PFL heavyweight king Ali Isaev says he’s ready to take on any top opponent, including UFC champ Stipe Miocic, as the Dagestan native “can’t wait to compete” and wants to be released from his contract if he can’t fight this year.
Former European freestyle wrestling champion Isaev, 36, began his professional mixed martial arts career a little over four years ago with Russia’s Fight Nights Global, and the man from Makhachkala is yet to face an opponent capable of dealing with his 6ft 3in, 265lbs frame.
That includes all five of his Professional Fighters League opponents in 2019, three of whom Isaev defeated via unanimous decision, with his last two wins coming by way of TKO. Most notably, on December 31 Isaev finished former UFC contender Jared Rosholt to capture the PFL championship belt, and with it a check for a cool $1 million.
But along with his fellow PFL fighters, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced Isaev into a career hiatus after the promotion scrapped its 2020 season. Isaev is currently in his hometown of Makhachkala in Russia’s Republic of Dagestan, a region which was hit hard by the pandemic this spring, and which faced strict quarantine measures including most facilities being closed and travel between cities being forbidden until this summer.
Speaking to RT Sport via Skype, Isaev said life still hasn’t fully returned to normal in the region, with typically crowded local gyms far from working at full capacity, and athletes training outside in small groups.
Where are you staying now and how are you currently training, given all the circumstances?
I’m training here in Makhachkala with my friend and coach Nasrula Daudov. The same coach who prepared me for all of my fights. I’m staying in shape so that when I get a fight it’ll be easier to prepare for it. When there are no fights and you’re sitting at home waiting and all of a sudden you get a fight in two months’ time, it’s impossible to get ready. It takes a month just to get in the right shape. That’s why we’re constantly training, wrestling. I recently helped my friend Magomed Ismailov (to prepare for his fight against Alexander Emelianenko). That gave me a workout and I was able to help him with his wrestling. Right now I’m just working with my trainer. Nothing out of the ordinary.
How did it all come about with Magomed Ismailov? Did you know each other before that?
Yes, we’ve known each other for a long time. Magomed used to be a freestyle wrestler just like me and we knew each other from our wrestling days. When he began his preparations for the Alexander Emelianenko fight, I decided to help him because he was fighting against a heavyweight and I’m even heavier than Alexander. Magomed recently paid a lot of attention to stand-up training and while he significantly improved his stand-up game, you can easily forget wrestling aspects when you don’t pay enough attention to them. Alexander is a natural heavyweight, and his strikes are obviously heavier. So we were working on dodging them, paying attention to wrestling to make sure he won’t be able to get up. Thankfully everything went well for us that night without any injuries.
How is Dagestan currently dealing with the Covid pandemic? Because a few months ago the situation seemed to be critical…
They haven’t reopened all the gyms yet. There are gyms open, but they don’t let you in without negative test results. Not everyone can go to a gym because of the situation. Some people train outside. We’re still getting new cases, about 1,500 people were hospitalized. The situation isn’t so good but I hope everything will resolve itself soon. If people followed guidelines and didn’t have large gatherings like funerals, I think that the virus would go away.
You’re 36 now. It’s a not a big age for a heavyweight, but you aren’t young either. What are your career goals?
I’ll be 37 soon. That’s why I wanted the PFL either to give me a fight or let me go, so that I can fight in other promotions before the end of the year. Because I can’t wait and take a big break, I want to compete. Time goes by and I have to find new opportunities to make a statement and fight against the top guys.
Are you ready to cut ties with the PFL?
To be honest, the PFL gave me a chance to make myself known, they’re a very nice organization. If they let me go, maybe I’ll come back later – why not? That’s where I got my start. It would be great if they could understand my situation and made a choice that would work for me. Stability, I need stability. Of course I’d love to fight in the UFC, if the PFL lets me go. They’re putting on events despite the pandemic. I think other organizations aren’t putting on such good events now. Maybe they don’t have the same resources as the UFC, but today I only see UFC fights. I’d love to fight their top fighters. I’m not picky, I’ll fight anyone they give me. My age doesn’t let me pick an opponent. When you’re young you have to make the right choices. I saw how many young guys rushed too much. They were doing well but then stumbled after making the wrong decision, or they were misadvised. They wanted a fast rise to stardom. We have this saying, ‘He who makes haste makes everyone laugh.’ But I’m already 9-0, I don’t really need to gain experience. I have to do my job. Whatever happens, happens, but we’ll be working hard with no excuses and striving to win.
If you were offered a fight against Stipe Miocic, would you agree to that?
That would be a great pleasure, a PFL champion against a UFC champion. That would be truly something. All cages and fighters are the same to me. Some say there’s different levels. Yes, the UFC has more money. They’ve been on top for so long. Otherwise, a cage is a cage, everyone trains to show what they’ve got. I don’t think there are any weak promotions in the US, they don’t sign bad fighters. They constantly weed out weak fighters and leave in strong guys. But after all, the UFC is a top brand. Everyone strives for the best and the UFC provides those opportunities.
Why do you think that the majority of UFC champions are wrestlers and not strikers?
Wrestling is the foundation of all martial arts. It has nuances that you pick up early in life that help you fighting in the cage. When a fighter can’t really wrestle he has a hard time and wastes a lot of energy. That’s why wrestling is number one. A wrestler decides whether the fight happens on the ground or in stand-up. Although wrestlers don’t spend much time in stand-up they try to go to the ground. Take Kamaru Usman’s fight with Jorge Masvidal – when a guy gets ready for one opponent but gets another, he runs into trouble. Usman had trouble with Masvidal in the first round. Then in the second round he used his wrestling and won. If you use it right, you’ll be successful just like Khabib Nurmagomedov and other fighters that wrestle.
Another wrestler who recently made a very impressive debut in the UFC was Khamzat Chimaev. What do you think of him?
He’s a young man, he won two fights in such a short period. I think he’ll go far. His wrestling and stand-up are great.
Do you think you can make the same impressive start in the UFC’s heavyweight division if you get your chance?
It’s realistic, why wouldn’t it be? I’ve got the stats and people that help me. I think why not? If you’re not confident, I see no point in doing it. If you start something, you have to finish it. If something goes wrong, that’s just fate, what can you do? There’s time, in a year or two I can fight for the belt. I have the desire, hopefully it happens sooner rather than later.