Looking to begin training in the sport, he asked friends for suggestions of a top-level local MMA gym. Their advice was to join the Serra Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy. Once he started, Buzukja knew he wanted a career in the sport, and he let the head coach of the gym -- former Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight titleholder Matt Serra -- know about it on Day 1.
“When I start something, I am all in. There’s no in the middle,” Buzukja says. “I told Matt the first day, ‘I want to fight for you,’ and he kind of shrugged it off because [he probably] gets that a lot; but as time went on, he saw that I have that grit and he started liking me.”
Serra corroborated that grit during an interview with MMAJunkie.com following Buzukja’s debut: “Let me tell you about Dennis. Dennis came from Staten Island to my school in Long Island. It’s a little bit of a trip; it’s not right down the block. At my jiu-jitsu school, if you want to fight, I make everyone at my school wear the gi until they get four stripes on their belt. He did not try to cut the line, did not try to work with the pros right away and try to get his gi off. He stayed on that side of the room, he got his four stripes and that’s the kind of mentality he had. He didn’t do any shortcuts. He’s a young kid, but he’s got a bright, bright future.”
Eventually, Buzukja made his way to LAW MMA to train under Ray Longo. There, he found another mentor -- and his current landlord -- in UFC lightweight Al Iaquinta. While asking around about moving to Long Island to train full time, he received an offer he could not refuse from the highly ranked 155-pound fighter.
“I talked to Al because he is a real estate agent and asked, ‘How much is rent in Long Island?’ I wanted to move out [there] and just train,” Buzukja said. “He was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got a room.’”
Iaquinta has since become a fixture in the young fighter’s all-star corner, which also includes Serra and Longo. Their presence instills supreme confidence in the 21-year-old.
“They see something in me,” he said, “and I’m definitely not here to let them down.”
With a successful debut in the rearview mirror, Buzukja has turned his attention to what comes next. He has been booked to compete at Ring of Combat 66 on Nov. 16 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, but remains confident he will return to the Bellator cage in the not-too-distant future.
“Bellator was impressed by me,” he said. “[Bellator President] Scott Coker followed me on social media, so let me just say that.”
Wherever his career progresses, he plans to use his fists and feet to keep audiences entertained.
“I like to keep it standing because it is a fan-friendly style,” Buzukja said. “That’s what the people want to see: knockouts.”