Makwan Amirkhani couldn't have written a crazier script for 2015 if he tried. In just six months, the quirky 26-year-old has blossomed from anonymity into one of the feel-good stories of the year, establishing himself as one of the featherweight division's most promising up-and-comers behind a scorching start to his UFC career.
His rise has been so fast that, somewhat unbelievably, Amirkhani has yet to even be hit in his two UFC fights. He followed a stunning eight-second debut over Andy Ogle with an equally lopsided trouncing of Masio Fullen this past weekend at UFC Fight Night 69. Afterward, Amirkhani broke down into tears inside the Octagon and delivered an emotional post-fight speech, finding his widowed mother in the crowd and thanking her and the rest of his family for their lifelong support of his dreams.
"When we were kids, me and two of my brothers, we went to wrestling competitions," Amirkhani reflected Monday on The MMA Hour. "When we came back, [my father] always said, ‘so who was the lion and who was the hyena?' Always, I'm the one who didn't lift up their hand because I always lost. And now I can say that I was the lion. So I'm pretty sure he's proud."
In more ways than one, the win over Fullen was a validating experience for Amirkhani. After all, two minutes of dominance is much harder to discredit than an eight-second flash knockdown.
It may have swayed over some of his countrymen, too. Amirkhani was born in Iraq but fled the war-torn country for Finland when he was just four years old. His father fell victim to the fighting, but despite this "Mr. Finland" still proudly represents his Kurdish heritage alongside his Finnish upbringing -- a fact which initially gave some fans in Finland pause about supporting the young martial artist.
"That fight was more important than my (first) fight in Stockholm because people were doubting," Amirkhani said. "I told you, and I told everybody else, that I want to end this fight in the first round. Really fast, just to get people to my side in my country, Finland, and let all of the Kurds know that they have a new role model.
"Because my last name is not so Finnish, nor my first name, and I still hold two flags, in Stockholm [the Finnish people] were [refusing] to admit that I'm from Finland. I'm fighting out of Finland and there's nothing that you guys can change. In this fight, it was like I got my respect from everybody. I saw only good things from news (outlets), then people were actually standing behind me. If somebody wrote something, ‘he's not Finnish,' there were other Finnish people commenting that he's more Finnish than anyone else. ... So it was nice."
The journey to UFC Fight Night 69 was even harder on a personal front, because this time around Amirkhani uprooted himself away from his home in Finland to live full-time at Sweden's Allstars Training Center among UFC fighters Alexander Gustafsson and Reza Madadi. In doing so, he cut off all contact with his family and focused exclusively on training and improving, which is exactly what prompted him to find his mother after his emotional first-round submission over Fullen.
"I took myself away from the people who have been taking care of me for so long and have been there always," Amirkhani said. "So it wasn't easy to move to another country and be there alone at the beginning. I knew it'd be terrible to do that, such a sacrifice then you lose. So I was so happy that hard work paid off.
"If I want to show my feelings to somebody, it doesn't matter how many people are watching," Amirkhani added. "It was a good thing because maybe it's a kind of example to younger people to appreciate that you have parents and they made you into this life. I got a lot of good messages to my inbox and small fanbase about that from the young people. It made me kind of happy that people saw I didn't fake it. That it was a great moment to me."
Where he goes from here remains to be seen, but between his obvious interview presence and his results in the cage, there's no question Amirkhani has the potential to be a star in this game. And while he still wants to take things slow with his career, he wouldn't mind getting a crack at his first top-15 opponent soon in Dennis Siver.
"After this fight, I knew that only the sky is the -- actually there's no limits," Amirkhani said. "I was looking at myself in the mirror and asking myself, can I be a good opponent to guys in the top-15 in the world? I can be. Now I just want to train and get much better, then I'm going to make Dennis Siver retire.
"When I just saw him fighting against (Conor) McGregor, I told two of my managers, I said, ‘I can beat this guy.' And nobody said that I could beat him. They were quiet. They didn't say anything. Now I feel like, oh, it's like that? You guys don't believe me, huh? I'm going after Siver. But the UFC will decide who I'm going to fight. I just say yes. If it's not Siver in the next fight, then eventually I will fight him."