By Michael Clifton
Bagdat Zhubanysh is counting down the days until the start of next week’s 2021 IMMAF World Championships. After a two-year absence, the reigning men’s strawweight champion will be aiming to remind everyone why he was voted Best Male Athlete at the 2020 World Amateur MMA Awards by becoming the first athlete in IMMAF history to capture three world titles.
Zhubanysh’s shot to fame in 2018, when he captured his first world title inside the Khalifa Sports City arena in Manama, Bahrain. A year later, the Kazakhstani returned to the Gulf State to capture his second world championship while extending his amateur record to 8-0.
Unfortunately, the emergence of Covid-19 saw the cancellation of effectively all IMMAF events in 2020, putting the 25-year-old’s dreams of a historic third world title on hold.
After a frustrating year, Zhubanysh was itching to compete and had penciled in last August’s European Open in Russia as the date of his return. After Russia, the plan was to defend his world title on home soil at the 2021 World Championships in Kazakhstan.
However, as we have all discovered over the past two years, life has a way of intruding on even the best-laid plans.
“My preparation for the European Championships had gone well, and then ten days before the competition, I injured my hand,” Zhubanysh says. “My coaches and I decided to skip the tournament, so I could fully recover and prepare for the World Championship, which was set to take place in November, only a few months after the European Championships.”
However, fate struck again, as rising Covid-19 cases in Kazakhstan saw the World Championship rescheduled and moved to Abu Dhabi. MMA has flourished in recent years in Kazakhstan, and the event would have been the first IMMAF tournament held in the Central Asian nation. The news hit Zhubanysh and his national teammates hard.
“It was disappointing for all of us (Team Kazakhstan) that the pandemic meant we could not host the World Championship in our own country,” Zhubanysh says. “But I try not to think about it and to instead focus on my preparation for the upcoming championship. Our team is determined. It doesn’t matter to us where the World Championship will take place. We are going for the gold.”
The delay in his return to action has only intensified Zhubanysh’s desire for success, and he is excited about the prospect of squaring off against a new crop of challengers to his throne.
“There are also positives from the pandemic. We all missed competing, and everyone is now hungry for victory. It seems to me that all the fights will be very entertaining. All the fighters will put on great bouts,” Zhubanysh explains.
“No one comes to the World Championship to lose. Everyone comes expecting they are going to win. I have researched all my potential opponents; many of them took part in the 2019 World Championship. My principal rivals are fighters from Russia and Bahrain but the national team of Tajikistan also has strong athletes.”
After two turbulent years, Zhubanysh has become adept at the art of not letting anything distract him from his training. Kazakhstan has undergone a period of recent unrest, but Zhubanysh is focused on the job at hand and is determined to represent his country with pride on the world stage.
“I will do my best to become a three-time world champion. I want to make history and showcase my country to the entire world. This is what I am focused on now,” he explains. “Preparations for the World Championship are in full swing. During the New Year holidays, I trained in my hometown of Aktobe and will shortly go through the final stage of the training camp in Almaty. From there, we will go to Abu Dhabi.”
Since he began competing for IMMAF, Zhubanysh has watched as his peers have transitioned to the professional ranks. After four years under the IMMAF umbrella and having scaled the heights of the amateur game, Zhubanysh feels that the moment for him to make a name for himself in the professional ranks is drawing ever closer.
“After the upcoming competition, I will move to professional MMA. All the guys who started with me are now fighting in the professional leagues, and I understand it’s now time to make that move. “
Before that happens, Zhubanysh has a date with destiny in Abu Dhabi. Two world titles mark him out as an elite fighter, but if he captures three world titles, then the only way to describe him would be as a legend.
The rescheduled 2021 IMMAF World Championships will be streamed live from Abu Dhabi at immaf.tv from 24 to 29 January 2022.
The event is hosted by the UAE Jiu jitsu & MMA Federation with support from the Abu Dhabi Sport Council and in partnership with Palm Sports.