Suman Mokhtarian: Portrait of the Hustle

By Jacob Debets Sep 25, 2019
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To say that Sydney’s Suman Mokhtarian leads a full life would be an understatement of colossal proportions. The 27-year old lists Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter as his primary occupation, but in between training sessions he also runs his own gym, Australian Top Team and operates the Urban Fight Night MMA promotion, both of which are joint ventures with older brother Ashkan and sister-in-law Azize. If that weren’t enough, he’s also made inroads into the fight management game over the past two years, and today oversees a stable of fighters signed to his management company, One Out Fight Management.

The self-proclaimed “busiest man in Australian MMA” has ambitions for all four of his MMA enterprises, and it’s no surprise that his average day entails a lot of juggling.

“From the time I wake up, it’s everything,” Mokhtarian told “One morning I might be working with Urban and dealing with my coaching duties. Whenever I can get away from one and get to the other, that’s when I’ll get my focused time. They all kind of work hand in hand, they’re all in the same industry. I never have to go too off topic and think about something completely different. I’ve made it work for my life. I’ve got my brother and his wife helping me with Urban and the gym. It’s not just me, even though some people think of me as the face of it. There’s a lot more that goes on behind it.”

“People have told me to focus on my fighting career while I’ve got it, and put everything else on the back burner,” he continued. “When I have my next fight, I need to make sure I’m 100 percent committed to that. But I’m not going to let that take away from my day job[s], you know? You’ve got people like Stipe [Miocic] who’s a world champion and still has his job as a fire fighter. I think that mixed martial arts is a great lifestyle. It’s one where you should be able to have other things going on. I look at people like James Krause in the states -- he’s always thinking about new business ideas and how he can fill up his time with new opportunities. If I was just focusing purely on fighting, I’d probably go a little bit insane. I think with the gym, the promotion, it’s still around the same industry, but it’s something else I can put my energy into rather than just fighting.”

Suman’s backstory is a well-known one around the Sydney MMA scene. The son of Iranian refugees, Suman and his brother Askan battled homelessness and deprivation as teenagers, with Suman identifying martial arts as a potential ladder out of poverty. Soon after, the brothers began competing in jiu-jitsu and other combat disciplines, ultimately founding Australian Top Team in Wentworthville, Sydney, and embarking on professional careers inside the cage. Askan compiled a record of 13-1 before being signed by the UFC in 2017, while Suman took a detour via “The Ultimate Fighter” before debuting at UFC Fight Night 142 last December.

Mokhtarian has spoken openly in the past about the precariousness of his upbringing and family life and the formative impact that this had on his career in MMA, but today he’s more guarded when sharing his story. The way he tells it, the trials of his youth have given him a thicker skin and greater resolve, but dwelling on the past -- at least in a public forum -- is a painful experience for him and his family.

“I think that a lot of those moments in your past make you who you are,” he said. “When you’ve seen some of the things I’ve seen, when you’ve dealt with some of the things I’ve dealt with, it makes your skin a lot thicker. Even with things in fighting -- backlash, people talking sh-t on the internet -- it makes you a little bit more immune. I go through hard training sessions all the time, and I think back to moments where times were a lot harder. By comparison this is easy. It pushes me more. It gives me that little bit more drive.

“Those are things that have built me up into the person I am,” he continued. “Not just in fighting, but as a person. Things were hard, but everyone’s got a story. I sometimes feel weird when people ask me about it, or talk to me about it. If people ask me about it, I tell them the truth. But there’s obviously a lot of things that I can’t say just for my family’s sake.”

After compiling a perfect record of 8-0 before being cast for Season 27 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Mokhtarian’s lost a decision to Ricky Steele in the first round of the tournament. Nevertheless, he was signed by the UFC later that year and made his debut on the UFC’s Adelaide card in December, losing his promotional debut via first round TKO to surging featherweight Sodiq Yusuf. The fight was controversial at the time -- a very conscious Mokhtarian immediately protested the stoppage to referee Greg Kleynjans -- and looking back on the experience, he admits to some lingering frustration about the situation.

“Anyone who knows me knows that I can take a hit,” he said. “I don’t care about getting hit and stuff like that. I knew that that was going to happen at the start of the fight. I actually said that to the referee at the start of the fight. I told him that I tend to get hit a bit, and asked him for time to work. He said he’d give me time to work.

“[When I protested] the referee said I wasn’t fighting back” he elaborated. “But what’s the first rule in all of combat sports? It’s to intelligently defend yourself. If I had swung back in that moment, I wouldn’t have been intelligently defending myself. Putting my hands up and covering is far better than opening up while [my opponent] is unloading on me. A lot his punches also weren’t landing, but it is what it is.”

Compounding the adversity Mokhtarian faced against Sodiq was an injury to his elbow he sustained in the lead up. He figured it was better to compete injured than risk his spot on the UFC roster, and marched into the Octagon compromised.

“I tore some tendons off my elbow before the fight,” he recounted. “It made my elbow weak, I had like a chipped bone. It was deteriorating, getting worse and worse. I wasn’t in a position to want to pull out. I fought with the injury.

