Who the Hell is Ilir Latifi?

Ilir Latifi
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In which Chris tries to shed some light on the saviour of UFC Sweden, for the befuddled casual fan out there.

When news broke that Alexander Gustafsson might be out of his UFC on FUEL TV headline bout against Gegard Mousasi, the whole MMA world started brainstorming for a solution to save the main event.

Wanderlei Silva had all of us pretty much convinced it was him before admitting it was an April Fool’s joke, while fighters as disparate as Tom ‘Kong’ Watson, Cage Warriors Welterweight champion Cathal Pendred and Tom Lawlor all tossed their cap into the ring.

In the end, a few hours after Gustafsson’s injury was confirmed as ruling him out of the match the replacement was announced as Ilir ‘the Sledgehammer’ Latifi.

Who?

Well, that was my response, although the name did ring a bell (largely from having MMAViking.com bookmarked) he had never occurred to me as an option. I figured the UFC would have gone for an already contracted talent, perhaps even a middleweight, rather than plug a total newcomer into a feature match.

In retrospect, it made more sense to go for a fighter already in Sweden, already known to the Swedish regulators (who are very good by the way) and likely to carry the crowe’s support and interest in the absence of headliner and star-that-made-this-card-feasible, Gustafsson.

Latifi is an ideal candidate in all of those regards and while his name value isn’t great outside Sweden, his 7-2 record seems unremarkable and despite giving up a mighty seven inches and a lot of experience to Mousasi, but Latifi presents a clear and present danger to ‘the Dreamcatcher.’

Ranking as the #2 Light Heavyweight in the Nordic rankings, Latifi is riding a three fight win streak and boasts considerable grappling credentials outside of MMA his last bout was in the headliner of Superior Challenge 8 (Sweden’s top MMA organisation) in Malmo, ahead of UFC veterans like Marcus Davis, David Bielkeden and James McSweeney so he’s very much the kind of guy who’d have been getting this call soon anyway.

Looking at where and who he’s trained with (Gustafsson, Antonio ‘Bigfoot’ Silva) his grappling credentials and his standing in Sweden – which has a rich and competitive MMA scene – not to mention having the guts to step in with a competitor like Mousasi on a few days notice, Latifi is to be respected.

Viewing tape of his previous fights, his takedowns are strong, his ground and pound is a bit scary and his submission game is dangerous too.

He’s even scored a head kick knockout of an opponent boasting a similar height advantage to Mousasi and shoved another so hard into a ring post that the ring itself broke.

Sadly a NC on your record doesn’t quite reflect the truth of ‘breaking fighting area in badass fashion using opponent’s face.’

The fact that he’s been training with Gustafsson for this fight, probably emulating Mousasi in some fashion means he’s been mentally preparing for this fight for some time, and will undoubtedly be a lot more familiar with Mousasi’s game than vice versa.

Latifi campaigned for this match and has been rewarded with a remarkable opportunity to stake his claim for a place at MMA’s top table and you have to applaud Ilir for stepping up when more celebrated fighters might have said they didn’t have enough time to prepare or something similarly un-warriorlike.

Presenting a very different challenge to Mousasi (stocky, takedown and submission specialist, as opposed to Gustafsson’s rangy striking game) and with absolutely nothing to lose, I wouldn’t bet against Latifi for all the world on Saturday.

You see, I fully believe that the weight of narrative has a role to play in these things, as much as stats, preparation and all the betting odds in the world.

As the sagas tell us, ‘there are plenty of affairs full of danger to start with, that bring good luck in the end.’

The obvious comparison to make here is with Rocky and like the fictional Italian Stallion, Latifi has made his mark purely by turning up. If he puts on a good, gutsy performance and pushes Mousasi, he will have exceeded all reasonable expectations and have a place in MMA history.

If he wins (and he very well could) then we’ll have seen the apotheosis of a new superstar of Swedish MMA.

Damn, it’s things like this that make me LOVE this sport…

Photo Credit to Ryan O’Leary of MMA Viking, via Sherdog.com

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