For Amir Albazi, out of disappointment came delight.
The Iraqi-born athlete had sparkled on UFC debut during the inaugural Fight Island run in July, but has been made to wait some time for his return. Two booked bouts fell by the wayside. Neither was because of him.
In the second instance, Albazi had travelled from London to Las Vegas, the long hours logged in training, the big build-up embraced. Then his opponent, Zhalgas Zhumagulov, was denied entry into the United States, and Albazi was forced to again reschedule and recalibrate.
Never fear, though. As far as his UFC-competitive career goes, he’s now back where it all started. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When they told me they’d rescheduled my fight here on Fight Island I got super happy,” Albazi tells The National, smile beaming. “It feels like home for me here.
“I fight for the Middle East, here in Abu Dhabi in the fight capital, so just feels great to be back. I love it here on Fight Island. I couldn’t wait.”
Sitting in the W Abu Dhabi – Yas Island, not long from kicking off the card at UFC 257 at the nearby Etihad Arena on Sunday, the wait suddenly feels worth it. Still, it’s been a longer-than-hoped road to return.
Albazi had prepared well for UFC outing No 2, and was understandably keen to get into the octagon again. To his credit, he dealt with the frustrations, resolving to turn those negatives into a positive.
And not only because he’s back in Abu Dhabi. Zhumagulov should probably take note.
“Zhalgas is just going to have it tougher this time,” says Albazi, whose promotional bow concluded with a first-round submission of Malcolm Gordon. “I’m improving every day, so this time is going to be even better.
“Yeah, he’s a good opponent, he’s a test. But I don’t think anyone in that weight class can last with me. I’m ready to take on everyone. I’ve been watching all of them and I match up very good with them all.
“I don’t believe anyone has the type of jiu-jitsu I have. I know I can go in and finish all of them.”
Albazi beats Gordon in Abu Dhabi, July 2020
Albazi’s debut win came at bantamweight, but for Sunday he’s dropped down to flyweight. Settled at 125lbs, he believes he possesses the tenacity and the tools to thrive. If his July victory hinted of a 26-year-old with serious talent, even despite accepting the bout late on, the extended training since promises much.
“Last time you saw me was coming back from holiday and taking the fight on nine days’ notice,” Albazi says. “So you can only imagine now with several camps, not only one fight camp behind it.
“I just can’t wait to go in and perform on all levels. Not only on the ground, but stand-up, wrestling. I want to show people that there’s levels to this game.”
Albazi describes his “journey as crazy”, but he’s not referring to a backstory that includes fleeing war-torn Iraq aged seven, seeking refuge in Iraqi-Kurdistan and Syria and then Sweden, where he took up wrestling to protect himself. Eventually, he would go on to capture gold medals in Asian, European and world championships.
This time, “crazy” relates to how life has changed after debuting in the UFC.
“I’d never believe like, people not even contacting me, but people contacting people around me that they haven’t heard from them in years saying, ‘Yeah, I saw your friend on Fight Island’,” Albazi says.
“Even the guy that bullied me when I was young in Sweden messaged me. People I haven’t spoken with for 12 years message me.
“So many people, especially Arab kids messaging and telling me how I’m inspiring them to train and get into MMA. That just means the world to me.”
That support has sustained. In fact, it’s ramped up massively as UFC 257 crept closer.
“Already before even the fight I’m getting a mad amount,” Albazi says. “Not only from the Iraqi people, from all the Arab community, from London, from Sweden, so it feels great to perform for everyone.
“I want to perform for every immigrant that came with a similar story as me. Because I know it’s not only me that fled my country or other countries to try and strive for a better life.
“I know there’s a lot of people out there having it hard, so maybe if they can see me, if I can inspire just one or two people, that’s more than enough for me.”
Win on Sunday, get a ranked opponent next and move “slowly” towards a shot at a UFC title. That’s the immediate plan, although Albazi is careful not to look past Zhumagulov, himself with one UFC fight - a decision loss - behind him.
Focus, therefore, is key. Outside focus is elevated, too, since Albazi is competing on the UFC’s first pay-per-view event of the year, a card headlined by Conor McGregor. The returning former two-division champion is a transcendent superstar who, like Albazi, sits on the roster of Paradigm Sports Management.
“To be honest, I always have myself in the centre,” Albazi says. “I see this as my own main event. I’m not super-excited to be on someone else’s card.
“I want to be that main event, I’m working towards that. It’s nice to be here having a big card to compete on because there’s more eyes on me, but it’s always going to be me – I’m the main event.”
McGregor and Poirier make weight for UFC 257
Who knows, all goes well on Sunday and he should move nearer the spotlight, perhaps to a third Fight Island appearance this summer. UFC president Dana White has already told The National he’s targeting June or July for a return residency.
If Albazi delivers, he wants another Abu Dhabi showing.
“I would love to be back on Fight Island,” he says, looking straight down the barrel of the camera. “Dana, if he hears this, I want to be here. This is my fight capital.”