Misha Cirkunov immigrated to Canada when he was 12 and studied judo to acclimatize to his new country. Saturday night he returns to the city he now calls home for the biggest fight of his MMA career.

Misha Cirkunov felt at ease as soon as he stepped through the door. He recognized the old, baggy gis, the worn rubber of the mats, the smell of sweat and tears and maybe a little blood. He was walking into the double gymnasium at the North York YMCA 16 years ago as a recent Latvian immigrant who didn’t speak a word of English. What he did know was a few throws and trips, and that drew him to an advertisement for a judo club he saw in a newspaper. This moment was a seminal one for Cirkunov. It changed everything.

“I almost had tears,” he says through his still-thick Russian-Latvian accent. “It was like a comfort zone where, for the first time in a long time, I felt really, really good. It was like I was back home.”

Now, Canada is home, and Cirkunov is one of the best mixed martial artists in the nation. An accomplished practitioner of judo, wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the 29-year-old has broken off three consecutive victories since joining the UFC in 2015, and is now positioned to take the biggest step of his career.

He’ll fight 24-year-old Ukrainian Nikita Krylov Saturday at UFC 206 in Toronto. Krylov is the No. 8–ranked light-heavyweight in the UFC—a dangerous, multi-faceted fighter with a 21-4 lifetime record who has never once let a fight go to a judges’ decision. A victory for Cirkunov—currently ranked No. 13 at 205-lb.—would thrust him directly into his division’s top 10, and put him well within reach of a title shot. There’s also the matter of his contract, which expires after Saturday’s fight. Win decisively and the UFC will practically have no choice but to re-up him. Lose, and anything can happen.

“It’s a crazy business. It’s never-ending game,” Cirkunov says. “I know someone like me can get chopped up after my next fight. Knowing how much I’ve done to get everything I have—it’s scary. It’s crazy. I’ve had long, crazy journey. But you know what? I love it. I love every part of it. I think about everything I’ve been through and I’m ready for anything. I can’t wait to fight.”

Ground gamer
Cirkunov, left, puts an arm-triangle hold on Ion Cutelaba during a light-heavyweight UFC bout in Ottawa in June

Cirkunov’s long, crazy journey started in Riga, Latvia, where he was born. As a kid he was social, outgoing. He swam, played basketball, competed in judo. But he was naturally bigger than all of his peers, growing to six-feet tall and 180 lb. when he was just 12 years old. He developed muscle very early, and as he ballooned he began running with the wrong crowds.

“I was big, and I was into a lot of sports. So I started hanging around with some really, really tough guys,” Cirkunov says. “Not tough guys like here in Canada, like hockey players or whatever. Like real, hardcore gangsters. Bad, bad people. I was kind of gravitating towards those circles.”

Cirkunov’s parents, understandably, weren’t pleased. They saw a better future for Misha outside Latvia. So, they immigrated to Canada, settling in a modest apartment in Toronto’s north end. Cirkunov picked up the latter half of Grade 8 at Forest Hill Public School, but he didn’t understand a word of English, which made developing friendships impossible. He moped through his days, not speaking to anyone at school and sitting alone in his room most nights feeling sorry for himself. Then, just as Cirkunov was beginning to accept his new reality, his father, Oleg, moved the family into a condominium near High Park, forcing his son to switch schools. Cirkunov had to start all over again.

Cirkunov was deeply depressed and consumed with his struggles to fit in. He remembers a social at his new school when a girl asked him to dance. Cirkunov awkwardly refused. He didn’t comprehend enough English to navigate the situation. That’s when students began circulating a false rumour that he was homosexual, on top of more gossip that he was held back several years, spurred by the fact he was more physically developed than his peers. That drove Cirkunov to isolate himself further.

Meanwhile, his parents weren’t doing well, either. His mother, Olga, worked long, tiring days on her feet as a hairstylist, struggling to build a clientele while speaking little to no English. Oleg, who was a successful power-plant engineer in Latvia, was forced to take a job as a security guard. “He was making really, really good money back home. And then he comes to Canada, he reapplies for everything—new licenses, new qualifications, all these courses. And then everywhere he applies they tell him that he’s over-qualified. He couldn’t get a job anywhere,” Cirkunov says. “I could tell that it was slowly eating him away. It was killing him.”

