Artem Lobov dips his head into the Taste of Brazil restaurant in the heart of Dublin’s city center to get “the usual” feast of beef and vegetables in between training sessions at SBG Ireland.
It isn’t long before John Kavanagh’s Russian ambassador is cracking jokes and telling witty stories about fights from the past, his usual shtick. He’s in a particularly good mood on this Thursday afternoon because in ten days, he will face off against Adrian Zielinski in his native Poland for his lightweight title at X Cage 7.
The Zielinski bout will be his eighth MMA fight inside 12 months, a stretch which also saw the man they now call ‘The Russian Hammer’ compete in a K-1 bout and even retire, he tells me as he cracks a smile so wide his eyes disappear.
Lobov’s first alias, ‘The Prospect Killer’, was given to him after he beat top UK prospect Dave Hill, 9-1 when he met the SBG man, in his second professional outing. Since then Lobov claims he has had trouble getting people to sign on the dotted line to face him and because of that, late notice call-ups have become a specialty of his.
The SBG fighter recalls four people turning down contests with him when BAMMA courted the European landscape for opponents recently. Even for next weekend’s Zielinski bout, Lobov was given a little over two weeks’ notice to take on the top European talent who is rumored to be on the radar of UFC.
Although Lobov’s personality is warm and welcoming, his fighting style is quite the opposite. Hands clinched by his side, like a gunslinger from a spaghetti western waiting to draw, Lobov makes a beeline for his opponents once the bell has rung.
His delicate footwork, which many have linked to his childhood passion for ballroom dancing, creates the momentum for his boulder-like fists to explode up from his waistline only to detonate on contact with his opponent’s chin. For Lobov, excitement is something imperative for getting recognized in combat sports, he explains.
“When I perform I even want 90 year olds jumping out of their seats,” he exclaims while waiting for his food. “I want everyone to say ‘who the hell is this guy, I want to see him fight again’! That’s definitely one way I look at it, but to me even though this is a sport, it really is just a fight too.
“The main objective is to get the other guy out of there as quick as you can and in the most efficient way you can. You’ve got to damage your opponent. Holding a guy down on the ground or circling around him, that doesn’t do anything. We’re there to fight, so that’s what I do
“I put the pressure on from the first bell and force these guys to fight. It doesn’t matter what techniques he has, what background he’s coming from—he’s going to have to fight.”
Without the usual eight-week camp and training specifically for certain opponents, Lobov’s record wears the damage from taking on all comers, a lot of the time top European prospects, on his 11-10 record.
In his last three fights Lobov defeated Bellator veteran and one of the UK’s top ranked fighters outside of UFC, Andrew Fisher, in an exciting meeting that saw the Russian take victory in the last second of the bout. After that he took a draw from Polish undefeated prospect Pawel Kielek, before seeing off one of the top ranked welterweights in Germany, Rasul Shavhalov, with a second round armbar.
Lobov argues that the names behind the numbers on fighters’ records should really be what matters when the UFC are looking to sign new talent:
“I don’t understand the criteria. It makes our sport seem so illegitimate. Imagine if you’re a tennis player and you beat ten random guys and then you say, ‘I want to do Wimbledon now’. You would show up in London and they would say ‘what the fuck are you doing here? Get out of here.’
“In MMA, for some reason, you can fight your grandma every weekend and then somehow you might get into the UFC. I could never do that. I love my grandma.”
Lobov recalls a time when he had the perfect opportunity to “pad” his record. Speaking to Sean Shelby at Conor McGregor’s UFC debut in Sweden, Lobov is the Dubliner’s chief sparring partner, he became aware that the goal was to get the right numbers rather than the correct tests to get drafted under the UFC banner.
A man who cut up two Brazilian jiu jitsu blue belts before finally taking his promotion off Kavanagh, who once rang a promoter because he was embarrassed that his fight was being billed as a ‘European Championship’ bout – the easy road is one less travelled by Lobov.
Leaving his native Russia to gain two degrees in Ireland, a multi-linguist who kept up a job in a bank on top of his MMA career until recently, he is no stranger to hard work. By his own estimation, his exploits in the world of MMA have done enough to warrant a seat at the sport’s top table, but he simply refuses to take on easy bouts to prove that.
He says, “I would never just fight bums to get my foot in the door. Sean Shelby basically told me to get to 10-6 when we were in Sweden for Conor’s debut. I was inquiring about what my best path was to get to The Ultimate Fighter, and he told me if I got to 10-6 I could get straight in without going on the show.
“At that stage I could’ve easily got another random five or six guys. There are a lot of Craig Allens about in UK MMA. I could’ve got them flights over to Dublin and in the space of four or five weeks I could’ve been 10-6.
“I could never do that though. I owe it to myself first of all, and I owe it to all of the true fighters out there. I think it’s good to be educating the fans like that as well, our sport is getting bigger and bigger, UFC has a lot to do with that, but I want to leave a legacy behind me.
