Thirteen years ago MMA was completely foreign to Gokhan Saki – he thought the acronym was for an insurance company.
That’s not a damning indictment of the sport considering it was still in its infancy in 2004 but it does give you an indication of Saki’s career trajectory.
Indeed, the 33-year-old will compete in MMA for just the second time this weekend, some 13 years on from his debut. But instead of fighting on a small promotion in the UK on very short notice, he’s making his first appearance for the world’s premier organisation as the UFC heads to Japan.
And he does so with the resume of a kickboxing legend, a former Glory light-heavyweight champion with close to 100 professional fights on his record and a brand of blurring speed and knockout power which is sure to light up the Octagon.
The Dutch-Turkish fighter, who lives in Dubai, faces Henrique Da Silva in a meeting at 205lbs and he is promising fireworks for a division which has lacked spark.
After a two-and-half-year absence from competition, a combination of promotional disputes and incentive keeping him away from fighting, Saki himself has been illuminated by this new challenge – one even he acknowledges is a little unexpected.
“I was just thinking about that (his 2004 MMA debut to now fighting for the UFC) the other day. Crazy, huh?” Saki tells Sport360.
Crazy, indeed because he represents an unusual signing by the UFC, given their penchant for acquiring young prospects rather than storied fighters such as Saki.
However, he’s a smart addition to the roster with his suffocating style sure to energise fans, but it has been some journey to get to this point considering the circumstances surrounding his 2004 debut.
“I was out with friends at 4am and got the call from my coach as I was walking out of a nightclub in Rotterdam,” Saki recalls. “He asked if I would replace a fighter who was injured for the main event and I was young, hungry and willing to fight anyone.
“I was on the plane at 8am and arrived in Liverpool and they told me it was an MMA fight. At first I thought it was an insurance company or something. I never trained for MMA and partied the night before but they showed me some tricks in the locker room and it helped me last for seven minutes.”
Since his MMA bow, Saki has armed himself with a catalogue of new tricks having trained with elite-level wrestlers and BJJ black belts over the last year. He makes no secret of his desire to become a UFC champion in 2018 and the road to gold begins in Japan.
His timing couldn’t be more perfect. The 205lbs division is in state of disarray with Jon Jones’ doping violation seeing him stripped of the title again after beating Daniel Cormier at UFC 214.
With Cormier reinstated, new challengers must emerge and Alexander Gustafsson is the only obvious contender right now.
It’s an ambition which has reignited a fire in “The Turkish Tyson” after his protracted pursuit of Glory heavyweight champion Rico Verhoeven proved fruitless, a fight he believes both the promotion and his Dutch counterpart wanted to avoid.
Now, he returns to fighting, uncaged and in the cage.
“There was no challenge in kickboxing anymore. That was the biggest reason for making this move,” he explains.
“I was not happy anymore. I didn’t have the hunger. Not to train or anything. So I stopped and I haven’t fought in nearly two and half a years but about a year ago I felt empty. I fought for 20 years and I didn’t finish my career in the right way. I missed fighting, even after so long doing it.
“I still have the power, the hunger and the energy. I’m happy again. There is no better way to come back than this way.
“In kickboxing there was one challenge (Verhoeven) but this guy didn’t want to fight me so the UFC came and now I’m ready to go.
“Rico is like my ex-girlfriend – I don’t want to talk about him. This is the new book I am opening in Japan. The old one is closed and I am ready to write a new chapter.”
Saki is not short of confidence. He doesn’t just shoulder the pressure of expectation but embraces and thrives on it. And he needs to, because the transition from kickboxing to MMA has been notoriously difficult and despite the Netherlands being a hotbed for some of the most dangerous strikers in the world, it’s failed to produce a UFC champion since Bas Rutten in 1999.
“I’m going to be the new Dutch champion 100 per cent,” he adds. “This time next year I will be the UFC champion, that is my aim and this is what I will make happen. I’m not going to waste a moment, taking breaks. I want to fight and work towards my goal.
“There’s no rust. My sparring is real fighting. My sparring is very often harder than what I have to do in the fight, especially now as I spar every day for 12 rounds. I’m a fighter and I’ve been doing this a long time so I don’t care about the time off. I will be the first Dutch champion since Bas Rutten and I will also be the UFC’s first Turkish champion.”
Back in his homeland, a country populated by sports fanatics, Saki is idolised. As the most successful fighter in Turkey’s history, he’s made friends with his fellow countrymen in the NBA and in Europe’s leading football leagues with the likes of Gokhan Tore sending him well wishes.
“I was a very good footballer. If I choose to play football then 100 per cent I would have been playing for Manchester United or Barcelona,” he says. “In kickboxing I became the Ronaldo or the Messi of the sport.
“Now it’s time to bring that to MMA.”
Saki faces Da Silva at UFC Fight Night 117 in Saitama this Saturday with the main card live and exclusive on OSN Sports Action 2HD from 06:00
I’ve lived in Dubai for three years and then the last year I was between here and Turkey, up and down. I started back training in Dubai but then there wasn’t enough in terms of facilities so I went to Sweden and trained at All Stars with Alexander (Gustafsson), Ilir (Latifi) and a lot of other MMA fighters there.
I’m a fighter, if someone will challenge me and if there is someone I want to fight then I will challenge them. If it’s a heavyweight, I don’t care, I’ll fight everybody. I fought Semmy Schilt, 230cm, 130kg so if you see that fight then you see I don’t care about size or who I am fighting. I’m open.
Fighting Daniel Ghita in Turkey (in 2013) and it’s also my favourite knockout. It was in front of my home people and a big KO like that, it was amazing. In Turkey that was the No1 and then Amsterdam Arena against Melvin Manhoef (in 2010) was also a very proud moment.
Decimated by the loss of its main event, UFC 215 wasn’t expected to deliver much as it competed with 208 for the year’s weakest PPV card.
But even without the significance of a historic night after Demetrious Johnson was cruelly denied his shot at breaking the consecutive successful title defence record following Ray Borg’s illness last week, the card still had plenty of pop.
Indeed, the Canadian crowd in Edmonton were treated to some stunning finishes and we pick out the top four storylines to have arisen from the event.
It was tactical, technical and at times a little tedious but Amanda Nunes successfully defended her bantamweight title and made it 2-0 against Valentina Shevchenko in the reshuffled main event.
The Brazilian edged another razor-thin decision against Shevchenko in a fight which saw a women’s 135lbs title fight go the full quota for the very first time.
A far cry from the beatdown she dished out on Ronda Rousey, Nunes was calculated and composed, recognising the challenger is dangerous.
Ultimately, she was safe, conserved her energy and power until deep into the fight and just did enough to squeak the decision, much to Shevchenko’s vexation.
It was a new side to the overwhelming destroyer as Nunes dispelled the criticism of her gas tank with a mature performance.
No-one can begrudge the champ of a more sheltered approach because we know she can throw down and now she moves onto new challengers who it will be hoped do more than Shevchenko to try and win.
Like a Pokemon evolution, former 125lbs title challenger Henry Cejudo levelled up his striking style to that of 155lbs champ Conor McGregor.
In arguably the most impressive performance of UFC 215, Cejudo dismantled Wilson Reis to launch himself into talk of another shot at Demetrious Johnson.
And he did it adopting the wide karate stance made famous by McGregor and Lyoto Machida – the latter playing a big role in his training camp.
It wasn’t just the stance which drew the comparisons with the Irishman, though, as Cejudo’s calm state and oblivious reactions to getting tagged were McGregor-like.
Even the deadpan look on his face was like McGregor and the finish was just as emphatic as he landed a blurring straight right in the second round to finish Reis.
Cejudo talked post-fight about his “evolution” and the Olympic gold medallist in wrestling has certainly developed. Whether it’s enough to avenge the first round KO he suffered to Johnson in April 2016 is a debate for another day.
“I’m coming.” @HenryCejudo
— UFC (@ufc) September 10, 2017
Another standout performer from UFC 215 was former lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos who made it 2-0 as a welterweight.
The Brazilian made short work of Neil Magny as he wrapped up an arm-triangle choke in the first frame to get his first submission win since 2012.
