It has been a while since Ilyaz Mamadaliyev set foot in the derelict warehouse in Dayton, Ohio, where he trained for many years.
Back then, he was a boy dreaming of MMA stardom. Now he is a promising young fighter determined to turn his big ambitions into reality.
In the intervening period, things have changed considerably for Russian-born Mamadaliyev, who has grown from a timid, bullied youngster with depression to become a fledgling talent with the potential to become a UFC powerhouse.
The 18 year old is happy to bide his time. He has gained plenty of attention since his MMA debut in July, but that does not mean he wants to take shortcuts to get to the top.
Putting Ahiskans on the map
Mamadaliyev grew up in the Russian village of Kolos in a family of Ahiskan Turkish heritage. He emigrated to the United States with his parents and siblings aged eight.
It pains him that so few people have any awareness of his culture, but hopes to put it on the map by making history in the UFC.
“As a group of people, we are not well known,” says Mamadaliyev. “I get a little perplexed and surprised when people are not aware of what and who Ahiskan people are.
“I want to be the first Ahiskan in the UFC to win a fight and stay in the UFC.
“I believe I can show something new as a fighter. My personality will ensure that a lot of people support me, and fingers crossed that I provide special moments for my people in the future.”
Yet the first steps on the road to stardom have not been plain sailing.
As the presidential race in America between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton hots up, Mamadaliyev has experienced instances of Islamophobic behaviour, fuelled at least in part he believes by Trump’s views.
“I love America because it is the land where everyone has opportunities”
However, he insists he has become stronger for it.
“Back in September, I was discriminated against for my religion. It was the first time I had experienced such abuse in the US.
“I was at a Chinese restaurant with my cousin (Eldar, 26) and my two younger brothers aged 10 & 16. As we sat down at a table and started to eat, I noticed that a man and his wife were sitting a table away from us. The individual started eyeing us up and started shouting things like ‘Look at those Muslim goat fuckers’.
“The man went up to get his food and I felt this vibe from him as if he had so much hatred in his eyes and was eager to start a fight. I felt very bad in this moment.”
A less mature head on a young fighter’s shoulders might have lost his cool, but the 18-year-old insists it was crucial he kept calm.
“I knew the guy wanted to fight me,” says Mamadaliyev, “but I was not going to hit him because I know that if I touched him it would hamper my career prospects.
“He continued to shout things like ‘They should go back to their own fucking country’, but I remained calm. After I left the restaurant, I thought about the incident the whole night but then I remembered that one man’s actions does not mean everyone is the same.
“I love America because it is the land where everyone has opportunities. If I lived in Russia, I would never have become a fighter so I will continue to grow and become a better person.”
In a fledgling career including just a handful of fights so far, he insists he has gained a new level of maturity and responsibility, and offers gratitude to his loved ones.
“Without my family I would be nothing – they complete my life”
“Family is so important to me,” says Mamadaliyev. “I love having a family of eight people, living in one house.
“My grandma, parents, aunt, cousin and two brothers complete my life. I have promised them a new house in a good neighborhood once I have turned professional.
“My cousin Eldar did not have the opportunity to fight in the cage and since I do, I am dedicating it to him.
“Without my family I would be nothing. My dad Zakir, helps me sell my tickets but my mother and aunt avoid the fights because they are scared to see me get hurt.
“They pray for me to come out healthy but that’s part and parcel of the fighting game. What does not kill you, makes you stronger.”
Mamadaliyev, speaks eloquently as he discusses his scintillating debut win in a performance that was highly praised within the amateur ranks.
That bout in Dayton saw him earn victory in a brutal manner as the youngster bloodied his more experienced opponent to seal a unanimous decision.
“It was the best moment in my career so far,” he says, laughing happily at the recollection.
“I had a great training camp and my fight was literally a day after my birthday, so I was excited to give myself a present. I showed up to the weigh-in and saw my opponent for the first time.
“From what I remember, he was a lot taller and much older. I believe he must have been about 28 years old. We had a stare down and I looked him in the face and I smiled.
“Although, I am just becoming an adult, I have big plans. I do not fear anyone and there was no way I was going to lose that fight.
“I got hit a couple of times but I knew that was needed in order to win, and by the end of it I had my hand raised.”
Nicknamed the ‘Turkish Assassin’, Mamadaliyev struggled with his confidence at school and negative experiences left him suffering from depression.
“There was bullying happening all over the place,” he recalls. “I was always quiet and I hated violence, so people would take advantage of me.
“I hated bullies but I never confronted them and this meant I did not train enough and at one point back in
2015, I was out of shape and weighed 195lbs. I gained 50lbs because I was stressing about life and my anxiety and depression got the better of me.
“I believe leaving everything behind in Russia including my family was what caused this stress, but in theory it is what has made me stronger today.
“God puts you through life situations and when you get past them it means you were capable and strong enough, and for that I will forever be thankful.”
With hopes of emulating UFC megstars such as Conor Mcgregor, Mamadaliyev says he is delighted with the support and confidence he has gained from well wishers within the sport.
“The fans are the ones that drive me on. I’ve got 50,000 or so followers on Twitter and 30,000 followers on Instagram, and every one of those fans motivate me with their comments and messages.
“It makes me happy that so many people know me.
“Many fans and coaches in have compared me to the ‘Notorious One’ (Mcgregor) because of my movement and kicks, but that man is a legend and I would never compare myself to him.
“It just makes me happy to know that I am doing something right and people are cheering me on.”
A product of Dayton’s Heated Combat MMA training centre, Mamadaliyev has grown in the fight game, and you could be forgiven for wondering if he has experienced too much too soon.
However, his maturity is steering him on the right path as he aims to climb up MMA ladder and eventually make his mark amongst the sport’s elite.
“I hope to become a big name and a world champion”
“I am focused on my goals, and the only thing in my head right now is that I want to turn professional before the end of 2017,” insists Mamadaliyev.
“This is my life. I want to start making this my living, and once I have graduated from high school next year, I will take a month or two to fly out to a top MMA gym.
“I hope to become a big name and a world champion. I have one shot in this industry and I am going to do everything to ensure that I end up being a success. Failing is not an option for me so the only way is up.”
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