The fact that Damir Ismagulov is slated to compete this weekend is a positive on multiple fronts.
First and foremost, the 32-year-old Russian lightweight is an outstanding talent, currently stationed at No. 12 in the divisional rankings, and any chance to see him step into the Octagon is a positive. But for a brief moment following his loss to Arman Tsarukyan last year, it seemed like we might have seen the last of Ismagulov, as he took to Instagram to announce his retirement.
“Yes, after the fight I announced (my) retirement,” began Ismagulov, speaking about his temporary exit just a few days ahead of his co-main event showdown with Grant Dawson at the UFC APEX. “I had some family circumstances and health issues that I thought would take a lot of time to be taken care of.
“I can say that it was probably emotional decision, and now that the health problem is in the past, I'm completely in a different state of mind now.”
The loss to Tsarukyan, which came in the penultimate fight of the year, happened at a time when a number of things were all weighing down on Ismagulov, who entered the bout on a 19-fight winning streak that included victories in each of his first five UFC appearances.
Plagued by a stomach issue that was initially misdiagnosed, dealing with familial challenges that he would rather not expound upon, and coming out of a training camp where he admits mistakes were made, the loss sat heavy with Ismagulov and he abruptly declared he was walking away.
But with time came clarity, both in terms of his health situation and processing the result of his bout with Tsarukyan, who added another win to his resume two weeks ago and remains a Top 10 talent in the lightweight division.
“Often in my life I face hardships and losses,” offered Ismagulov, who registered wins over Alex Gorgees, Joel Alvarez, Thiago Moises, Raphael Alves, and Guram Kutateladze prior to facing off with the eighth-ranked Tsarukyan. “Of course, (losing) hurt me and I went through a lot at that time but, in the end, wins and losses are walking close to each other. It all depends on you, how can you fix the mistake and return better.”
And the gifted lightweight believes he’s taken the appropriate steps to fix those mistakes.
“One thing I can tell you for sure is that you can't take preparation for big fights lightly,” said Ismagulov, who carries a 24-2 record into this weekend’s clash with Dawson. “Too many mistakes were made before that fight, therefore I tried to exclude those mistakes this time and learned from my past experience; that's why we will prepare more professionally from now on.
“I made a lot of changes in my camp, added something new, but also returned to something that I haven't done in a while, too,” continued Ismagulov, who touched down in Las Vegas early to acclimate to the weather alongside Rinat Fakhretdinov, who takes on Kevin Lee in a compelling welterweight clash on this weekend’s preliminary card. “Also all that time before the camp, I never stopped training. Before starting the camp with Tsarukyan, I didn't train for three months and it affected me.
“Now my training gives me confidence that I can perform well for the fans.”
Think about that last sentence for a second: “Now my training gives me confidence that I can perform well for the fans.”
It almost seems as if Ismagulov hasn’t been particularly pleased with his efforts to date; that he feels like he hasn’t done enough to entertain the masses and deliver the kind of performances that make fans sit up and take notice, which certainly isn’t the case.
Beating the likes of Alvarez, Moises, and Kutateladze is not easy - they’re a combined 11-7 in the UFC, with Ismagulov accounting for three of those setbacks, Alvarez himself doling out one to Moises, and the others coming courtesy of Tsarukyan, Beneil Dariush, and Islam Makhachev - and Ismagulov swept the scorecards against the first two before edging out Kutateladze just over a year ago.
He’s one of the more complete, technically proficient fighters in the 155-pound weight class, which is why hearing him speak about leveling up his game and getting to a point where training now gives him confidence is an exciting turn of events for fans, and a point of concern for pending opponents, including Dawson.
“This fight will show how I can compete with high-level wrestlers, because higher in the rankings everyone is very well rounded; they can strike and wrestle,” he said when asked about a quote from a previous Instagram post citing this matchup as a chance to prove what he do against wrestlers when he is 100 percent. “This fight will mainly show how I match up with someone who will try to take me to the ground at all costs.”
During the course of his eight-fight run in the UFC, getting the fight to the canvas has been Dawson’s chief objective and, to date, he’s been largely successful in making that happen.
A graduate from the first season of Dana White’s Contender Series, Dawson has gone unbeaten to begin his UFC run, moving to the lightweight ranks four fights ago after beginning his career at featherweight. He’s registered three victories, all by way of stoppage, and a draw since shifting to the 155-pound weight class, most recently having submitted Mark O. Madsen in November to bounce the Danish Olympian from the ranks of the unbeaten.
“Grant Dawson is a great opponent with seven wins in the organization, but I didn't see him fighting someone from the top,” Ismagulov said, assessing the resume and skills of his opponent. “Yes, he had not bad, average opposition, but now we will see him against top opposition for the first time.
“We also trained with him in (American Top Team) few times,” he continued. “But since I had in mind that we might in the future, I only showed 30% of what I'm capable of in the sparring rounds.”
One of the changes Ismagulov made for this training camp was to bring in wrestlers from Dagestan to help him level up in advance of sharing the Octagon with Dawson on Saturday, and while he’s willing to acknowledge that the American is a quality opponent he needs to be careful with, the focused and motivated veteran believes he’ll have all the answers he needs this weekend.
“I believe Dawson's wrestling is not on the same with them and he will face difficulties trying to take me down,” he said, contrasting his opponent’s abilities to those of his imported training partners. “Yes, he can pose some problems, but I'm confident I can find solution to all of them.
“I believe I have abilities and skills to defeat not only Grant, but also everyone else in the lightweight division,” he added. “I'm fired up and coming in with the great mindset.”
Re-focused, fired up, and ready to put on the kind of performance the fans will enjoy?
The next chapter in the UFC career of Damir Ismagulov sounds mighty intriguing, and Saturday can’t get here soon enough.