Fighting out of Yakutsk, Eastern Siberia, a port city on the Lena river, the capital of the Sakha Republic, Russia, and one of the coldest and most remote cities in the world, Grigory Popov has risen through the ranks of professional Muay Thai and MMA to become one of the best flyweight prospects in the world. At 33 years old, Popov has arrived relatively late to the sport of mixed martial arts, but his dazzling striking skills have made him an attractive and lucrative proposition both in Russia, as well as in another burgeoning hotbed of MMA, China.
“In China, MMA is developing at a rapid pace,” Grigory told The MMA Vanguard. Indeed Grigory has fought twice in the People’s Republic, first in Zhengzhou, then in Changping, cities almost a thousand miles apart, and much further still from either his home in Yakutsk, or his other fight camp at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand. If evidence was needed that the global village is real, then the success of prizefighter Grigory Popov goes some way to showing what is possible.
But Popov has aspirations that extend beyond the borders of Russia, China, Thailand, even Asia. Grigory Popov and his team want to compete on an even greater stage. The ambition is to compete in the UFC, and with the UFC’s eyes now trained on the Asian market, dominated as it is by ONE Championship, somebody like Grigory could hold a great deal of appeal. The UFC needs athletes that hold familiarity and appeal in these enormous, fertile hunting grounds, and while only a handful of Asian stars have truly made the grade in the biggest promotion MMA has ever known, Popov has real hope.
“Yes of course I want [to compete] in USА and Europe,” Grigory told us, “My friend, brother, and student Oleg Olenichev and I got into the [Tiger Muay Thai] team [because we] wanted to get into the UFС. To this day we are working and trying. The dream is [to fight in] the UFС at 57 kg [125 lbs], where the current champion is Demetrious Johnson.”
Lofty goals indeed, and while the journey can be long and arduous, Popov is 12 fights down the line and sports an outstanding record – not only in MMA, but in Muay Thai as well. In fact, Grigory has competed so many times in Muay Thai that he no longer recalls his exact record: “I can not exactly say [how many professional Muay Thai fights I have had],” he says, before estimating: “[I’ve had] about 30 battles of which 25 were wins!” His MMA record, however, is much clearer: “I’m 11-1 in MMA.”
Reaching 12 professional MMA fights hasn’t been easy. “I tried MMA for the first time in 2008,” Grigory tells us, “And began seriously training in 2012.” We asked him how the level of competition in MMA compared to Muay Thai. He told us: “For me, in Muay Thai there is a great competition in the lighter weight classes,” adding: “It’s hard to compare exactly.” What we do know, however, is Grigory’s record in both sports is exemplary.
Popov’s mention of 2012 as the start of his ‘serious training’ in MMA coincided with his debut in the sport. Fighting three times in three months for the Far Eastern Modern Pankration Federation at the end of 2012, Popov amassed one TKO and two decision wins. Two of his conquests, Evgeniy Ryazanov and Abdul Gayirbegov, have since gone on to have long and successful MMA careers of their own, both with fight tallies in double figures and having competed for recognizable promotions. Those wins behind him by the end of December 2012, Popov would not compete in MMA for a full 23 months.
“The reason for the long break is that I moved to Phuket, Thailand” Grigory explains. “There I competed in Muay Thai and K1 [kickboxing] in China. Then I met my current friend and manager, Sayat Abdrakhmanov. He suggested that I start focusing again on MMA.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Refocussed, Popov bested debutant Arip Yakubov in his return fight in November 2014, and took another fight just a month later. This time he would face a man with a record of 14-4-1, and with a huge experience advantage. Not only that, the fight would take place at lightweight, a class significantly higher than Popov’s natural weight, and at short notice. The deck was stacked against him. To make matters worse, Popov’s opponent, Alexey ‘Gladiator’ Polpudnikov was fighting in his home town of Khaborovsk, and Grigory is adamant that there were shady dealings with regards to the rules under which the fight took place.
