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Ilia Topuria: UFC’s rising star has a question for you

Interview: The unbeaten featherweight looks to take another step towards the UFC title on Saturday, as he takes on Josh Emmett

Alex Pattle
Combat Sports Correspondent
Thursday 22 June 2023 11:11 BST
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Ilia Topuria has a question for you. Actually, he has a few.

“Do you know how good I am?” is the first. Initially, I’m not quite sure whether I should answer on your behalf. He asks again. “Do you know how good I am?” To my relief, he quickly follows up. “I can submit him, I can knock him out. I can do with him whatever I want.”

The German-born Georgian, fighting out of Spain, is not actually talking about Josh Emmett – whom he faces in a UFC Fight Night main event on Saturday. Rather, he is reflecting on his win against Bryce Mitchell. In December, Topuria submitted the submission specialist to the surprise of many, and that is why he asks: “Do you know how good I am?”

It is also why he asks: “Do you know how dangerous my takedowns are, how dangerous my ground game is?” I had entered our interview presuming I would be asking the questions, but by this point, the unbeaten featherweight might have overtaken me. “I don’t care what people say about me,” he adds. “People were talking like: ‘He’s good on the ground’. I’ve been a black belt since I was 20 years old. For me, there’s no surprise if I submit Bryce Mitchell or anyone in my division. I know that I can finish anyone. Brazilian jiu-jitsu grappling is my world.”

As the conversation turns to Emmett, the next obstacle in Topuria’s way as he hones in on a title shot, the 26-year-old has even more questions. “With Josh, people say: ‘His right hand is so dangerous.’ Do you know how dangerous my right hand is? Do you know how dangerous my left hand is?”

The answers to all of Topuria’s questions are found fairly easily, so any frustration he has towards those fans who have missed them is understandable. Twelve of the Georgian’s 13 professional wins have coming via stoppage – eight by submission and four by knockout. Nine months before Topuria entered the featherweight top 10 with his arm-triangle choke against Mitchell, he knocked out Jai Herbert on the Briton’s home soil in London. After surviving a knockdown from a picture-perfect head kick, Topuria melted Herbert with a singing left hook to the liver and a molten right hand to the chin.

Topuria celebrates his stunning knockout of Jai Herbert last year (Kieran Cleeves/PA) (PA Wire)

While that bout took place at lightweight, it registered as a message to all UFC featherweight contenders when Topuria later dropped into the division. And, now done asking questions, Topuria has a message for you: “Shut up. Just watch the fight and enjoy.”

Topuria will certainly enjoy his clash with Emmett in Jacksonville this weekend, as he looks to hand the American, 38, a second straight defeat, four months after Emmett lost to Yair Rodriguez with the interim featherweight belt on the line.

“When I’m in the ring, I’m really happy and really thankful to God,” Topuria tells The Independent, “because I asked him to put me in this position. It was my goal to become a UFC champion, and this is the way I have to pass. When I go inside the cage, I feel very happy to have that opportunity, because I have the chance to fight for my dreams, and right now there are a lot of people in hospitals, [fighting] for their lives.

“I’m working for my happiness every day. When I wake up, I’m not happy just for something I did in the past; I can’t live off that for my whole life. I’m just focused on myself and achieving my goals. I don’t care about anyone else – just me, my family, and my friends. That’s it.”

Topuria en route to a submission win over Bryce Mitchell in December (Getty Images)

Among the small group dearest to Topuria is his three-year-old son – already a “man”, in his father’s words.

“He knows [what I do], he knows,” Topuria says. “He calls me every day, supporting me. He speaks perfectly. He’s a man. I don’t know if he’s gonna do MMA. If that’s the call [he makes], I’ll support him in anything he chooses in this life.

“If he wants to fight, I’m gonna support him; if he wants to... I don’t know... study, I’m gonna support him. If it makes him happy, I don’t care. Go for that, because in this life, people are always looking for success. What’s success for me? Success is when you’re happy with yourself, that’s it.”

In that sense, Topuria is already a very successful man. Winning the UFC featherweight title would only reaffirm that fact.

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