On first glance, there’s nothing spectacular about Artem Lobov.
His record is a mediocre 10-10-1, most of which was accumulated on the European regional scene. He isn’t the kind of fighter topping prospect lists or getting mentioned on social media. He’s got a good frame, strong with solid definition, but he’s not exactly muscle bound. He's just not the type of athlete you would normally expect to be a poster boy for mixed martial arts.
But what sets Lobov apart doesn’t appear on the outside. He’s a good interview, but his Russian accent will make it difficult to reach North American audiences.
To see what sets Lobov apart from other fighters, you have to dig a little deeper and look a little harder.
If you’ve heard of him before reading this story, it’s probably for one of two reasons, which are directly related.
The first is that he was on a highlight reel somewhere. Despite his record, he’s an intensely interesting fighter to study. His footwork, awkward stance, distance and hand movement set him apart from anyone else in the sport. His hands are generally at his waist and his feet move fluidly around the Octagon. As a striking coach with SBG Ireland, it’s not difficult to see the correlation between his striking work and that of teammates Conor McGregor and Gunnar Nelson.
The second reason you may know Lobov is because he’s one of the few fighters without a martial arts background. He didn’t wrestle growing up, or join a boxing gym at a young age. His first jiu jitsu class was at the age of 21, not 14.
Instead of wrestling, boxing or jiu jitsu, Lobov danced.
Ballroom dancing from the age of seven helped Lobov develop a grace inside the ring that few can match.
“It was my parent’s idea, my mom mostly,” said Lobov. “I always wanted to do combat sports. I used to beg her "can I please do boxing?" and she always said "no, you'll get your nose broken" or stuff like that. I just wanted to do any kind of sport, just be active. Ballroom dancing was just around the corner from us. I started doing that [instead] and was pretty good at it.”
So Lobov started practicing ballroom, partially because he wanted competition (of any sort) and partially because it made his dear mother happy. She loved seeing her handsome young boy sharing the dance floor with a Russian beauty, and like every good son, he wanted to make mom proud.
But fighting continued to stay on Lobov's mind. When he moved to Ireland for school, he saw an advertisement offering combat sports training and took up the offer.
“At first, my mom wasn't impressed,” said Lobov. “She was like "I can't believe you're doing this, your whole life I've been trying to protect you from all this." When I was a bit older and she didn't have as much say, I just did what I had wanted to do my whole life.”
What he didn’t know as he toiled away all those years on the dance floor was that he was developing a skillset that would make him entirely unique when he did make the venture into combat sports later in life.
All the years of dancing imparted an understanding of footwork and distance that the basic drills practiced by most combat sports gyms never could. He laughs when striking coaches ask him to do footwork drills because they are so easy he could do most of them with his eyes closed.
“Well his stance was unusual,” said SBG Ireland head coach John Kavanagh. “His hands were down and his feet were almost parallel, just kind of squared off facing his opponent. He told me he developed this style because before my gym he was in a boxing gym. In that gym, he was the lightest guy by a substantial amount. Even when he had his hands up, if they threw hard punches at him they were knocking him down. He realized if he kept his hands down he could move his head a bit quicker. That's where he developed his style.”
From Kavanagh’s description, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the stance hasn’t changed much. Instead of starting from scratch, Kavanagh and the team at SBG Ireland have made a point of working with what they have and improving on what they’ve got. Although he has an average record, Lobov has become a key component of SBG Ireland, working with striking classes at the gym.
“I'm always only interested in results and the results of his style were that he wasn't getting hit,” said Kavanagh. “If it's working, it's working. He sparred for years with me and all the top guys. He's one of the guys that gets hit the least. From an evidence point of view, it works. We made some slight adjustments to deal with kicks and takedowns, but it's a lot of his own doing.”
Lobov may never make it to the UFC. He may never hold a world championship or be on the cover of a video game. But that doesn’t mean he has nothing to offer. He’s styled himself after Anderson Silva and Muhammad Ali, the fighters who float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Although the stinging like a bee aspect may still be a work in progress, Lobov has much to offer the world of combat sports.
“When I'm moving around in the ring or whatever, I just move so easy, it's so natural,” said Lobov. “I just know how my body works, how my body moves and I do think this is from my ballroom dancing.”
“I've never met a good fighter that's a bad dancer,” laughed Kavanagh. “There's definitely a correlation between the two.
Lobov has become a regular for Cage Warriors Fighting Championship and other promotions around Europe. At Cage Warriors 70 on August 16, he finished rising prospect Andrew Fisher with one second left in the final round. He was losing until that point.
As fighters like McGregor, Nelson and others continue to come out of SBG Ireland with impressive results, it’s very possible we’ll look back at people like Lobov and Kavanagh as game changers in a sport that’s constantly moving forward.
And to think, how different things may have been at a small gym in Ireland had a seven-year-old boy from small-town Russia not been looking for something competitive to do, and a mother not wanted to see her son dance.
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