Tengo Seppy remembers the first time he met Levan Makashvili.
The longtime martial artist had set up some fighters from the his native country of Georgia to compete for a friend's amateur promotion in North Carolina. The process of getting them over to the United States was difficult and the athletes were stuck on a plane for more than 30 hours.
"Their backs were destroyed," Seppy said. "They were tired. They came down and cut weight. That day, they had to fight. They lived up to it like warriors. They just did it and they won."
Makashvili was one of them. He won easily, but was not satisfied. After the bout, he told Seppy: "If I would have just slept a couple of hours, I would have destroyed this guy."
That's when Seppy knew there was something special about Makashvili. Two years later, the coach owns a gym built around Makashvili and other Georgians in Long Island, N.Y., called Mutant MMA. Makashvili has flourished on the U.S. regional circuit and was supposed to make his UFC debut against Nik Lentz at UFC Fight Night: Henderson vs. Thatch on Feb. 14 in Broomfield, Colo., until Lentz fell ill before weigh-ins.
Makashvili ended up making his UFC debut with a split decision win over Mark Eddiva at UFC Fight Night: Edgar vs. Faber on May 16 in Manila. On Saturday, he'll face well-regarded Brazilian veteran Hacran Dias in another short-notice fight at UFC Fight Night: Machida vs. Romero in Hollywood, Fla.
"We're so grateful and so thankful for where we are and were we've come," Seppy said.
Georgia is a hot bed for wrestling, judo and sambo. But Seppy, who moved to Queens, N.Y., from the country when he was 3 years old, said MMA is woefully underfunded there. He has helped talented fighters like Makashvili come over to the states, hone their talents and develop in other disciplines.
"What I saw was a bunch of talent that wasn't raised properly," Seppy said. "They just didn't have the right people. They had people that cared more about glory for themselves rather than these phenomenal fighters. How do you waste something that rich? "
Makashvili (7-1) was a former champion freestyle wrestler in Georgia and the former featherweight titleholder of New Jersey promotion Cage Fury Fighting Championship. His lone career loss came against Bellator veteran Alexandre Bezerra, a defeat he avenged in December at CFFC 44.
Makashvili, 26, is regarded as one of the top 145-pound prospects in the U.S. He has excellent wrestling and heavy hands. Against Eddiva, he absolutely dominated with takedowns and in the clinch.
"As time goes on, Levan always gets better," Seppy said. "He's always learning, he's always getting better. ... Our style of training, we don't train for one guy. We don't think about any one guy too much or anything like that. We're just getting stronger all the time."
"The Hornet" is grateful that he's the first Georgian to compete in the UFC, but he won't just be happy to be there Saturday night. He expects to win against Dias, who sports a record 22-3-1.
"It's an honor for me to be the first," said Makashvili, who also does some training at Bellmore Kickboxing with the likes of Dennis Bermudez and Chris Algieri. "I always thought I would be the first, because we know the other Georgian fighters. I always knew I would be that guy. Now that I am, I'll live up to the challenge. I won't let anyone down. I believe I deserve to be, not just in the UFC, but also face the best in the featherweight division."
What separates Makashvili from the rest, Seppy said, is his mentality. It's what Makashvili showed him the very first time they met.
"You can teach anyone technique, but what Levan had was something special," Seppy said. "I knew right from the start. He's truly got that killer instinct. But he's not -- how would you say -- a douchebag. He's a humble guy, but has the killer instinct."
Seppy, who has been a jiu-jitsu practitioner for more than a decade, admits that he "got into this by accident." But maybe he's stumbled upon the next Dagestan, a fertile, yet untapped MMA region in Eastern Europe. Mutant MMA also has Merab Dvalishvili, who competes for CFFC and Ring of Combat, solid regional promotions in New Jersey.
"Whatever the Georgians are funded in, they do well in," Seppy said. "When it comes to MMA, there is no funding. That's why he came down here, because he knew he needed the disciplines that everyone else in the world is using."
The MMA world will could see a Georgian invasion before too long.