After the first round, Soslan Abanokov sat in his corner, hands still burning. That last minute, Anthony Facchini pinned to the red mat beneath the Russian’s knees, had been a blaze of unsparing head strikes, until all Facchini could do was cover up and hope the bell would ring before the ref ended the fight. This was Abanokov’s America.
Atlantic City was a long way from home. Abanokov was born in Arik, a scrub of a village in Russia's Kabardin-Bakar region where people knew you were tough if you’d been bloodied in a fight and not before. He remembers one night when there were what to a boy looked like 50 men in the street brawling. By 10 his father had taught him to wrestle.
He had friends but few close ones. “’You a lone warrior.’ That’s how my friend described me. Lone wolf,” he tells me. “I don’t like being alone, you know. But maybe that’s necessary for me.”
Abanokov liked fighting. He idolized then UFC light-heavyweight champ Tito Ortiz and even shared his interests.
“I like romantic movies. I like romantic comedies,” Abanokov says. “And one time I’m watching Tito -- and I love Tito so much, meeting him someday would be like my dream -- and they ask Tito, ‘What do you do for fun?’ And he says he loves to watch romantic movies. So that did it for me: ‘I saw that and I’m like, ‘I want to be like Tito.’”
With a year left on an unfinished tourism degree at college, and just enough money to get set up, Abanokov took a flight to Las Vegas with his family’s blessing. The first thing he did when he got off the plane was get a job delivering pizzas.
“It took a while to get in with the right trainer, get with people that were smart,” he says. “I had to learn what to do. I took just every job I could get to make money, and then at night I train.” He fought in amateur bouts and made his way to New York City. He worked as a butcher and in a liquor store where people trusted him to know about vodka even though he didn’t drink.
Eventually he found his way to BK MMA, in South Brooklyn, and his first professional fight in June of last year. Tom English was on a three-win streak when Abanokov snapped it for him at Ring of Combat XKI.
“It felt so good," he says. "Everything was coming together. My family and friends they’d see me on YouTube, they’d send me messages from Russia: ‘Man, you fight so good.’”
Yes, after that first fight he’d woken up in the middle of the night with a muscle screaming in his leg and had to spend three months out of training. Yes, he spent two weeks laid up with the flu and only recovered a week before he was scheduled to face Facchini. But he had the momentum. He was winning.
So when the second round started in Atlantic City on that September night and Facchini came dancing toward him with gloves up, he was ready to end it. “He’d just gotten lucky that last round,” Abanokov says. “That’s what I thought: Saved by the bell.”
A minute into the round, though, and Abanokov knew he’d been wrong about everything. His arms and legs wouldn’t move with his thoughts. The bottom fell out of him. When momentum runs out, it runs out suddenly. “I just knew it was over,” he says. “I felt it leave me.”
When the fight went to the ground, Facchini locked one leg over the back of Abanokov’s neck, squeezed, and locked in the choke. Abanokov tapped. And once the loss was marked, he could see every step in how he’d let it happen.
“Nobody said anything about not fighting because I’d been sick,” he says. “I didn’t want to not fight. I didn’t want to look like a guy that backs out. In Russia if you did that there wouldn’t be respect.
“I had a lot of talks with my trainers about how we got there. We’d had a lot of miscommunications. I learned a lot from that fight.”
It was decided they’d had so many miscommunications that a month later Abonokov left. He stopped talking to people he’d been training alongside night after night.
“It’s in the past. I let it go,” he says. “The guys I was friends with there, I don’t hear from them anymore. That sucks. It’s not them, though; it’s just they’re there and they’re with those people and it’s not their problem. It’s over, I let it go, but I miss my friends there sometimes.
“I was thinking about going back to Russia. I didn’t know what I was going to do anymore. I don’t think I would’ve let anyone down, but nobody from where I’m from has ever done anything like this. When I grew up we’d talk about this, but I’m the only one that’s made it this far.”
He spent the next few months looking for a new gym. He settled on the Renzo Gracie Fight Academy, a cavernous warehouse in Williamsburg with a white boxing ring and a huge floor covered in grappling mats.
Every night as the other students shower and gather at the lobby door on their way home, Abanokov will still be there in front of the heavy bag. He doesn’t have any fights lined up but he knows he can get one if he keeps working.
“A long time after Atlantic City I felt nothing,” he says. “But just now, just a week or two ago, I felt everything come back. I felt that fire again. I don’t know how but it’s back. I have a new gym. I have new trainers. I got a beautiful thing.”
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