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Shamil Gaziev of Russia rests between rounds during the UFC 296 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Brooke Sutton/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
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SHAMIL GAZIEV OUT TO SHOW HIS LEVEL

UFC Sophomore Intent On Proving He Belongs In The Heavyweight Top 15 With Win Over Jairzinho Rozenstruik On Saturday

While the UFC made its first trip to the United Arab Emirates all the way back in 2010, it has only been within the last decade that the Persian Gulf region has become a hot bed for mixed martial arts activities, with the Kingdom of Bahrain quickly establishing itself as one of the leaders in this expansion and growth.

From establishing the KHK Fight Team and forging an amateur system designed to cultivate talent to running events under the Brave Combat Federation banner, Bahrain has been building towards being a powerhouse on the MMA landscape for a number of years, and now individuals developed through that infrastructure are beginning to turn up on the biggest stages in the sport, including the UFC Octagon.

“My childhood friend Eldar (Eldarov) became head coach of Bahrain national MMA team,” began Shamil Gaziev, the undefeated heavyweight prospect who headlines this weekend’s return to the UFC APEX opposite Jairzinho Rozenstruik, explaining how he came to train in the island nation. “In 2017, he invited me for training camp in Bahrain to help local guys in preparation.

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“I liked the atmosphere in the team, the people, the country; everyone was very friendly to me,” continued Gaziev. “After camp, I got an offer to represent Bahrain in the IMMAF amateur world championships in 2018.”

Gaziev competed as an amateur through 2019, amassing a 7-2 record and multiple regional IMMAF titles, earning all of his victories by stoppage before turning pro in 2020. The wins and finishes kept coming, and after running his record to a perfect 10-0 as a professional with a first-round stoppage win over UFC veteran Darko Stosic at Brave CF 69 early last year, the hulking heavyweight, originally from Dagestan, was invited to compete on Season 7 of Dana White’s Contender Series.

The first punch he threw put Greg Velasco on the canvas just eight seconds into the bout, and while the American was able to quickly take Gaziev’s back, it wasn’t long before the undefeated heavyweight was able to turn into top position and go on the offensive. He passed the guard effortlessly and then climbed into mount, forcing Velasco to give up his back, where the choke came quickly, ending the fight.

As strong as his contract-winning effort was, Gaziev’s UFC debut three months later was even more impressive.

For his first foray into the Octagon, Gaziev was paired off with fellow DWCS grad Martin Buday, who entered on a 12-fight winning streak, having registered those last four victories since matriculating to the UFC. After eking out tepid decisions in his first three outings, the Slovakian heavyweight was coming off his most impressive performance to date — a first-round submission win over Josh Parisian that finally started earning him some buzz as a fighter to watch in the heavyweight ranks.

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Gaziev wasn’t bothered in the least.

Shamil Gaziev of Russia knees Martin Buday of Slovakia in a heavyweight fight during the UFC 296 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Shamil Gaziev of Russia knees Martin Buday of Slovakia in a heavyweight fight during the UFC 296 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Kicking off the UFC 296 fight card at T-Mobile Arena, the debutant took the fight to Buday, stinging him right out of the chute and continuing to press forward behind his sharp striking from there. Midway through his first UFC round, Gaziev had Buday leaking crimson, opening him up to the point that referee Mark Smith called time to have the doctor examine the cut over his eye.

Buday was allowed to continue, but Gaziev was unrelenting, and while the tandem worked into the second round, the newcomer dispatched his streaking foe less than a minute into the middle frame, extending his record to 12-0 with his first UFC victory.

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“I felt responsibility,” Gaziev said of his first UFC Fight Week experience in December. “A lot of people were supporting me; from Bahrain, from Dagestan, from other parts of the world.

“I think it was good start,” he added when asked about his performance. “He is a good finisher and he was Top 15 at that time. I’m happy with the result.”

While Gaziev may only be happy with the result, it’s clear that the UFC was quite impressed, as after just a single appearance and victory inside the Octagon, the 34-year-old has been put into a main event pairing with Rozenstruik this weekend as the action returns to the UFC APEX.

Shamil Gaziev of Russia secures a rear choke submission against Greg Velasco in a heavyweight fight during Dana White's Contender Series season seven, week seven at UFC APEX on September 19, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Shamil Gaziev of Russia secures a rear choke submission against Greg Velasco in a heavyweight fight during Dana White's Contender Series season seven, week seven at UFC APEX on September 19, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

The 35-year-old kickboxer from Suriname had a dynamic rookie campaign in 2019, running his record to 10-0 by posting four victories, capped by a buzzer-beater finish against Alistair Overeem. Since then, “Bigi Boy” has struggled to find consistent success, posting just a 3-5 record, though his losses during that stretch have come against a former undisputed champion, a former interim titleholder, and three additional Top 10 talents.

He is, without question, the most experienced and dangerous opponent Gaziev has faced to date, and the UFC sophomore is eager to see how he measures up this weekend.

“When I got the call from my coach, I said, ‘yes’ immediately,” Gaziev said when asked about the pairing with Rozenstruik. “It’s a great chance to jump into the rankings and fight (against the) elite of our division.

“I am doing five rounds of sparring two times a week for a long time,” he said of his preparations for Saturday’s contest. “(But) it’s not something new for me. I feel that it’s time to show that I’m here to fight big names and main events, and I’m ready for it.

“He looks tough,” Gaziev added regarding Rozenstruik. “How tough, we will know on March 2nd.”

Shamil Gaziev of Russia and his team pose for a portrait after his victory during the UFC 296 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Shamil Gaziev of Russia and his team pose for a portrait after his victory during the UFC 296 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

Very seldom do competitors rocket into the main event spotlight this quickly into their UFC career, but the decision to thrust Gaziev into a matchup like this as the final fight of the evening is recognition of both the work he has already done, and the upside he appears to possess going forward.

Though heavyweights tend to have a longer shelf life than their lighter weight contemporaries, the fact that Gaziev is already 34 years old makes this decision all the more understandable. Rather than slowly bringing him along in pairings against other DWCS grads and veterans that have perpetually resided outside of the rankings, matching him up with Rosenstruik this quickly will provide an instant understanding of where he fits within the division.

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And Gaziev is ready to show that he deserves to be stationed inside the Top 15 and regarded as one of the top talents in the UFC heavyweight ranks.

“It will show my level,” he said when asked what a victory on Saturday would mean to him. “When you beat strong guys (that are) not ranked, you still don’t get that credit, but now I have a good chance to show my level to the MMA world.”

UFC Fight Night: Rozenstruik vs Gaziev took place live from UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 2, 2024. See the final Prelims and Main Card results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass