UFC Fight Island 2: Iraqi Amir Albazi's circuitous route to Abu Dhabi via Syria, Sweden and London

The Iraqi tells of his incredible journey to flee war-torn Iraq with his family and is ready to fight on the biggest stage

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UFC Fight Night 2

1am – Early prelims

2am – Prelims

4am-7am – Main card

7:30am-9am – press cons

Much like the majority of competitors contesting UFC Fight Island amid the global pandemic, Amir Albazi’s route to Abu Dhabi has been circuitous.

Yet few share a backstory quite as compelling.

"I was born in Baghdad, Iraq: me, my sister, my brother, my mother and father," the flyweight tells The National ahead of his UFC debut at Fight Night 2 on Sunday. "My father left us when I was very young, so I never really saw him until the age of eight or nine.

“I just remember, at the age of seven, we woke up middle of the morning, sat in a taxi and just drove. I asked my mum ‘Where are we going?’ and she just said ‘Don’t worry about it’. We just kept driving; we went to Kurdistan.

“You know when you’re so young you just remember clips? I remember we were on literally a rowing boat, going somewhere. We came to Kurdistan for a couple of months, and from there we moved to Syria.”

That’s where Albazi met his father for the first time. He did not recognise him, but knew by the reactions of his mother and brother that this must be dad. His father had escaped warn-torn Iraq to begin a better life for his family.

Reunited, the Albazis waited 18 months for their paperwork to come through, and then moved to Sweden.

“Of course, that was a big shock,” Albazi says. “I remember the first thing when I came that it was so cold, seeing snow for the first time. And it wasn’t the easiest moving there - being an immigrant, not speaking the language, don’t have any friends.

“Normally I’d get into trouble, because I couldn’t answer back, sitting in school and some people making fun of your language. So I had to use these to protect myself.”

Albazi laughs as he raises his fists. He would eventually put them to good use, when his interest in mixed martial arts (MMA) sparked aged 14, upon watching UFC Unleashed on television in Stockholm.

Unsure what was unfolding before his eyes, the next day Albazi Googled “UFC”. From there, he found the cheapest gym in the city he could and was, in his own words, “totally hooked”.

“Just tried to turn something negative into something positive,” Albazi, 26, says. “And 12 years later I’m here.”

Here is the W Abu Dhabi – Yas Island, on the cusp of participating in the biggest fight of his career to date. On Sunday, he takes on Malcolm Gordon at Flash Forum having agreed to the bout only 10 days before.

Now a London resident - Albazi remained in Sweden aged 15 with his bother while the rest of his family relocated to England - he received a call on July 8 asking if he would replace Aleksander Doskalchuk at the third of four events at the inaugural Fight Island. He jumped at the chance.

“I woke up last Wednesday morning, got a call from the UFC saying there’s a fight,” Albazi says. “I just went to the gym, spoke to my coaches, took the fight, did my last training session and literally went back home packed and straight to the airport.

“I always knew there would be a chance of getting a last-minute call. I knew if the opportunity would come up I would take it. It feels good. I’m happy to be part of Fight Island - it’s a unique experience and I’m just happy to be able to showcase my skills on Sunday.”

Amir Albazi in preparation for his bout against Malcolm Gordon at UFC Fight Night in Abu Dhabi on July 19. Courtesy photo

The talent is reflected in Albazi’s CV. He is 12-1 in MMA, having captured gold at numerous Asian, European and world championship events, while he has two wins in Bellator, the renowned United States-based MMA organisation.

Albazi is comfortable in the Middle East, too, and not only because of his background: his past couple of fights fell under the Brave CF banner, taking place in Bahrain and Jordan.

There’s special resonance in competing in the UAE as well. Two of Albazi’s sponsors - Business Exchange Bureau (BXB.ae), and Plant & Equipment, an online platform for construction equipment - are based in the Emirates. Both were founded by Iraqis, so that connection to his country of birth, the country his family fled in lieu of a better life, remains.

In more ways than one.

“The support’s been amazing, from everywhere - London, Sweden. But especially from Iraq, I’m getting a lot of love,” Albazi says. “They’re going through their problems still since I left, so I want to give something back to them.”

He has extended family there, friends also. The fight will be broadcast on Abu Dhabi Sports, so he hopes the whole country will tune in.

“It’s perfect,” Albazi says. “It’s great.”

Just a lot of love, a lot of love back to Iraq. I know what you've struggled with, I know all the stuff you've been going through. I'm going to make it all worth it. Inshallah

He promises an entertaining fight. His style lends itself to that, an atypically aggressive jiu-jitsu that was honed in London as Albazi balanced a burgeoning MMA career with studying sport and exercise science at university.

Making his long-awaited UFC bow, he wants a finish, either by knockout or submission, to provide proof he belongs on the elite stage. Display it for all those watching, including UFC president Dana White.

“’Habibi Dana,’” Albazi says with a smile. “We call him ‘3amu Dana’, ‘Uncle Dana’. He’s been an icon of the sport, promoting it great. This sport didn’t look like it did when I started watching it - now it’s a big difference - and we all owe it to Dana.”

Understandably, the Paradigm Sports Management client is eager to repay the faith shown in his late call-up. For someone so attuned to overcoming the odds, to searching for that next chapter, it feels apt.

“It’s just the beginning,” he says. “I see this is another starting point. I’m not one of these guys who’s happy to be in the UFC - I want to make a statement. I didn’t just train 12 years to be in the UFC, I want to take the belt. I’m not a person just here to take part.”

Finally, he’s officially part of the world’s lead MMA organisation. From war-torn Iraq to the UFC. His message for his original home is clear.

“Just a lot of love, a lot of love back to Iraq,” Albazi says. “I know what you’ve struggled with, I know all the stuff you’ve been going through. I’m going to make it all worth it. Inshallah.”

UFC Fight Night 2

1am – Early prelims

2am – Prelims

4am-7am – Main card

7:30am-9am – press cons