More than 5000 miles separate the Republic of Georgia and New York City, a huge distance to travel culturally, spiritually, and physically. But the world's top heavyweight MMA prospect plans on making that trip this July to defend his M-1 Global heavyweight title against all challengers. Guram Gugenishvili is coming to America.
"It’ll be my first time in the USA," Gugenishvili told Bloody Elbow in an exclusive interview. While he's interested in testing his skills against the world's best, he isn't feeling much pressure. That comes in front of his home fans, in the war torn country of Georgia. "Although it is exciting, it doesn’t matter which country I’m fighting in. I feel a greater sense of responsibility to my country when I’m fighting in Georgia (than I do fighting anywhere else)."
Georgia, as the song says, is on Gugenishvili's mind. It's where he grew up and where he lives in Tbilisi, the beautiful capitol on the Kura River. The Georgians have long been a martial people. The Roman Empire, in the midst of conquering the world, home of the best soldiers the planet had ever seen, stopped to take note of the physical training in Georgia. Today, Guram trains mostly in Kiev and Donetsk, hundreds of miles north in the Ukraine.
"I’m provided with everything I need – a modern gym, modern equipment, a good ring and a tatami," Gugenishvili said. He's recently switched camps in the Ukraine, moving from MakFighting in Kiev to a new home called Aris, nine hours south in Donetsk. The most important things, however, have remained the same. "My main coach always was and still is Ioseb Koberidze...There’s no special secret to the training – I invest time, practice and hard work."
In his recent list of the top MMA prospects in the world, Bloody Elbow's Leland Roling called Gugenishvili the best young heavyweight in the world. It all boiled down to one word. Potential:
He's a 6'5", 250 lb. fighter who is only 24 years old and has won eleven consecutive fights. He has an incredible takedown game, a relentless work rate from the top, brutal ground and pound, and the classic Soviet intangible of survivability. All of those skills combined make him one of the most dangerous ground fighters in the division.
Those skills have earned him nine submission wins in a 13 fight career. All of them have targeted the neck, seven of them wins by rear naked choke. Yet, Guram isn't looking specifically for that or any submission. Perhaps that's the secret of success? He puts himself in position to win fights. The rest is just executing his training.
"I leverage my freestyle wrestling techniques with combat sambo and this is a good combination to secure advantageous positions," he explains. "During the fight I’m not really looking for a submission, I’m just trying to make strategic moves to win. As it happens, most of my moves are earning me submission wins."
Of course, no fighter is without weaknesses. In Roling's mind, Gugenishvili's major flaws are all in the standup game. When asked about the deficiencies, Guram doesn't bristle like many fighters. He recognizes the need for improvement. It's one of the things coach Ioseb Koberidze likes most about the young fighter.
"As a coach, you can’t teach someone the qualities of hard work and determination; these are instinctive and are by far two of Guram’s largest strengths. He is also strong-willed, smart and critical of his progress, which is also good," Koberidze said. A veteran martial artist, Koberidze describes his own fighting career as running the martial arts triathlon. Grappling, karate, and Muay Thai boxing have all been major parts of his life for as long as he can remember - and he's working hard to pass on his accumulated knowledge to his pupil. "I think that right now Guram is doing extremely well but there is a great deal of room to improve. He needs to improve his wrestling, his submissions and his striking. We are diligently training free-style wrestling, sambo and striking techniques; boxing and Muay Thai are also being focused on separately. We train hard and step by step we are raising his level in different fighting styles and making him evolve into a versatile MMA fighter."
The mental game after the break
It's a truism in sports that much of the game is mental. Many athletes have the physical tools to succeed. A select few have the will power to keep going when times get hard, not just surviving, but actually thriving on adversity. We've seen it with Russian star Fedor Emelianenko. Rolling believes he sees it in Guram Gugenishvili as well, describing any fight featuring the rising star as "chaotic".
"I’ve learned that while fighting I’m not the only one who is expending energy – my opponent is expending energy as well. We both are getting tired. And that’s the exact time when I have to be more resistant and durable" Guram said. "It might sound a little funny, but I’ll tell you a story from when I was a kid. I had a pit-bull dog. I really loved that dog; I spent a lot of time with it and trained it well to protect. I was observing his moves and making conclusions. You have to always soberly assess the situation, go forward, not to do anything superfluous and never think about losing. My point is that ‘psychology’ is extremely important in fighting – I always step in the ring assured I am going to win; there is no ‘maybe’ or ‘what if’. All there is ‘win’ and ‘do it’."
It's this drive that pushes him through bad situations, the times when it would be easy to give up the fight. It's also slowly making him a star in his native Georgia, although both fighter and trainer are quick to explain that MMA still hasn't reached the mainstream consciousness of sports fans in either Georgia or the Ukraine. The famous Klitschko brothers, two heavyweight boxers, are the most famous combat sports athletes in the region. MMA isn't on that level. But it's getting there.
"We perform under 2 flags – Ukrainian and Georgian. Guram is a citizen of Georgia and he is a patriot of his motherland. It’s a great honor for him to fight not only for Georgia but for Ukraine as well – the countries he deeply respects. To become a great fighter Guram needs to continue working hard, something which he knows, understands and accepts," Koberidze explains. "After Guram’s last win, we did a great job working with the TV-journalists in Georgia and the results are good – the whole of Georgia knows who Guram is and what M-1 Global is. When we will organize Guram’s fight in Georgia the sport-hall will be overcrowded. I can say that Guram is famous in Georgia already and he deserves it. We also are working with M-1 Ukraine in the same direction, where Guram is getting more popular as well."
Then the trainer laughs.
"But he is not even close to the Klitschkos yet."