Augusto Sakai went through a rollercoaster of emotions before finally being able to enter the octagon in 2020.
The rising heavyweight had a perfect year in 2019 with wins over Andrei Arlovski and Marcin Tybura, but 2020 started with a global pandemic forcing the UFC to cancel multiple events around the globe. A pay-per-view event set for May 9 in Sao Paulo, where Sakai was scheduled to face Blagoy Ivanov, was also shut down.
Sakai and every other Brazilian fighter found themselves stuck in their home country since consulates closed their doors and stopped issuing visas. That changed weeks later, however, when Sakai was able to secure a P-1 visa and travel to Las Vegas.
The heavyweight had yet to secure his visa when the UFC announced that Sakai vs. Ivanov was going to be re-scheduled for May 30, but it worked out in the end.
“The consulate loosened up as days went by, let’s put it this way,” Sakai told MMA Fighting. “Everyone was ‘cut’ in the beginning, no one could get anything, and I’m happy I managed to get this visa. It wasn’t easy, we asked for an emergency one and it worked.”
“We never know what tomorrow will bring, how things will play out,” he adds, admitting he thought for a second there was a chance he would get another fight cancelled. “(The fight) was booked for the 23rd and then for the 30th, and I was thinking ‘is it really going to happen on the 30th?’ before the final confirmation came. But I had that fear, yes.”
Sakai became the first fighter to successfully leave Brazil and arrive in Las Vegas to compete since the coronavirus pandemic started, and he vows to “represent” and make it all worthy at Saturday night’s UFC on ESPN 9.
Training amid a health crisis wasn’t easy, Sakai said, “but we managed to adapt as days went by and trained really well.”
“We didn’t have as many training partners as we usually have,” he added, “but those that could help us did a great job.”
Sakai is 4-0 inside the octagon with a win over Marcos Conrado Jr. at Dana White’s Contender Series followed by UFC victories against Chase Sherman, Arlovski and Tybura. Like Sakai, Ivanov is a former Bellator heavyweight who only fought four times inside the octagon, building a 2-2 record with victories over Ben Rothwell and Tai Tuivasa sandwiched between defeats to Junior dos Santos and Derrick Lewis.
Ivanov is a tough opponent, Sakai said, but “I believe I can impose my rhythm during the fight and the result will definitely be a victory for me.”
“I don’t know how he will come to the fight,” he continued. “He went out to brawl in some fights, he wrestled more in others, so we’ll wait until the fight starts to see how he comes. But, for sure, if I work with my movement and land some strikes, I’ll be able to nullify his game really well. I see myself finishing him before the third round. It’s the perfect scenario.”
Ivanov did his UFC on ESPN 9 camp in Las Vegas, working alongside heavyweight knockout artist Francis Ngannou just miles away from the UFC APEX, where Saturday’s event will take place. For Sakai, however, that won’t make him as dangerous as Ngannou.
“You can train with anyone, but who you are is what really matters,” Sakai said. “Of course it’s good to have good people by your side, good athletes helping in your camp, but his style won’t change, so I don’t think it makes much difference.”
In a shallow weight class where a good win against the right opponent at the right time puts you in a great position, Sakai isn’t in a hurry. The Brazilian heavyweight will be 15-1-1 in the sport if he’s victorious Saturday, but thinks he’s only halfway through in his journey to the belt.
“It’s my dream to fight for the belt, of course, but we have to keep our feet on the ground,” Sakai said. “I’m the No. 13 now. The first step is breaking into the top 10, and then fight someone in the top 10 to get closer to the top 5.”