Russian superstar Marat “Cobra” Gafurov returns to action looking to bounce back, and claw his way back into world championship contention.
The 33-year-old lost his belt in stunning circumstances when he was knocked out by one punch from Martin “The Situ-Asian” Nguyen last year.
Now, he’s set to make his comeback at ONE: HEROES OF HONOR in Manila, Philippines, on 20 April.
Speaking to ONE Championship ahead of the bout, it’s fair to say that Gafurov is motivated to make a statement, and move right back into title contention.
“I feel very motivated, because I want to come back and reclaim my belt,” he stated.
“Having said that, I never have a problem getting into a training mood: I stay hungry, and that motivates me. This time, I will come, and I will perform. It is just another match on the way to achieving my goal.”
Gafurov will take on American Emilio “The Honey Badger” Urrutia in a bout between two of the top contenders in the ONE featherweight division. It’s a contest Gafurov is looking forward to, and one in which he says he has a significant advantage.
“He is a well-rounded athlete, though his striking might be more on point than his grappling,” he said.
“He did a good job with that boxing combo in his last bout against the Brazilian guy (Bruno Pucci), but to be honest, he has not faced any serious opponents in his career yet.
“Matches always have elements of surprise in them, but I am pretty sure his winning streak is going to be over. I do not think about my chances against him much. I am just going to the gym, and training. He should be thinking of what his chances are against me.”
Gafurov said he’s kept his training familiar, stating: “I am not doing anything special. Just regular, daily training.” He has been working hard in his regular training camp in Dagestan with the same cast of training partners who have helped him to success in the past.
“One of my closest friends and my manager is another ONE Championship athlete, Yusup Saadulaev,” he explained.
“I met him several years ago when he came back to Dagestan from the USA. He was the first guy who brought grappling to Dagestan. Yusup opened his school, got me curious, and I started training with him. We got along well, he spoke good English, and that was the start of our professional relationship.
“I keep in touch with Saygid Guseyn Arslanaliev. He is a very promising and ambitious young athlete. He is from Dagestan, but lives and trains in Turkey now. He comes back to Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, to train from time to time.”
The final 10 days will be spent in Thailand, where he concludes his preparations for the contest.
“I have to get acclimatised to Southeast Asia’s humidity, heat, and different time zone,” he explained.
“It is easier to cut weight in Thailand, because you sweat a lot in this weather. Meat and fish are cheap there, so I get a very good diet ahead of the match. My favourite thing about Southeast Asia is its climate – every time I visit, it is sunny, and warm.
“I love coming to this part of the world. My favourite place so far is Singapore. It is very clean, organised, and people are very polite. I am excited about my next match taking place in Manila, because Philippines has been on my agenda forever. I will definitely go for a tour around the city, if I have spare time.”
Prior to his title loss to Nguyen, Gafurov was one of ONE’s most dominant athletes, dispatching a string of opponents via his signature finish, the rear-naked choke. And the Dagestani athlete has been keeping a close eye on the featherweight landscape as he bids to rule the division once again.
One of the shining young stars, Christian Lee, has been handed a title shot and an opportunity to dethrone Nguyen and become the new world champion. Gafurov says the teenager is a talent and very much one for the future, but isn’t on his level right now.
“The featherweight division has been growing. It is full of strong, well-rounded athletes, and Christian is one of the top guys there,” he explained.
“But I am confident that I can beat them all. Christian is a young guy who is getting a momentum, but he is not a serious opponent for me. However, he will go far. The kid has got potential.”
When the topic of Nguyen is raised, Gafurov once again made clear his views on their last meeting, and vowed to face the Australian again and take back the title he believes is rightfully his.
“My opinion has not changed since we faced each other,” he stated.
“He is a good athlete, but not an exceptional one. When he won against me, it was a lucky punch. What can I say? He is a lucky guy!
“He should enjoy being a champion now, because I will come back for my belt soon, and I will take it.”