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MMA: UFC Fight Night-Lobov vs Ishihara Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

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Conor and Artem: A friendship forged in combat

When it comes to Conor McGregor, Artem Lobov is loyalty personified.

“The Russian Hammer” has effectively put his career on hold, even turning down fights, to help his “Notorious” SBG teammate prepare for what Dana White has described as “the biggest fight in combats sports history,” against the greatest boxer of his generation, Floyd Mayweather, on Aug. 26.

From his initial shot on The Ultimate Fighter, to his second chance on the reality platform and eventual contract with the promotion, Lobov has made no secret of McGregor’s clout being the biggest factor behind his current status as a UFC fighter.

He has been a constant in McGregor’s corner throughout his UFC tenure, but his bond with the Irishman came to fruition on the mats of SBG.

Although he doesn’t remember his first encounter with the young McGregor, Lobov does remember that only he and Owen Roddy—another man who has been ever-present in McGregor’s corner—were his regulars when it came to sparring.

“I’ve been asked this so many times, and honestly, I really can’t remember,” Lobov said, struggling to pinpoint his first meeting with his teammate.

“What I remember is, I went to train at SBG and I wanted to fight. Eventually I got onto the fight team and we were sparring. The team was really small back then so wasn’t a massive amount of people that were regularly sparring.

“Now, it would be very hard to end up sparring Conor shortly after you walk into the gym because we have so many fighters. At that time it was only me, Conor and (Owen) Roddy that were featherweights, so naturally we ended up training together a lot.”

Sparring McGregor wasn’t always the event it is today. Countless fighters travel to Dublin from all over the globe in the hopes of getting a chance to share a round with the UFC’s biggest star.

When Lobov began to spar with him, the only rewards were pain and respect.

“You’ve got to remember that SBG was a different place back then,” he explained. “We were the biggest gym in Ireland without a doubt, but it still wasn’t very easy to get real sparring sessions.

“The sparring was very vicious back then. We’re talking no headgear, small gloves — not many people wanted to come back after they did their first real sparring session.

“Nowadays when you spar Conor you can walk away proud and say, ‘Wow, I just sparred Conor McGregor.’ Back then, Conor was not a star yet, so people weren’t exactly queuing up to spar this featherweight that had such crazy power and was knocking people stiff on the national scene.

“For me, when someone is able to beat me, that’s the guy that I want to spar with. I wanted to be at that level. In my mind, I wanted to keep coming back and training with this guy so I can eventually figure out what he is doing and solve the puzzle. That’s exactly what I did. I kept coming back for more and more and more.

“A lot of people didn’t want to do that because it was painful, it was very tough work. They think, ‘f*ck this, I’m getting out of here,’ but I was always there and ready to put the work in.”

Soon enough, Lobov became the designated teammate for warming McGregor up before fights.

“When he would fight, he would have to get warmed up before he went out to the cage. This was a long time before UFC, and when Conor warmed up, it was basically like a five-round fight.

“This would be no shin pads, small gloves and in fight mode. After people did it once, they would rarely want to do it again because of the intensity and the power Conor would take into those warm up sessions, knowing that he was about to compete.

“When John would ask who wanted to warm him up, you would see guys disappearing out the door, or sometimes he would just be met by a wall of silence.

“I was always standing there saying, ‘Me, me, me!’

“Eventually it just became common knowledge that I would be the one warming him up. On top of that, I was always pretty good at changing stances and mimicking different styles, to a certain extent, of course.

“It just went from there,” he said.

Lobov recalls becoming a regular in McGregor’s corner around the time he faced Artur Sowinski. Although many saw the young Dubliner’s stopping power as his main calling card for the UFC, his SBG teammate saw a lot more that made him standout from the crowd.

“The power was incredible of course,” Lobov said. “I can completely understand why that would make people pay attention. His fights were generally very short too so I can imagine it was hard for people to see the level of skill he had.

“From sparring him, even very early on, it was obvious how elusive he was. His sense of range was always outstanding. He would always seem out of range for the guy that was against him, but somehow he would always be in range to connect with his own shots.

