Call it coincidence, good fortune or even fate, but a chance meeting in a Las Vegas restaurant with one of the most prominent figures in sport could change Mounir “Sniper” Lazzez’s life for ever.
More immediately, it secured the Dubai resident his UFC debut next month.
"One of my friends in the US passed [UFC president] Dana White by chance, showed him my knockout highlight reel and said 'Listen, stop I have business for you. Look at this guy: he's the next 'Middle East's Conor McGregor'," Lazzez tells The National, surprisingly matter-of-factly.
“So Dana followed me on Instagram and put matchmaker Sean Shelby in contact with me. And Sean contacted me and then my management. So, yeah, it happened like that.”
And now it's happening. Lazzez says his friend bumped into White on Tuesday of last week. Oblivious to what had transpired, the Tunisian woke on Wednesday to a fight being sorted at the once-in-a-lifetime Fight Island in Abu Dhabi. After the initial shock – understandable, but fleeting – he composed himself and agreed.
“Sean sent me a private message on social media and asked if I was up to fight on July 15,” Lazzez says. “Yes sir. He didn’t even send me any other details.
“He asked if I can make 77 [kilograms, for welterweight], and I said ‘Easy to go, just let me know’. He spoke to my management, offered them the fight, we accepted and, yes, I’m ready.”
And there you have it. Lazzez, a former Desert Challenge welterweight champion, a specialist Muay Thai kickboxer who grew up in Tunisia before relocating to Canada and then finally to Dubai in 2012, will face Ghanaian Abdul Razak Alhassan on July 15. Alhassan has five UFC outings under his belt, but hasn’t competed since a 43-second knockout of Niko Price in September 2018.
Now he will collide with Lazzez at the second of a four-fight UFC series taking place across two weeks on Yas Island, although the card has not yet been announced.
By any measure, Lazzez's is a remarkable tale. Looking back further, his mixed martial arts story dates back more than 15 years. A “tall, skinny and ugly” teenager, he took up kickboxing only because his parents thought it would help build his confidence.
Displaying both an appetite and an aptitude, he went on to excel for the Tunisia national team, then began his amateur MMA career in Canada, where he added to his repertoire jiu-jitsu and wrestling.
In Dubai, and with the help of Team Nogueira Dubai martial arts and fitness academy – Lazzez worked as coach from 2014 and considers managing director Rafael Haubert a mentor - he eventually turned professional and committed to full-time training. At present, the 31-year-old’s pro record stands at 9-1, helped by back-to-back first-round finishes in his past two bouts.
A UFC fan “since day one", Lazzez appreciates everything that has carried him to this point. To Fight Island next month.
“To be honest, in this moment we have a lot of people losing their job and you see how all around the world it’s crazy,” he says. “People are protesting, people are losing their loved ones. So for me it’s kind of a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I just appreciate God’s plan; it’s the best and it’s humbled me. It let me appreciate more things. So this has come at the right time, the right place. It’s going to be better than this.”
A month out, he’s begun a full training camp. Typically, Lazzez studies his opponents before stepping into the cage. This time, he’s leaving that to his coach and his team. For him, the focus is July 15. No distractions.
“I will be ready and will be 100 per cent as well,” Lazzez says. “In this game, at the elite level, the technique is there, but it’s more heart.
"When they lock that cage, when you look at your opponent, it doesn’t matter if he’s world champion or whatever. If you look him in the eye and he knows he’s facing someone who’s willing to die and not give up the win, then technique is second and the first thing is heart.
“And I will tell you something, you can beat me physically, but mentally I will never give it. I’m not someone who predicts the future, and I cannot guarantee the win 100 per cent, but I will guarantee 1000 per cent that I’m not going there to lose.”
Surely, though, Lazzez grasps the magnitude of making his UFC bow at Fight Island, a most-probably one-off event created in response to the havoc the coronavirus crisis was wreaking on the world's lead MMA promotion.
He plans to steer clear of social media until then, to forget the intricacies of the deal signed with the UFC – Lazzez says he cannot disclose any details – and concentrate solely on himself.
“I’m trying to not let the event or this occasion overwhelm me or get emotional stress,” he says. “It’s just another fight. I’m doing every thing like before, but just adding some more professional stuff. But it’s simple: it’s me.
“I’ve been here on this stage for a long time. It’s just now it’s UFC and I have this light shining on me and the media and everything, but for me it’s just another fight.
“Of course, it’s very nice to be part of history and I’m super excited about it. I’ve been the first Arab to bring a belt to the UAE, the first Tunisian to sign for the UFC, the first Arab who’s born and raised in an Arab country to sign with UFC. So the fight being on an island, or wherever, it’s a fight. I don’t want to focus on anything else.”
Win on July 15, and win well, and his career could ignite. More UFC opportunities might be his reward. It’s a challenge Lazzez says, in a nod to his profession, he’ll grab “with both hands and legs”.
He recognises Fight Island could change his life. Not just for him, but his family in Tunisia, or his wife and son in Italy. And it's something he’s determined to embrace.
“Every normal human, when they see violence they run away from it,” Lazzez says. “For me, it’s a philosophy; I like to challenge myself, to get into that scary moment in front of another professional and try to control myself under that pressure, control my emotions and deliver that win.
“I feel like that moment is such glory. For a long time, I’ve wanted to be a world champion, wanted to be among the elite of the elite, not step in there just to take part. I want to be among the top five, the top three, if not champion. For me, the sky’s the limit.”