“I want the fans to see that records are more than just numbers. There are names behind them numbers and those names mean a lot. If I get to UFC it’s going to show. I have cut no corners.
“Maybe trying to get into the UFC with a padded record of 10-0, a guy has an advantage over me. But, if we were to step into the Octagon the tables would quickly be reversed. I would eat that 0 like a donut.”
Due to the losses on his record, Lobov hears a lot of people criticize his opinion that he should already have been signed by the world’s flagship MMA promotion, something that annoys him based on inexperienced athletes he has seen given opportunities for titles with the organization.
“It annoys me when people say I don’t deserve to be there,” admits Lobov. “ I saw a 1-0 fighter being given an opportunity to fight for a title. One of those women on the TUF straw weight show was 1-0. Had she won she would’ve been a world champion at 2-0.
“If she was given a chance to do that and then someone like me who has fought everyone in Europe, all the best guys, I’m told I don’t deserve to be there. Why is that?
“How many times do football teams lose in a year? Loads of times, and nobody seriously thinks that those sides shouldn’t be in the Premier League.
“I’ve got ten losses in my whole career – that’s not a lot really. I have no background in competitive martial arts. Conor has losses in boxing, Ronda Rousey has losses in judo – they’ve had the opportunity to lose before MMA. I didn’t.”
Lobov believes that being able to train and gauge his level next to the Irish MMA frontrunner have given him further evidence that he ready for the step up in competition.
“It sort of just confirms what you think,” he says in between mouthfuls of medium-rare steak. “I know that I’m on that UFC level. I can see what he’s doing to other guys in the UFC and I’m sparring, rolling and wrestling with him on a daily basis so I know I’m at a high level too. It just confirmed what I already thought was the case.”
When discussing the all-encompassing quest every MMA proponent undergoes, Lobov admits that some of the losses on his record were gathered foolishly, but like anything, he has learned from his experiences.
“I didn’t think about UFC for the longest time. I just love fighting, there is no place I would rather be on a Saturday night that fighting. I only started to think about UFC a little while ago.
“I did some crazy things at the start of my career. I took a fight with a broken hand – it didn’t break in the fight it was literally broken before we wrapped my hands that night. I took another fight where I was so sick I could barely get out of bed never mind fight somebody. I died after one round,” he recalls.
“Those kind of things were crazy but for some reason, in my head, it made sense. For me there is an honor to it, you should never pull out of a fight. Now I realize there are some reasons – if you’re sick, you’re sick. It’s a pity I had to pick up a few losses before I realized that.”
Looking ahead to the title bout with Zielinski, Lobov’s excitement is apparent. Knowing that “nice numbers” are a necessity for the UFC contract, a win over the Pole would put him some way to reaching his goal
Lobov also insists that by signing someone with a record like his, and based on the performance he believes he would put in, it could be UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby’s “moment of glory” to have him compete in the Octagon.
“I think it will make my record look better in terms of numbers. That’s what I need now. I have all the skills in the world, I’m ready for UFC on that level, I believe I’m better than a lot of guys that are there.
“I just need the numbers now. As much as it pains me to say it, that is the case at the moment. In reality you need to have nice numbers. Sean Shelby has said it to me and a lot of people have said it to me, but I just wish they could give me a fight now.
“I would prove that the numbers mean absolutely nothing, but they’re not going to do that so I have to work with the criteria they have in place. I’ve got to make myself attractive as a signee for them.
“For me, it should be about skill, not numbers. I’ve beaten undefeated guys who have no losses, I’ve beaten guys who have much better records than me so I think I’ve already proven how good I am.
“To be honest, if Sean Shelby was to sign a guy like me and I went in and showed the world how good I really am with the record that I have, I think that would show the world that he’s a really good matchmaker.
“Anyone can get a 7-0 guy, you don’t need to know MMA for that, you only need to know how to count. Why don’t they get a math teacher to match the fights? He’s better at counting than Sean Shelby is,” Lobov jokes.
Two days after our meeting in Dublin, John Kavanagh revealed a private back and forth between him and someone who is rumored to be the matchmaker of the Zielinski bout, claiming the Pole saw Lobov as too much of a risk.
The messages read: “Adrian’s camp knows you very well from Kielek’s (sic) fight and they don’t want to risk Adrian’s belt. Adrian is one win from UFC and they don’t want to risk it.”
It seems the sit-down with Lobov would act as a prophesy to what would unfold over the next two days. With no willing dance partners it seems the SBG man will now wait in limbo for another last ditch call-up for an opponent.
With the TUF 22 tryouts, which will cater for lightweights and welterweights, to take place at the end of the month, Lobov could be the perfect mix of personality and ability the show would need. Known for his spectacular striking style, his carefree approach to fighting and ridiculously quick turnarounds between fights, it almost seems ideal.
Obviously, if victorious, the show would also grant the Russian a clear path to the big lights of the UFC’s stage—something that has proved frustratingly elusive for him thus far.
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