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Mixed Martial Arts

Unknown Swede Latifi dropped into UFC main event

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The Canadian Press
4/5/2013 10:00:14 AM
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Earlier this week, Ilir Latifi was a virtually unknown fighter with dreams of making the UFC. On Saturday, the Swede finds himself in the main event of a televised UFC event in Sweden.

Latifi was vaulted into the spotlight after the Swedish Mixed Martial Arts Federation refused to clear light-heavyweight Alexander (The Mauler) Gustafsson to fight because of a cut suffered late in training. That sent UFC officials scrambling to find an opponent for former Strikeforce champion Gegard Mousasi to help fill its air time.

They settled on Latifi, an occasional training partner of fellow Swede Gustafsson.

"It's been a very intense week," said Latifi, who was only given the fight Tuesday. "What can I say? A lot of things happened."

Latifi (8-2 with one no contest) wasn't preparing for a fight at the time but had been in the gym.

"I always train," he said. (But) it's different when you train for a fight."

Still the 29-year-old, whose nickname is The Sledgehammer, calls it "am amazing opportunity for me to fight one of the best fighters in the world."

Because of the late change in fighter, the main event will be three rounds instead of the normal five.

Mousasi has been made a 14-1 favourite by one bookmaker. The UFC, opting to see the glass half-full, has suggested Latifi may be "poised to become MMA's Rocky."

The six-foot-one Mousasi (33-3-2) will be facing a vastly different fighter than originally planned.

Gustafsson (15-1) is a six-foot-five striker. Latifi is a five-foot-10 wrestler.

"Maybe it's going to make it more complicated for Mousasi," Latifi said, perhaps a little hopefully. "He was preparing for something else and he's now fighting a wrestler. Of course I think that's one advantage I have."

Mousasi's last loss was to Muhammed (King Mo) Lawal, a wrestler who kept him on the ground for most of the 2010 fight. Mousasi, whose background is kickboxing, lost his Strikeforce title in a five-round decision.

On paper, the matchup would be a huge ask for Latifi even if he had proper preparation time.

Born in Tehran and raised in the Netherlands, the 27-year-old Mousasi has been a pro since 2003 and has fought in Strikeforce, Pride, K-1, Deep and Dream. He holds wins over Canadian Denis Kang, Melvin Manhoef, Renato (Babalu) Sobral, Hector Lombard, Jakare Souza and Cyborg Santos.

A native of Malmo, some 600 kilometres from Stockholm, Latifi divides his time between the two.

He turned pro in 2008, having taken up MMA after ending his wrestling career. He comes into this fight having won his last three outings since dropping a decision to Emanuel Newton on a Shark Fights card in July 2011 in Frisco, Texas.

Latifi usually teaches wrestling when he is not fighting, explaining that the opportunities to make money at MMA in Europe are not as good as in North America. But he is currently unemployed, another reason why Saturday's fight is welcome.

Born in Malmo to Albanian parents, Latifi was a top amateur Greco-Roman wrestler in Sweden. But his competitive road was blocked by having Ara Abrahamian in the same weight class.

"It was a rough time taking his place," said Latifi, who speaks Swedish, English and Albanian and can weigh as much as 230 pounds these days.

Abrahamian is a two-time world champion who won a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics. But most know him from the 2008 Olympics when he refused to accept his bronze medal because of a controversial ruling in the semifinal.

Abrahamian was disqualified from the Games and later banned for wrestling for two years, although that suspension was subsequently overturned.

"A very nice guy," said Latifi. "I felt a lot when he lost because I knew that he deserved that medal and I knew all the (crap) happening in the judging."

To a lesser extent, Latifi finds himself in the spotlight this week.

"It's very different, with all the media," he acknowledged. "People have been calling me from all around the world.

"I haven't really understood it."

The injury is a setback to Gustafsson, who would have moved a step closer to a 205-pound title shot with a win over Mousasi.

The UFC likely wasn't too happy about it either.

Ilir Latifi (Photo: Josh Hedges/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Josh Hedges/Getty Images)
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