LAS VEGAS — Rafael Fiziev has turned into one of the UFC’s most exciting fighters. He’s Justin Gaethje Light, if you will.
Fiziev is one of the sport’s finest strikers, and entered his fight with Gaethje at UFC 286 on March 18 having won a post-fight bonus in his previous five fights. It was a no-brainer he’d increase that to six against Gaethje, and he won Fight of the Night despite dropping a majority decision victory.
He was proud of how he fought — he fought on even terms most of the way with one of the sport’s finest finishers — but he wasn’t pleased with the way he reacted to the crowd.
The crowd at the packed O2 Arena in London was so into the fight that Fiziev engaged more and more. His style played into Gaethje’s hands and Gaethje pulled away down the stretch to win.
“I followed my fire and I followed the screaming [fans] inside the arena,” Fiziev told Yahoo Sports. “Whenever I tried to do something, I could hear the screaming of the fans. They wanted more and more and I wanted more and more to show them, and I just followed my fire. It’s something I learned from, for sure.”
Fiziev, who is ranked No. 6 at lightweight, will face No. 7 Mateusz Gamrot on Saturday at Apex in the main event of UFC Vegas 79. While there won’t be the kind of crowd there that there was in London to urge him on, Fiziev is confident he’ll be different the next time he’s in that situation.
He admitted in his 2021 fight against Bobby Green in Houston that he also was influenced by the crowd’s roars, but he pulled that fight out.
When his eagerness to put on a show cost him a win, he knew it was time to learn a lesson.
“None of us goes in there and thinks we’re going to allow that to happen,” he said of being influenced by the crowd. “But the [adrenaline] is going and everyone is screaming and your competitiveness kicks in and you wind up falling into that trap. My style, I’m always going to have exciting fights, but I have to fight my fight. And that’s why experience is beneficial, because I learned from that [Gaethje] fight how to deal with it.”
Gamrot is unlikely to want to stand toe-to-toe in the pocket with Fiziev and throw hands. He’s one of the best wrestlers and grapplers in the division and likely will try to get the fight to the floor.
Fiziev has faced that kind of a fighter all of his life. He said he began doing MMA when he was 13 or 14 and even then, his opponents looked to put him on his back.
Gamrot averages 4.54 takedowns per 15 minutes and only has a takedown accuracy of 31 percent, so it’s obvious he spends a lot of time trying to get the fight to the floor. Fiziev is not known for his wrestling, but his takedown defense is 90 percent.
“He’s got great wrestling, that’s obvious,” Fiziev said. “He’s going to try to do what almost everyone I’ve ever fought tries to do: Take me down. I understand this. I am prepared for this kind of an attack. But I’ve fought against this for so long, I understand it.
“He’s one of the best wrestlers at lightweight, but I truly believe … that I can stop him from [taking me down]. And I know if I can stop him on Saturday, I can stop everybody in the division in this direction.”
So he’s prepared to do what he has to do to keep the fight standing. Given he’s won three Fight of the Night and three Performance of the Night bonuses in his last six outings, he’s proven to be good at taking the fight where he wants it to be.
But it was something of a coming-out party against Gaethje. Gaethje was the known commodity, ‘The Human Highlight,’ and Fiziev put on a great show against him.
He lost, but fans who didn’t realize how good he was at striking got a first-hand look. And at the end of the day, that means money. Last week at Noche UFC, Gaethje appeared on the video board and a huge roar went up among the 18,766 fans in attendance at T-Mobile Arena. His history of epic fights has made him one of the most popular fighters in the sport.
That’s the way Fiziev is trending, and ultimately, it means money.
“I think about that and I know what that means,” Fiziev said. “I want people to remember me. Think about the ‘Korean Zombie,’ and look at that crowd in his last fight. He was never a champion, but the crowd loved him because of the way he fought.
“That is one of my goals. I want to stay around a long time and have people loving my fights and talking about them that way. And I think I’m going in the right direction to [do that].”
It’s especially true if he can continue to keep his fights primarily standing. Everyone loves a slugfest and few deliver better in that regard than Rafael Fiziev.