“With the UFC, you never know,” he said when asked why he chose to compete rather than withdraw. “They obviously didn’t tell me before the Sodiq fight that if I didn’t take the fight, I wouldn’t be a part of their roster. But it was one of those things. The opportunity had risen, and you’re either going to take the opportunity, go fight in front of your friends and family, or you’re going to turn it down. And you know what? In this game, you never know. You turn down one fight, and that could be your walking papers.”

Mokhtarian disclosed his injury to the UFC in the aftermath of his fight and the promotion agreed to cover the cost of the required surgery. It took seven months to arrange time with the UFC’s surgeon, and at the time of writing Mokhtarian is one month removed from going under the knife.

The time he’s spent in limbo – “trying to train with literally one arm” as Mokhtarian describes it – has been an exercise in patience, but it’s given him the opportunity to focus on building his other businesses. Case in point is Urban Fight Night, which held its 20th MMA event earlier in the month at the Hurstville Entertainment Centre. Asked about the experience at the helm of the Sydney-based promotion, which is fast approaching its fifth year in operation, Mokhtarian’s passion is obvious and infectious.

“Me and Ash started UFN with his wife [Azize],” Mokhtarian said. “We’re a team of three. We started it and we’ve now had our 20th show… It’s pro-am mixed martial arts, grass roots level. We’re working from amateurs having their first fight to professionals making their way into the UFC.

“We’ve had plenty of UFC fighters in Urban as well – Tai Tuivasa, Tyson Pedro, Nadia Kassem, Alex Gorges. We’re a stepping stone. We’re just trying to help fighters a little bit more and get to that level. It’s very rewarding seeing fighters from home that have been on my show being able to progress to the UFC. It’s an awesome thing to see.”

In addition to his duties as a promoter, Mokhtarian has also tested the waters as a fighter-agent under the banner of One Out Fight Management. It’s a business in which he sees plenty of potential for growth, especially as the sport exploded in popularity across the region.

“It started off as something I was doing for friends,” he recalled. “I’ve got the guys from my gym that I was helping out, then people outside the gym started asking for my help. I started managing them, then I thought that I might as well start my own management company. At one stage, I would have had 30 or 40 fighters but I had to cut that back. At the moment, I have a solid group of 10 people that I’m helping out outside my gym, then I have the people inside my gym as well.”

Inhabiting the different spaces within the MMA industry -- from labor (fighter), to capital (promoter), to something in between (manager/coach) -- has given Mokhtarian unparalleled insight into the industry, and everything he learns he tries to translate into better outcomes for the fighters under his watch. It’s an experience of constant growth and self-discovery, and Mokhtarian admits that in a lot of respects he’s learning on the job.

“Obviously being able to see the other side of the industry has been eye-opening,” he said “As a fighter, a lot of fighters that I know think that, ‘if I win my fight and don’t say anything, one day someone’s going to appear with a UFC contract.’ It doesn’t really work like that. A manager is constantly grooming, constantly getting someone ready, and doing all of the negotiations.”

“I’ve learned everything on the go,” he elaborated. “I haven’t had any person coaching or teaching me in this. Even my dealings with the UFC and how to talk with them. The way I started talking to the UFC was that I’d found [UFC matchmakers] Sean Selby and Mick Maynard’s email and I started annoying them. I just kept emailing until one day I got a response, then I was like ‘OK.’ The first response would have been like ‘yep, got it’ or something like that, but it grows from there. When you’re dealing with getting people in the UFC -- or any big promotion, like One Championship -- they’re very busy people. They get a million emails a day. I know if I strike when the opportunity is there, I’ll get that message back and it’s about being available at the right time, you know?”

Along the way, Mokhtarian has learned plenty of lessons applicable to his own career. The value of consistency -- in training and competition -- is one he readily admits to have neglected on his way up the regional rankings. And now, as he recuperates from elbow surgery and sets his eyes on the next challenge inside the Octagon, he’s ready to put those principles into practice. He gives himself six weeks before he’s back in training camp -- on examination, he admits that the doctor’s recommendation is for him to give it twice that -- with a fight date and opponent booked for later in the year.

“They’ve told me that it’s three months before I can have any impact on my arm,” he said of his recovery timeline. “But I’m pretty stupid -- they told me it would be 12 months with my knee, and I fought against Sodiq eight months after the knee reconstruction. I had torn my ACL, MCL and my meniscus, and I fought eight months after that injury. They said three months, and think I can get it done in a month in a half.

“I’ll be fighting before the end of the year,” he further disclosed. “I can’t say where or who, but I’ve been offered a fight and will be fighting by the end of the year.”

Asked to look ahead by 12 months, Mokhtarian sees success on all fronts. A new gym, a rapidly expanding promotion, and the beginnings of a title campaign at bantamweight.

“This time in 12 months [Australian Top Team] is going to have a brand new gym, Urban Fight Night will be double the size it is now and it will be televised, and I see myself on a win streak in the UFC, consistently getting fights,” he said.

“I am going to fight again very soon, and when I do fight again, it will be all or nothing. For this fight, losing is not an option. I’ve just got out there, and I’m either going to win or I’m going to die. That’s the approach I’m taking into this next one. I don’t care who it is, where it is, I’ll go to Brazil, America, Korea – I’ll fight whoever it is they want me to fight, beat that person, call out the next person and drop to 135 [pounds].”

Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at Advertisement
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