The quiet, miraculous return of Blagoi Ivanov

Bellator

There was a time when Blagoi Ivanov rained on Vladimir Putin’s parade. This was back in Nov. 2008, when the president of Russia was on hand to award the country’s monk-like national treasure, Fedor Emelianenko, his gold for the world sambo championships in St. Petersburg. In those days, Fedor was always accompanied by orchestral swells, because -- as heroes go -- he didn’t lose at anything.

But there stood in his way an obstacle in the semifinals round, a hulking and relatively unknown Bulgarian who proved to be an immoveable object even for the mighty Fedor.

"Blagoi was the 22-year old that came out of nowhere, nobody knew who he was," says Ivanov’s manager and interpreter, Ivaylo Gotzev. "When he beat up Fedor Emelianenko, who was considered invincible, Blagoi was the He-Man in his beloved sambo, where he was undefeated for so many years. Putin was supposed to award Fedor his championship that day, and Blagoi stopped him in his tracks. That’s where Blagoi’s name came up."

Ivanov would end up beating Germany’s Janosch Stefan for the gold, and Putin was left without a ceremony for Emelianenko. That night in St. Petersburg was as dark and grim as anything that had ever come off of Dostoevski’s quill.

At the same time, Ivanov was already making a name for himself in MMA. After the Fedor feat, he became a bit of a star in his native Bulgaria. And it wasn’t long before the grand surveillancers of eastern European MMA talent, Bellator, signed Ivanov to a deal.

Ivanov made good in his stateside debut, needing less than three minutes to dispose of William Penn at Bellator 38 via TKO. He followed that up by choking out Zak Jensen at Bellator 52 in October 2011. On Christmas Eve of that same year, Ivanov slowly battered one of the UFC’s past glories, Ricco Rodriguez, who was the heavyweight champion for a brief few moments in the early-Zuffa days.

"That wasn’t one of my better fights," Ivanov says. "The styles weren’t right, and Ricco didn’t really want to put up a fight. He was trying to be tricky and not fight, trying to clinch and grapple -- he wasn’t really looking to get into a fight."

Even if it was unspectacular, Ivanov won that night in Russia to raise his record to 7-0-(1). As he was getting prepared to face Thiago Santos in the semifinals round of a four-man heavyweight tournament, just as a small share of the North American spotlight was finally about to find him, things faded to black. Deep black.

Eighty-six days of darkness, to be exact. Eighty-six days of external pause, as he lay in a medically induced coma in the hospital after being stabbed under his left armpit in a wee hours melee in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria. His livelihood began to drain out of him at just 25 years old.

But the worry at that point in time wasn't would he ever fight again -- the imminent concern was is there enough fight in him to live?

*

It was a cold, late February night in 2012 that Ivanov and a group of friends -- teammates of his, boxers who had won a big tournament -- went out to celebrate. They began with dinner, and then headed off to the clubs.

"We ended up staying the night out," he says. "This is Europe, everybody stays the night out on a Saturday night. At five in the morning we went into this club, and there’s this group of people who at that point were causing trouble and they started a fight with us. Our group was a lot fewer. They knew who I was, and there’s some cowards out there who knew they couldn’t face me punch-for-punch. As I tried to interrupt and stop the fight, somebody stabbed me from the back, really from the side of the back."

The blade that went into Ivanov’s side was long enough to pierce his heart and lance part of his lungs. He put his hand over the wound and the 250-pound Ivanov began to stagger away from the melee, which was now in full force around him. As the blood seeped down his hand, he made his way out front, where he had the presence of mind to get a cab. The driver, seeing his condition, rushed him to Pirogov hospital.

"It was a 10-15 minute ride to the hospital, and I was losing a lot of blood," he says. "So once I got to the hospital, I sat down and crawled into a room where doctors were and right there passed out from a loss of blood."

That’s when things went from dark to better to bleak. Ivanov underwent a five-hour surgical procedure to repair his damaged organs. It was a life-saving surgery. The blood loss was so significant that it was touch and go. His vital organs that were damaged, and the surgeons were multitasking to piece everything back together. Ivanov probably should have died. And even if he didn’t, his fighting days -- so impossibly carefree -- belonged to a different lifetime.

"Then began the big battle," says Gotzev. "Once the doctors operated and got everything back intact, the hard part started. In surgeries like that, people get infections, and Blagoi did too. Because of that, he spent a total of 86 days in a medically induced coma."

