Ilir Latifi: Stockholm's Savior Becomes Genuine Light Heavyweight Force
Ilir Latifi’s win on Saturday proves he is so much more than just the last-minute replacement for Alexander Gustafsson back in 2013.
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC
Ilir Latifi's dominant decision win over Gian Villante on Saturday night was as impressive as it was unsurprising.
Compiling a solid record of 5-2 in his ongoing UFC run, Latifi has quietly compiled a string of notable victories in the Octagon with finishes to boot, barring Saturday night's performance against a step up in competition—while his two losses to top level European fighters in Gegard Mousasi and Jan Blachowicz are nothing to sniff at.
However, Latifi's solid UFC record is often overshadowed by the constant commentary patter reminding us of two moments in the fledgling stages of his career.
The former instance was when "The Sledgehammer" took on current World Series of Fighting heavyweight champion Blagoy Ivanov in his MMA debut. Fighting in his opponent's backyard in Sofia, Bulgaria, Latifi wrestled Ivanov into the ropes of the apparent ramshackle ring and said ring imploded under the weight of the two burly Europeans. The fight was rightfully declared a No Contest after 55 seconds—a debut to remember for all the wrong reasons.
The latter occasion constantly associated with Latifi was his gallant appearance as Alexander Gustafsson's late replacement at UFC on Fuel TV 9, taking on the aforementioned Mousasi and losing a hard-fought decision. The event was left on its knees after Swedish superstar Gustafsson pulled out of the contest having sustained a nasty cut above his eye in one of his last sparring sessions before the event. Latifi stepped up on just four days' notice, subsequently cutting 25lbs in that time to make the fight happen.
I was fortunate enough to cover that show in Stockholm on behalf of Fightland back in 2013. Being present for Conor McGregor's UFC debut will forever be etched in one's memory. But, it was the raucous reception reserved for one Ilir Latifi as he strode out to the Rocky theme tune which permeates my fantastic reminiscences of UFC on Fuel TV 9.
Unfortunately, it seems the press and the UFC commentary teams also appreciate Latifi's antics in Stockholm. Perhaps a little too much. His heroic appearance against Mousasi is by far the most talked-about venture of the Swede's, often overwhelming the rhetoric surrounding any fight featuring Latifi, be it before, during or after the matter. Did Mike Goldberg disappoint on Saturday night? Not a chance. I believe it was mentioned before and during Latifi's fight against Villante.
Latifi has proved himself to be so much more than just Gustafsson's last-minute replacement, yet it appears it's all he is ever referred to as.
Saturday night's win over Villante should help with a progression in conversation. Previously reliant on his serious punching power, Latifi had to change up his game to accommodate the challenge posed by Villante – the much bigger, longer man on the night. Villante, who was ranked 13th in the UFC light heavyweight reckoning at the time, proved no match for Latifi.
Latifi opted for a wrestling-heavy attack to stifle his opponent's competent striking game and it proved pivotal in earning himself the decision victory. The ease of which the Swedish powerhouse took down his American counterpart – at one point suplexing his rival – was rather impressive given the extensive sparring time Villante shares with former UFC middleweight champion and NCAA Division I wrestler Chris Weidman. The apparent well-roundedness of Latifi's MMA arsenal has long been overlooked but was on full display Saturday night.
The Sledgehammer isn't short on interesting backstories. Latifi is a Swede of Albanian descent, growing up alongside Swedish football powerhouse Zlatan Ibrahmovic in Malmö's infamous Rosengård district. But, that's it – they're backstories. Nothing more, nothing less: no matter how interesting. The fact Latifi has become a solid prospect in the UFC's light heavyweight division should now be the matter of focus.
With a string of knockout victories, a submission win and now a dominating decision win over a top 15 opponent to his name, it's time people woke up to Ilir Latifi as a serious proposition in a light heavyweight division yearning for more talent.