Fighters love to tell stories about how they were savages back when they were kids. Their eyes light up when they talk about getting suspended for fighting in the lunchroom or that knockdown drag-out by the willow trees after school, and the stories are told with biographical myth making in mind: Of course I ended up fighting as a job, because I was always a badass.
The best of these legends is the one that trailed former PRIDE FC fighter Igor "Ice Cold" Vovchanchyn, a stubby kickboxer who once went at least 37 fights between losses and scrambled many brains during that span. The story goes that Vovchanchyn was such a feared little tyrant back in the Ukrainian town where he grew up that citizens rang a bell when he was in a bad mood to warn the rest of the town of the havoc he was going to inflict. You want to believe it because it's so awesome, but it's just not true. "No, this is just a joke," Vovchanchyn said during an interview years later. "There was a bell though."
But judging by rumblings on social media, Vovchanchyn might return to actually destroy once again. On Instagram earlier this week, Rizin Fighting Federation CEO Nobuyuki Sakakibara posted four frames of a greying Vovchanchyn apparently back in training, along with caption teasing his interest in seeing the Ukrainian's return to Japan this year.
The post came days after UFC heavyweight Alexey Oleynik posted a picture of Vovchanchyn after he paid a visit.
Like Bas Rutten or Mario Sperry, Igor Vovchanchyn is one of the folk heroes of MMA's late 90s pubescence, a tree stump of a man whose absurd punching power carried him further than most heavyweights who didn't fit the NCAA-wrestler-who-could-have-been-Mr.-Olympia mold. He was like a refined Tank Abbott with a boyish face and without the nasty (grown-up) reputation. He also has one of the most "Now That's What I Call 90s MMA" moments on his résumé: in 1995, Vovchanchyn advanced deep into the 32-man Absolute Fighting Championship tournament in part by knocking out the same opponent twice in two consecutive fights, before eventually getting submitted via "chin in the eye," that calling card of the no-holds-barred era.
But Vovchanchyn became a victor of several subsequent NHB tournaments, coming out on top at events in Israel and Brazil before taking his talents to Japan in 1999. In PRIDE, his greatest accolade came at the 2000 Grand Prix when he beat three successive opponents—including Japanese icon Kazushi Sakuraba—before getting stopped by Mark Coleman in the finals. Win or lose, however, Vovchanchyn was never an easy out for anyone during his six years in the promotion. He beat Mark Kerr in his prime, and against Enson Inoue, Vovchanchyn’s haymakers exacted a heavy toll on one of the most iron-willed competitors in mixed martial arts. "I sustained a broken jaw, fractured finger, perforated eardrum, swollen brain, a liver count 2000x the normal person and spent 2 days in intensive care," Inoue later said of the outcome of the fight.
That brutal bout prefaced Vovchanchyn's decline. While he wasn’t quite chewed up and spit out by PRIDE and he was always a threat to knock out his opponents, he was a diminished fighter over whom rising stars like Quinton Jackson, Heath Herring, and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic notched key wins. By 2005, after some 63 kickboxing bouts and a 65-fight—or more, depending on which fight record you go by—MMA career that ended with losses to Alistair Overeem and Kazuhiro Nakamura, Vovchanchyn left professional fighting to become a restaurateur. A fight with Wanderlei Silva during PRIDE's final blaze of glory and a 2009 return bout were both rumors that never came to fruition. Injuries, including a particularly bad one in his right hand, meant he would probably stay retired. Even if he returns injury free, there's no illusion of 43-year-old Igor Vovchanchyn putting his division on notice. If he returns, it will be purely for nostalgia: to knock someone out in a setting like the one he left 11 years ago.
This is where we talk about why that's a bad idea. This is where we lament the cannibalization of MMA’s past instead of laying down track for the future, where we point out that MMA in Japan is treading water, where we recall that the allure of watching greying legends compete tends to disappear with the sound of the opening bell. But if Igor Vovchanchyn wants to fight again in Japan, maybe it's better to just ring that bell and for everyone else to get out of the way.
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