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UFD Gym: The rising German team looking to become a global giant

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The gym was founded in 2013 and the owners’ eventual aim is for the facility to be renowned worldwide due to the high-level talent it produces.

Ivan Dijakovic

Those who are familiar and in tune with the European scene will know that one of the teams who have had a noticeable impact in the territory recently is UFD Gym. Based in Dusseldorf, Germany, the facility is home to fighters in some of the biggest promotions around the world and they are having a very successful run as of late.

Whether its been Roberto Soldic knocking opponents unconscious in KSW, David Zawada submitting a member of the Nurmagomedov family in the UFC or Loik Radzhabov making his way to the PFL 2019 season lightweight final, the gym is starting to have their presence felt on the international stage. The brains behind the operation hope that this is only the beginning.

Ivan Dijakovic founded the gym alongside his brother in 2013 and has always had an interest in combat sports. As a teenager, Dijakovic started boxing before later pursuing MMA but in Germany during that time, the sport was only known on the underground. He knew that if he wanted to progress in MMA, he’d have to have a change of scenery.

In 2005, Dijakovic went to Croatia in order to train with Mirko Cro Cop and his team, hoping to become a professional fighter. Unfortunately for Dijakovic, he had to return to Germany only six months later because his father was seriously ill. He had developed cancer and was only given a 20% chance of survival by doctors, so Dijakovic was left with no choice but to quit the sport. Due to the fact his father was no longer able to work, Dijakovic had to get a job with regular income to support and feed his family.

Thankfully, his father survived but it took Dijakovic a while to find his way back to the combat sports world. Around four years after he had returned back home to Germany, Dijakovic’s friend asked him to take care of a boxer called Ante Bilic. Dijakovic’s goal was to find a promoter for the boxer and he felt confident he could do that because of the contacts he had made from his training days. He found Bilic a promoter but decided he wanted to be part of his boxing journey too, so became his manager in order to guide Bilic’s career. The boxer became a WBO European champion in 2012.

Around that same time, an MMA fighter called Nick Salchow sought Dijakovic’s help to assist him with his own martial arts journey. The pair knew each other from training Luta Livre together in the past so Dijakovic helped him train and looked for fights he could participate in. It was this moment that was a key milestone in changing the trajectory of Dijakovic’s whole life.

“On July 1 2013, I decided to open up my own gym called the University of Fighting Dusseldorf,” recalled Dijakovic. “I focused entirely on managing the facility and we grew relatively quickly. We moved to a larger gym in May 2016 and filled it out but we wanted to change the name. After some discussion, we called it the UFD Gym and since then, my brother Tomislav and I run it together. He takes care of the general members while I look after all of the professionals.”

The gym is home to a number of well-known fighters on the European scene including Martin & David Zawada, Roberto Soldic and Antun Racic. In fact, all of those competitors, apart from Soldic, arrived at the gym coming off of losses. Many have stated that current KSW welterweight champion, Soldic, is one of the hottest prospects on the continent. He arrived at UFD Gym with three fights at aged nineteen, and Dijakovic has carefully guided his career since that point, knowing the potential he has. Soldic has only lost three times but Dijakovic believes some of those losses should never have happened.

“When he fought Marko Radakovic, Soldic was ahead after two rounds but before the third, Radakovic didn’t want to fight anymore,” claimed Dijakovic. “Out of nowhere, the referee said that the home fighter (Radakovic) won. That was something I’d never seen before in my life and still haven’t! Soldic also lost to Dricus Du Plessis in KSW but that was my fault. He had difficulties with the weight cut and I should never have let him compete. That was a big mistake on my part but in the rematch Soldic showed who the real champion was.”

Many moments stand out to Dijakovic as being significant milestones in the gym’s history so far. Soldic becoming KSW welterweight champion by finishing Borys Mankowski, who hadn’t lost in the weight class for four years, is one of them and he was delighted to see Abus Magomedov and Loik Radzhabov reach PFL finals. Other standout occasions for Dijakovic include Antun Racic claiming the inaugural KSW bantamweight championship and on the same night, David Zawada got his first win in the UFC when he submitted Abubakar Nurmagomedov by triangle choke.

“I arrived at the facility about seven years ago before we were known as UFD Gym,” said David Zawada. “Back then, I was looking for a different place to train and decided I would try this new gym out. I’m still a member of the team now. It’s a great place to work because our coaches are awesome and we have all of the equipment we need.”

“The team never shy away from a challenge which is why I think we have been doing so well recently,” continued Zawada. “Also, we do a lot to help develop amateur fighters on their own journey. One of our aims is to create a future for them so they can live easily and train in MMA without other distractions.”

Boxers fight out of UFD Gym as well so when Agit Kabayel overcame Dereck Chisora in 2017, Dijakovic knew the team could be successful over multiple disciplines. Further confirmation of the progress the gym is making came a few weekends ago, when they were voted as the best German MMA team in the past 10 years by a national combat sports entity.