“His jiu-jitsu was good back then too. When I started he was around purple belt level and he actually was known for his guillotine in the gym… it was really good.

“As well as that he was very hard to takedown. He was a great athlete and great fighter on top of that.

“He seemed to be good everywhere, so when I was looking at him in training I couldn’t help but think, ‘wow, this guy would do really well against the top-level guys in UFC.’ I always though that.”

Lobov added: “The thing that stuck out to me was the fact that he looked absolutely amazing in training nearly all of the time, but somehow he would always find a new gear when it came time to fight.

“He found that next level when everyone else, including me, would look very good in the gym but their form would slightly dip when it came time to fight.”

UFC 196 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Any public comments Lobov makes are usually met with a litany of insults regarding his reliance on McGregor in terms of his MMA career.

It felt as though the SBG featherweight had justified his place among the UFC’s elite when he won a one-sided decision over then surging Japanese fighter Teruto Ishihara in Belfast.

McGregor scaled the fence after the big win, sending the SSE Arena to fever pitch as he celebrated with Lobov. The insults have continued to come though, but Lobov is the first person to admit that McGregor was the reason he has been signed by the UFC.

“It’s not hard for me to say that at all,” Lobov said.

“At the moment, this sport is still very dependent on having a pretty record. There are an awful lot of people that still pad their records and it’s considered acceptable by the matchmakers. They will gladly accept guys with padded records because it looks better on paper than a guy with a real record.

“I think in the future that will change. It will become more like a league. When you look at soccer, the champions can be crowned after losing ten times in a season. When you have competitive games all of the time because you’re in the top league, it’s very likely that you will end up losing at some stage.

“If I see a guy that’s undefeated and he is not a UFC champion, that means his record is padded.”

Lobov has been talking about the possibility of McGregor facing Mayweather for years. It was the reception his friend received on his first visit to Las Vegas for UFC 178 that made him ponder the potential meeting of boxing and MMA’s biggest stars.

“I know we talked about in on the world tour when he was supposed to fight Aldo the first time. We might have talked about it in the lead up to the Poirier fight too,” he recalled.

“I think it was mostly based on the potential pay-per-view buys the two of them could accumulate. It was also seeing both Conor and Floyd and how big they were and how well they handled the spotlight.

“Floyd stood out from all of the other boxers and Conor stood out from all of the other MMA guys. I was thinking about what an amazing fight it would be too.

“I always knew that Conor’s main skill was his stand up. That has been his strength and he looks on a different planet to anyone else in MMA when he is letting his hands go.

“I just thought that against Conor, Floyd wouldn’t be able to be as defensive as he is against other fighters because Conor would bring it to him and make him fight no matter what.”

The boxing community has openly mocked McGregor’s skillset based on his open workout ahead of the T-Mobile Arena fight. For Lobov, the conventional approach to boxing is outdated.

“Boxing is stuck in the past. If Conor went in and beat up every boxer in the world, the boxing people would say, ‘that’s just Conor, he’s special.’

“They do this for every single fighter. First they ridicule him, then when he beats everyone they do a complete 180 and talk about special the guy is.

“They did it with Mayweather too. Whenever someone has an unorthodox approach, different to what a standard boxer would look like, they write it off as being bad. They never seem to look at the normal approach to boxing and think that it might be slightly outdated.”

The camp has been united in their prediction of a McGregor knockout. Despite the many who feel a win for the UFC lightweight champion would be the greatest upset in sporting history, Lobov wouldn’t even consider McGregor winning an upset.

“It’s hard for me to even see it as an upset,” he said. “A lot of people can’t measure skill, it’s a very hard thing to comprehend. Everyone is only seeing a guy that’s a boxer and that has never been beaten taking on a guy who hasn’t boxed before.

“It’s not as simple as that with Conor. Look at boxers hitting pads and look at MMA fighters hitting pads, it’s the same thing. Conor knows how to fight and he knows how to box. He has been boxing professional boxers for his whole life, he has had almost 50 amateur boxing fights.

“This is nothing new to him. People are talking like this is a cricket player trying to play basketball. It’s nothing like that, these are very similar sports.”


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