Ottman Azaitar’s UFC debut ended in emphatic fashion.
Making his bow last September, at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi, the Moroccan knocked out cold Teemu Packalen in the first round, a scintillating start to what he hoped would be a fast rise through the world's lead mixed martial arts promotion. The display earned him performance of the night. It carried his professional record, honed latterly through the Middle East's Brave Combat Federation, to 12-0.
Yet, Azaitar hasn’t fought since. The pandemic put paid to his return at UFC 249 in April, where the former Brave lightweight champion was to appear on the undercard to Khabib Nurmagomedov’s long-anticipated clash with Tony Ferguson. For someone with designs of breaking into the division's top 15, it’s been a long wait.
On Sunday, though, Azaitar finally gets his second crack. This time, he’s the co-main event at UFC Fight Night in Vegas, when he takes on the dangerous Khama Worthy at the Apex. The American rides a seven-fight win streak, competing most recently in June.
The pair were supposed to face off at UFC 249. Given everything that’s gone on between bouts, Azaitar is eager to make up for lost time.
“Since the last opportunity on April 18, I’ve been waiting for this opportunity, and now we’ve got it,” he says via Zoom. “It’s almost time.
“I’m always excited for every fight, always excited and happy. Yes, we waited for a long time, but it’s an international pandemic, so we also have to respect this.
"It’s not a problem. We all get affected, not only me. And it made it even better to wait longer, made me hungrier. More motivation.”
Azaitar, 30, spent much of the past few months like everyone else, for a time locked down at home, respecting newly enforced regulations, trying to turn an exceptional experience into a positive. He read a lot, but used the majority of his time to focus on training.
His camp in Morocco – his brother, also a UFC athlete, was present – was intense, followed by two weeks in Amsterdam, before Azaitar arrived in Vegas on August 26 to put the finishing touches on preparations.
Looking back now, it feels a world away from that dream debut in Abu Dhabi.
“For every MMA fighter UFC is the biggest organisation - it’s always the biggest dream for every MMA fighter to get in the UFC,” Azaitar says. “And, yes, I gave my best, prepared very good and it was very nice to have such a debut: to win the first round, knockout, performance of the night to get the bonus.
"So I was very, very happy. It was a very, very nice memory. And I’m glad and very thankful to God that it started like this.”
With the victory, and the manner of it, came greater recognition. Not just back home in Morocco, where Azaitar flies proudly his country's flag, but in the United States and all over the world.
It is something Azaitar embraces but not actively seeks, happy instead to let his talent do the talking. He has finished 11 of his 12 fights.
“It is good because it’s part of the business, part of the sport,” he says. “Every fighter works on this to make their popularity higher, because this has an effect on every thing else: your contract, sponsors, everything.
“But for me personally I appreciate it if people see me and recognise me and give me their support and nice feedback, although it’s not something that I have to become famous or see that everyone recognise me.
"If you see that people know you or give you good feedback then you know you’re doing your work well. The content of the feedback is what makes me happy and proud.”
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So, too, representing the Arab world. MMA is enjoying a boon in the Mena region, highlighted later this month by the start of a second UFC Fight Island series in Abu Dhabi. Following on from July's inaugural run, it features five events, including the much-hyped UFC 253 and UFC 254.
“I see that the Arab world developed a lot in the last two years in MMA, with many organisations coming to Arab countries,” Azaitar says. “One of the leading organisations, Brave, was also in Africa, and the UFC came back after long time to Abu Dhabi, with 242 last year.
“And since coronavirus started, I think the only place that offered to host UFC was Abu Dhabi. But it’s not just about this: we have a lot of Arabic UFC fighters, and this therefore leads UFC to go back to the Arabic countries because more people are representing these countries.”
Representing his home country – for the interview the Moroccan flag hangs proudly behind him on the wall of his hotel room – serves therefore as another motivation.
Azaitar hopes to do it again on Sunday morning, just like he did following that blockbuster bow in Abu Dhabi little more than a year ago.
“Inshallah,” Azaitar says. “This is the intention and the hope of every fighter, when we go fight we go to win: raise the flag or raise the arm. This is the feeling every fighter wants after the fight ends. And may Allah give us the victory to raise the flag again after the fight."