RDA gave up a staggering 10-inch reach advantage on Magny, but despite the physical discrepancies, looked not just at home in the 170lbs division but a potential candidate to join the exclusive two-weight champion club. The question now, is who is next for the 32-year-old?
Fortunately, he’s not short of options as the top-10 is littered with killers.
Donald Cerrone, who he decimated in a lightweight title fight, lies ahead of him in the rankings while the winner of Stephen Thompson/Jorge Masvidal at UFC 217 is an enticing prospect also.
There is one match-up which really salivates the mouth, however, and that is Robbie Lawler. Make it a title eliminator later this year and the UFC will have a strong set-up for the division in 2018.
The savagery Jeremy Stephens displayed in repeatedly attempting to dismember Gilbert Melendez’s legs was slightly overlooked because of his opponent’s brave ability to cling on for three rounds, despite huge knots forming on his shins from the ruthless leg kicks.
Like a perpetually swinging axe, Stephens completely dominated Melendez to take a unanimous decision, but we’ve been here before and an impressive victory is usually followed by a disappointing defeat.
‘Lil Heathen’ must deliver in his next fight if he’s to crack the featherweight top-five.
Conor McGregor has settled his business with boxing, likely banking $90million from his defeat to Floyd Mayweather.
The digits generated from the event are trending towards the billion-dollar mark and ultimately the fight will be viewed as nothing more than a transaction.
Indeed, the Irishman had no real right to be in the squared circle because his place of work resides in the cage.
And in the Octagon there is some unfinished business to attend to.
The UFC has a storied history of classic trilogies and either December 30 or 2018 will see another iconic rivalry added to the list because McGregor’s next opponent is a simple choice – it’s Nate Diaz.
The Irishman’s admirable performance against Mayweather had some sections of the media pinning their hopes on a return to the ring but the talk is nonsense because only the Diaz fight makes sense.
In terms of pay-per-view attractions, the UFC has hit the poverty line and McGregor is their only real bankable asset.
With the Mayweather clash reportedly amassing a global PPV audience of 6.5million, a fraction of that viewership will likely be buying a McGregor boxing bout again.
The UFC simply can’t afford his first fight back to have an anticlimactic feel and right now anyone at 155lbs – the division McGregor rules – falls into that category.
Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee scrap for the interim lightweight belt at UFC 216 next month but neither are close to reaching the PPV potential needed to entice McGregor, though that could change come October 7.
Looking at the landscape now, McGregor-Diaz III is the only sensible option. The backdrop is in place already and competitively the pair are tied at one apiece, McGregor claiming the rematch at UFC 202 after being submitted at UFC 196.
Fans are already invested and to the new ones segwaying into MMA from the Mayweather fight, it’s a narrative easy to sell and simple to pick up.
The guarantee of interest equates to a guarantee of PPV sales and no other fight at 155lbs offers that.
Of course, McGregor could move up to 170lbs and challenge for the unprecedented feat of a third belt but the logjam is bad enough as it is.
Even the Diaz clash presents its own problems. Indeed, the winner of Lee and Ferguson will naturally ascend to an undisputed title shot but the contextual element of Diaz could see him jump the queue.
And what if he wins?
The 32-year-old hasn’t fought since his defeat to McGregor in August 2016 and hasn’t shown any interest in changing that.
Only the trilogy would bring him back to the Octagon and a win would likely be the last we see of him because according to his boxing coach Richard Perez, he’s looking to be paid big to face McGregor.
“At least $20 million, $30 million,” he told Submission Radio when asked how much it would
“Come on. UFC’s making a whole lot of money, a whole lot of money and they’re pocketing it.
“They’re giving more to McGregor, so it’s not fair because it takes two in that ring to draw a crowd – I mean, a good two fighters.”
That figure might be the starting point of the negotiations and in reality they’ll meet somewhere in the middle. But the derision Diaz received from that figure being thrown out is misplaced.
He is taking advantage of the situation and he is in the perfect position to get the big money fight.
At the end of the day, that’s just good business and McGregor knows a thing or two about that.