Ivanov would continue to live with a machine breathing for him, in critical condition. He would go from a robust 250-pound frame down to 160 pounds in the next two-and-a-half months. His muscles atrophied, and his body sagged. The world began to move on without him. Neil Grove stood in for him against Thiago Santos in his Bellator tournament spot. Prayers were issued from his family and friends and the small lot of people outside of Bulgaria that knew him. And in Sofia, police apprehended a man named Dampela, charging him with the stabbing.

"In the doctor’s own words, they told me a person with this kind of an injury, one in a million would survive," Ivanov says.

If those odds are accurate, Blagoi Ivanov might be far luckier than he seems.

*

When he came out of the coma in May 2012, he was a husk of the person who went out to celebrate that night with his friends. What had once been a barge of a man was now unable to walk on his own, nor breathe particularly easily -- breathing was no longer second nature. He had to, essentially, fight just to speak. He was drastically reduced in size. And yet within his first waking moments, he was plotting his return.

Not just a return to normal health, but a return to the cage again. To resume his career in mixed martial arts. He was already of dreaming of putting his recovering body through voluntary trauma.

"It’s true, immediately when I came out I was driven to come back to the ring," he says. "It’s always been my will. I felt very bad about the incident, and I couldn’t believe what had happened. I was in such great shape for the fight and getting ready to come back to the States when it happened.

"I just wanted to get back in the ring, and I went to the doctors and asked, what’s the prognosis? And basically they told me they had never experienced anything like this, so they can’t give me a prognosis. So that was on my mind. I wanted to make my return. And it hasn’t left me, from that day until now, I’ve been pushing for that come back. I’ve been through all the precautions, all the medical tests with the doctors."

Gotzev, his manager who traveled back and forth to Bulgaria from Southern California, remembers his re-emergence into conscious life.

"He was still in the hospital learning how to walk, and he really had to learn to breathe again because he was on a machine. The machine was breathing for him," he says. "While he’s learning how to do those things again, he asked me immediately for some exercise rubbers, those latex pull ropes, the kind you pull and push and do exercise with. He was exercising his legs with that. He didn’t want to wait any longer.

"After that, when he checked out, within a week he got back in the actual gym and slowly started getting things back in motion. Within a month, he was a regular at the gym. It was crazy."

Thus began his slow return to fighting. From late February to late May, Ivanov slipped into a state of zero. But through it he had protected the urge to fight in him like a precious mineral. In the coming weeks he gradually put on weight and improved his conditioning. His pigment returned. Within a couple of months, he was able to do things in the gym that would have seemed impossible earlier in 2012. He was wheeling towards his improbable return.

And now he was able to testify against the man who nearly killed him. That, too, came with an unexpected plot twist.

"After he was stabbed, he actually got a glimpse of the guy," Gotzev says. "Blagoi turned around and saw the guy who actually stabbed him, and it was a different person altogether. Dampela was arrested and then they tried to prosecute him, but once Blagoi was up and back on his feet he testified against a whole and different person. There’s a process going for this guy. They are prosecuting him."

As Ivanov entered 2013, it was no longer "if" Ivanov would make it back into the cage, it was "when."

"Blagoi’s story is nothing short of amazing," Gotzev says. "Now with his undefeated record in MMA, and his incredible story. He’s got a lot of guts and determination and a purpose. He has a special purpose. He not only lived to tell the story, but he made it back to the cage. That’s nothing short of amazing."

He did. Gotzev told me this on Wednesday.

On Friday night, at a small resort in the wine country of Temecula, California, Ivanov arrived to the Pechanga Casino just as everybody else -- with the odds stacked against him. In front of the afternoon crowd, and to the attention of almost nobody, Ivanov stepped in to fight Manny Lara in a preliminary bout at Bellator 99. He weighed 252 pounds heading in. He was in "terrific shape." He was just a guy trying to climb up the rungs and make a name. And that’s what he fought for the last year and a half -- a chance at an extension, to make a name in the sport he loves.

To simply exist in normal light.

At 27 years old, Ivanov has scars on his upper body that take on added meaningfulness and attest to something in him that can only be described as a "fighting spirit." Those scars are symbols of something extraordinary. They are a lesson for Ivanov, and a reminder that he won't be denied.

Those scars are equally meaningless. They were never meant to be there. They are the signatures of a coward.

In a fight that hardly anybody watched, during the daylight prelims, Ivanov defeated Lara by submission (guillotine) at 1:17 mark of the first round to run his record to 8-0-(1). That’s his official record.

Unofficially, he’s the only man on Earth who’s had his arm raised after encounters with the great Fedor Emelianenko as well as the shadowy figure with the scythe. In this way, Blagoi Ivanov is perhaps more remarkable than we know.

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