According to Dijakovic, although the MMA scene in Germany is growing faster and faster, it’s still not comparable to Poland or England. However, he believes they will get there in the next few years partly due to the fact more athletes with links to the country are competing in the world’s biggest organisations. Dijakovic highlighted that German MMA events are getting popular and they draw a good crowd because of the rising interest in the sport. He is very confident in saying that MMA has arrived in Germany and it’s now more accepted as a sport than ever before.

“I definitely think that UFD Gym has helped develop the sport in the country,” mentioned Martin Zawada. “We represent Germany worldwide and get good results on some of the biggest shows around. Many of us in the team have grown as a group together for quite some time. To add to this, a lot of guys visit us to train so we have no choice but to step up to their high-level in order to be competitive.”

Ivan Hippolyte is the MMA head coach at UFD Gym and he has an illustrious history in combat sports himself. At the age of seventeen, he started kickboxing under Johan Vos and trained alongside the likes of Ernesto Hoost and Lucia Rijker. Hippolyte got into kickboxing because he believed the discipline had a big impact on fight culture back in the 1980’s and it was relatively unknown then, which made it very interesting to him. He has many kickboxing accolades including being a five time Dutch champion, three time European champion and he ruled over his weight category as a world champion for ten years.

As is the case for many combat athletes, once their fighting days are done, the natural progression is to remain in the sport as a coach. This is the exact path that Hippolyte followed but, unlike others, he has been able to guide fighters over two different sports. Kickboxing will always be close to his heart but he eventually made the move over to MMA and has taught some of the sport’s biggest names much of what he knows.

“When I first began coaching, I stuck to my bread and butter which was kickboxing,” discussed Hippolyte. “The most notable name I trained over there was Remy Bonjasky and I worked with him for about four years. Gilbert Yvel was the very first MMA fighter I coached and after him, I trained Mirko Cro Cop for three years. In 2017, I received a call from Ivan Dijakovic asking me if I’d like to join UFD Gym as one of the main coaches. I went to see what it was like, observed that there were some great professionals to work with and decided to stay.”

Three years later, Hippolyte is still going strong and it has been suggested that his coaching could have played a big part in the team’s recent successful run. If any new fighter wants to join the gym, Hippolyte puts them to the test in order to see if they are ready and would be of benefit to the whole gym. He believes that a team cannot exist with only champions, but it absolutely can with soldiers.

“I want my fighters to be intelligent and use the power of their brains during bouts to get the job done,” stated Hippolyte. “Every fighter in my team must work hard on their stamina and have no complaints during sessions. They must also respect others. Of course, I love to work with every individual on their overall MMA striking technique.”

Hippolyte’s mission since day one of joining UFD Gym was to bring the fighters the discipline and hard culture of the Dutch Muay Thai style. He thinks that everyone should suffer during training sessions and explained that lots of ‘hard-sparring’ takes place. However, Hippolyte expects the team to be responsible for each other’s safety and makes sure they are careful to not inflict any significant damage on their peers. He is of the opinion that if fighters go easy with their training partners, that won’t make them champions. This is a philosophy he lives by every day and indicated it is one of the factors which has made the team so successful.

“Our recent positive achievements really are down to the whole gym,” explained Hippolyte. “The fighters feel really happy around each other and they know there is no place for egos here. Over and over again, the managers (Ivan and Tomislav) and myself throw it in the team’s faces that there is no room for playing here. The MMA world is a rough and tough place to be. In order to work your way up, you must support those around you.”

The head coach highlighted two members of the team who fans should keep their eyes on closely as under-the-radar ‘ones to watch’. They are the PFL 2018 season middleweight finalist, Abus Magomedov, and Cage Warriors veteran, Joilton Lutterbach, who has victories over Craig White and Alex Lohore. Hippolyte stated that they are both talented and hardworking competitors but just need more opportunities.

“We have a special flavour at the gym where everyone feels like family,” said Roberto Soldic. “The team have always had great trainers but since Ivan Hippolyte became our MMA head coach, our skills have really improved. UFD Gym is the only team around the world who have two KSW champions so there is no doubt that we are progressing the sport in Germany.”

“Training at UFD Gym is like being in the army,” noted Antun Racic. “We all push each other in every session so that is the reason why we are always so ready. I believe that UFD Gym is the best MMA team in the whole of Europe.”

In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, UFD Gym face all of the same hardships facilities around the world are. Dijakovic acknowledges that almost every gym owner is in a similar position to try and keep the disruption caused to a minimum. He hopes that the MMA world can get back to usual as soon as possible so his fighters can get back to pursuing their own dreams. When his athletes can resume training after the global pandemic, the whole team will group together once again to achieve Dijakovic’s ultimate goal.

“I want UFD Gym to be known and recognised worldwide for our combined achievements. Our great fighters deserve a wider fan-base and we can help them on their way to that by striving to improve in all aspects of the business. Our main target is to have a UFC champion from UFD Gym. That would be the perfect validation for everyone involved with the team.”