“Against Polpudnikov, I was asked to compete as a substitute because the [original opponent] from Uzbekistan suffered an injury. My weight at that time was 62-63 kg, and the fight took place at 67 kg. I knew that Polpudnikov’s [natural] weight was about 77-78 kg, but I agreed to fight on the condition that elbows and knees [would be legal] both standing and on the ground. The [promoter’s] gave their consent, and that there would be MFP [Modern Fighting Pankration] rules. I only got one week’s notice, but I was ready for battle.”
“When I came to Khabarovsk, they talked about the rules at the weigh ins and said that elbows and knees would be legal. [However] when I entered the ring the referee told me that there would be no elbows and knees allowed,” Grigory states, understandably still unhappy about he situation. “I was just at a loss,” he continued, “Then I approached my coach and said that my elbows and knees were banned. We could [have] refused the fight, but [instead] we agreed to fight as it was. After a moment, we were called forward and told that there were no elbows in the clinch or on the ground. There would be no standing knees [either]. The rules were changed then and there. [The problem was] my elbows and knees are my crowning blows.”
If the situation wasn’t confusing enough, Grigory told The MMA Vanguard that these new rules weren’t properly adhered to anyway. The fight started, and after both fighters exchanged a few strikes, Polpudnikov took Popov down. “Here,” Grigory explains, “I was like a fish out of water.” Polpudnikov struck him with elbows from guard, much to Popov’s confusion, and to no admonishment from the referee. “He struck me with his elbows,” Popov explains, “So confused, I began to push him with my feet, thinking that elbows on the ground were legal after all. At that moment, I [failed to defend one of] the blows, and was knocked out.”
The full fight can be seen here.
To this day, the loss to Polpudnikov remains Popov’s sole defeat. “The [organizers] have this fight on their conscience. After that, I decided I will not trust these people anymore. His elbows to the head were clear, and I, Polpudnikov himself, and referee Dmitry Sazonov [knew it].”
Perhaps surprisingly, Popov has since trained with Alexey, but he’s unlikely to forget the sense of injustice felt that night in Khabarovsk. “What they did behind my back [that night] they did before the eyes of the HIGHER,” Popov says, referring to his faith. “I’m not angry with them, but in everything there is Karma. It was such an unpleasant incident with Polpudnikov, and few people really know the truth. The facts are known [only] to a narrow circle of my friends.”
Since that night, Popov has gone some way to repairing any damage he may feel was done to his reputation. From a respectable 4-1 mark, Grigory racked up a pair of wins in 2015 against two more debutants, winning via Gogoplata against Rashid Gasanov, before challenging undefeated Portuguese prospect Vando de Almeida in February 2016. That fight, at bantamweight, would see Popov garner the second submission victory of his career, and improve his overall record to 7-1. What’s more, his performances had caught the attentions of WuLingFen, a Chinese promotion who wished to pit him against an unbeaten national in the form of Aoriqileng (2-0).
The first of his two fights in China, Popov’s technical excellence in the striking stakes and improving all round game proved too much for Aoriqileng, who was submitted in the second round by a rear naked choke. Hexi Getu (4-1) would last longer, making it to the third and final stanza in their bout from Changping, but he too would taste defeat, this time via a scintillating third round leaping front kick knock out!
That bout with Getu would be Popov’s first at flyweight, a division he has since committed to, and remained at in his most recent victory against South Korean opponent Sung Jae Kim. Here, Popov displayed vicious body and leg kicks, while bamboozling the Korean native with a variety of flashy strikes. While Kim showed incredible fortitude to ride out three heavily one-sided rounds of action, there was no doubt who would be declared the winner. Popov was in devastating form en route to his tenth career victory.
Now, Popov is seeking out the biggest possible platforms to compete on. While MMA in China continues to grow, and while Russian MMA is more than capable of putting on extravaganzas, the goal is, and always was, the UFC. If he isn’t already on the radar of the world’s number one promotion, he might be very soon courtesy of both their own, and the sport’s, continuing expansion.
Grigory closed out his interview with The MMA Vanguard by saying: “I want to thank my parents, my family, my children, my brothers, sisters, friends, my manager Sayat, who paves the way in this difficult sport and for his understanding and support. Special thanks to Tiger Muay Thai and Uraanhai (in Yakutsk), and Our Il Darkhan, (the head) of the Republic of Sakha Yakutia.”