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Getting to know Ilir Latifi before his debut at UFC on Fuel TV 9

Swedish fighter’s willingness to step up on short notice gets him dream job



Gegard Mousasi, who meets newcomer Ilir Latifi in the main event of UFC on Fuel TV 9, celebrates after a victory on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2009, in San Jose, Calif., in this file photo.

UFC on FUEL TV 9 complete card and betting odds

  • Light heavyweight bout: No. 10 Gegard Mousasi (-1000) vs. Ilir Latifi (+600)
  • Lightweight bout: Ross Pearson (-400) vs. Ryan Couture (+300)
  • Bantamweight bout: No. 4 Brad Pickett (-165) vs. No. 9 Mike Easton (+135)
  • Heavyweight bout: Matt Mitrione (-315) vs. Philip De Fries (+245)
  • Featherweight bout: Diego Brandao (-225) vs. Pablo Garza (+175)
  • Featherweight bout: Akira Corassani (+285) vs. Robert Peralta (-375)
  • Lightweight bout: Reza Madadi (+190) vs. Michael Johnson (-240)
  • Middleweight bout: Tor Treong (-250) vs. Adam Cella (+195)
  • Welterweight bout: Chris Spang (+135) vs. Adlan Amagov (-165)
  • Bantamweight bout: Marcus Brimage (+140) vs. Conor McGregor (-170)
  • Welterweight bout: Ben Alloway (+160) vs. Ryan LaFlare (-200)
  • Middleweight bout: Michael Kuiper (+155) vs. Tom Lawlor (-190)
  • Welterweight bout: Papy Abedi (-140) vs. Besam Yousef (+110)
  • How to watch: Main card on FUEL TV at 10 a.m.; preliminary card streamed on at 7:50 a.m.

Ilir Latifi is shrouded in more mystery than any main-event fighter in UFC history.

That’s an understandable consequence of accepting a fight on four days notice. Latifi (7-2 MMA, 0-0 UFC) would love to build his profile ahead of Saturday’s UFC on Fuel TV 9 showdown against Gegard Mousasi (33-3-2 MMA, 0-0 UFC) in Stockholm, Sweden, but he’s preoccupied after landing the assignment Tuesday night.

“It’s been two days of a lot of paperwork, medical stuff and weight-cutting before the fight,” Latifi said Thursday. “It’s been intense.”

An optimist might remark that Latifi’s roundabout route to the octagon sounds like the preamble to a legendary story. A pessimist may counter that his sudden emergence at just the right time is a path toward becoming a passed-over annotation.

The somewhat brief series of events started when Latifi’s sometimes-training partner Alexander Gustafsson suffered a cut above his left eye last week while preparing for the bout with Mousasi that could catapult him into a title shot.

“I wasn’t there when the cut happened,” said Latifi, who lives nearly 400 miles south of Stockholm in Malmo. “I got a call about it and was very sad for him. I knew how much this fight meant to him. I thought they would find someone else to take the fight.”

When no one immediately volunteered to take on Mousasi, however, the 29-year old Latifi started thinking. He thought about how badly he wanted a shot in the UFC, how disappointed he was when the promotion first visited Sweden a year ago and never inquired about signing him to fight at the event.

He thought this might be his opportunity to work his way into the world’s premier mixed martial arts organization. Latifi decided to lobby for the fight on the Internet by writing blog posts and reaching out to some of Sweden’s largest MMA outlets.

“By Tuesday, it seemed like no one was stepping up to take his place,” Latifi said. “That’s when I was confronted and knew I was going to take it.”

Latifi takes offense at the suggestion that he came out of nowhere, though. He feels he’s worked toward this moment for the vast majority of his life.

The bulky 5-foot-8 fighter, nicknamed “The Sledgehammer,” started wrestling when he was 6 years old. He continued wrestling and pursued it at a championship level for 20 years, until growing overly frustrated with the International Olympic Committee’s handling of the sport.

“They destroyed this beautiful sport,” Latifi said. “I felt the sport was changing too much. It wasn’t what I started with. They were changing the rules every four or five months.”

Latifi’s backup plan was always MMA. His older brother, Arben Latifi, was “a pioneer of MMA in Scandinavia,” according to Ilir.

Arben first fought in 1998, long before the UFC ever rose to widespread popularity. Ilir remembered watching his brother and being fascinated at an impressionable age.

“I saw the UFC tapes and I thought it was amazing,” Latifi said. “I knew there was one day when I was going to be there.”

But Gustafsson beat him to it, becoming the first Swedish fighter to hold a UFC roster spot in 2009 after starting his career 8-0. Latifi had only three professional fights at the time — two wins and one no-contest stemming from, of all things, a broken ring — but was brought on board to train with Gustafsson.

“We helped each other out because we were both having fights at the same time,” Latifi said. “We are always trying to help each other out before our fights.”

Latifi traveled to Stockholm a couple months ago to spar with Gustafsson as the UFC’s second-ranked light heavyweight prepared for Mousasi. But he returned home after a couple days.

Latifi didn’t see Gustafsson again until Wednesday night.

“I met him and he’s very angry about what happened,” Latifi said. “I understand him, but he’s happy that I got the fight.”

Gustafsson must have uncovered some intricacies and quirks of Mousasi’s style after spending months studying and getting ready for the former Strikeforce champion. That would make Gustafsson a valuable ally for Latifi.

There’s only one problem.

“I haven’t had time to talk to him about that,” Latifi said.

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at

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