To determine the most intriguing person competing in the upcoming UFC Japan event is to stumble upon a paradox. The answer is a fighter without a single win in mixed martial arts, someone who is nearing 34 years old, and with a ground game that is entirely untested.
This? This is a fighter to behold? It is when the man is Gokhan Saki, a legendary kickboxer with a reputation so fearsome, he became known as “Turkish Tyson.” Using his speed, combinations and power, Saki recorded 59 knockouts in 83 career victories. On a card in which pivotal matchups and star power are both in short supply, Saki’s debut and his electric skills may serve as the most meaningful moment.
Competing in the UFC at 205 pounds after spending most of his kickboxing career as a heavyweight, any kind of impactful arrival on Friday would be a most welcome development for a division reeling from the impending suspension of former champion Jon Jones and heavy with aging veterans.
While Saki will do little to bring down the weight class’ average age, he may well serve the division a dose of adrenaline if he can replicate any of his kickboxing success, or simply avoid the result of his first brief foray into MMA. Back in 2004, on one day’s notice and not a lick of MMA training, he took a one-off fight against UFC veteran James Zikic and lost via technical knockout.
This time around, Saki has left kickboxing in his rearview mirror to dedicate himself to MMA, signing an exclusive deal with the UFC. After sporadically training in the sport’s various disciplines in the past, this recent stretch has been immersive, and Saki has shown his willingness to put himself in uncomfortable positions in order to achieve growth, regularly traveling to learn with different camps. Among his most notable trips was a five-week sojourn to Sweden’s AllStars Training Center to work out alongside intra-divisional contenders Alexander Gustafsson and Ilir Latifi. Saki has also trained extensively with the Turkish national wrestling and boxing teams, along with Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt Ertan Balaban.
While this crash course is not nearly enough to suggest he’ll become an instant contender in the division, the hope is that it can get him past his Friday opponent Henrique da Silva with some style points and create a base for his future improvement.
There is reason to believe he can develop quickly. In kickboxing, Saki was always a work of evolution, forced to make up for his lack of size as a heavyweight - he’s just 6 feet tall and about 225 pounds - with technique. Tailoring his approach to his opponent and adjusting moment to moment, Saki could fluidly switch from finesse to power, from aggression to bait-and-switch, from Muay Thai to Dutch style.
That kind of adaptability will be key to any success he may have as his game expands past striking and into wrestling and jiu-jitsu.
“Saki’s a very intelligent fighter. At the time of K-1 he was ahead of the game with a lot of technical aspects,” former Saki foe and current UFC heavyweight top-ranked contender Alistair Overeem recently told MMA reporter Bruno Massami. “I’d say he was the most technical K-1 heavyweight and light heavyweight for that matter. His speed, his combinations. He’s actually a light heavyweight but he was fighting heavyweight. He was fighting the big guys. I have full confidence in him and his team, that he will do great in analyzing the game, in analyzing what he needs in getting the victory.”
Saki’s fight against Overeem on December 11, 2010 played a huge part in building his legend. As part of the K-1 World Grand Prix, Saki had already defeated Daniel Ghita that night. However, during the match, Saki had broken his right hand. Instead of bowing out of the tournament, he chose to compete against the much-larger Overeem one-handed. Far from being helpless, he actually dropped Overeem with a spinning back kick in the fight’s opening seconds before Overeem started targeting the injured arm, eventually shattering it with a kick toward the close of the first round, ending the fight.
While it’s obvious his ground game will be a complete question mark, before even stepping foot in the octagon he is already the best striker in the division. Known for his multi-strike combinations, his left hook is his favorite technique, and he’s ably used it to defeat such notable names as Ghita, Anderson “Braddock” Silva, Tyrone Spong and Melvin Manhoef.
For Saki, a matchup with da Silva is about as close to a tailor-made pairing as he could expect in his first time out. The Brazilian fancies himself a striker, and has performed capably in that regard in his MMA outings, scoring knockouts in 11 of his 12 career wins. Earlier this week, he told MMA Fighting’s Guilherme Cruz that he plans to “walk straight forward and see what happens in the fight.”
Of course, public discussions of the game plan should always be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. If any trepidation in trying to match Saki’s output doesn’t get to da Silva, his future might. Currently struggling through a three-fight losing streak, da Silva probably has his job on the line, and if he has to make the fight ugly to win, well, those lessons with the Turkish wrestling team may well come in handy.
The future both Friday night and beyond remain anyone’s guess. Will Saki round out his skill set and ride his brilliant striking tools toward the top of his division, or will he become another (incredibly entertaining) one-trick pony? The fun is in finding out, and in an event with little buzz, at least we have that to look forward to.