Oleg and Olga split up less than two years after they immigrated, making home—Cirkunov’s solace from his struggles at school—an uncomfortable place to be. “All of a sudden you have a family structure where everyone’s doing their own thing, everybody’s trying to get by. I didn’t have that family environment that most people have,” Cirkunov says. “As an immigrant when you show up, it’s pretty rough, you know? It’s very, very tough.”

No place like home
Cirkunov often trains at the Xtreme Couture gym in Etobicoke, just a 20-minute drive from UFC 206 venue Air Canada Centre

One day, as a sullen Cirkunov flipped through a newspaper filled with words he couldn’t read, he saw an advertisement for the local YMCA with a term he recognized: judo. That led him to the gym where he smelled the mats, the gis, the sweat. That’s where things turned around. “At first, judo was just something that was going to comfort me. I needed it. I needed to be in the right environment where I could kind of get a start on life here and gain confidence,” Cirkunov says. “But then I started competing, I went to national championships. It became something more.”

Citizenship was an issue. It took six years of immigration red tape for Cirkunov to officially become a Canadian when he was 18. He originally applied as a child, missed a deadline, and then had to reapply as an adult. Over those years Cirkunov won multiple Canadian championships in judo and freestyle wrestling but wasn’t permitted to compete at world championships due to his citizenship status. That extinguished any hope of Cirkunov qualifying for the Olympics and forced him to search for other opportunities to utilize his truest innate talent—throwing humans around.

“At first, judo was just something that was going to comfort me. I needed it. I needed to be in the right environment where I could kind of get a start on life here and gain confidence.”

As he finished high school, Cirkunov discovered Brazilian jiu-jitsu and moved to Las Vegas for a spell after graduation to train in the discipline with Cobra Kai’s Marc Laimon. He dabbled with opening his own gym for a while but eventually landed back in Canada at Xtreme Couture in Etobicoke and began teaching classes while working as a bouncer on the weekends. He didn’t get his first professional fight until he was 23, travelling to Montreal on little notice for little pay to compete on a card put together by Ringside MMA. Cirkunov’s bout was the first of nine that night. He knocked his opponent out in 40 seconds.

From there, he jumped from promotion to promotion, looking for as many opponents as he could in order to build his name. He began his career by fighting six times in less than two years, losing only once to an armbar submission in his second-ever fight. Along the way, he essentially paid to play and found himself in all kinds of suboptimal situations, whether he was fighting drunken brawlers while working security at Toronto nightclubs or competing legitimately but for organizations that offered zero promotion, little pay, and often blatant corruption.

Cirkunov remembers all of his fights from that era, but one stands out. It was March 2014, and he was competing within a disorganized operation called Provincial Fight Championships in London, Ont. He hadn’t fought in nearly eight months after a string of opponents dropped out of scheduled bouts. Multiple times he would show up for a fight, step on the scale, and wait hopelessly for an opponent who would never arrive to weigh in. This time, he was told he would definitely have a fight but that the PFC didn’t know who it would be against. Then, two days before the event, Cirkunov was told he would be facing Martin Desilets, a knockout artist who had finished experienced UFC veterans Victor Valimaki and Krzysztof Soszynski.

Desilets was one of the most feared 205-pounders in the country, and he had friends throughout the PFC, who figured a matchup with a relatively unknown judo specialist like Cirkunov would create ideal conditions for Desilets to score another trademark knockout. Cirkunov was paid just $500 to show up, and when he arrived and asked for a gym mat to warm up on, organizers told him they didn’t have one. “They know I’m a grappler, so of course they don’t have a mat. Not a single one. Like, I wish I even had thin carpet. But, no—concrete floor,” says Cirkunov, whose name is misspelled on the PFC’s YouTube video of the fight. “So, you can’t even warm up. I’m seeing all this and it just gave me so much more drive. I was like, ‘I’m going to upset all of your guys. You have no idea what’s coming.’”

Cirkunov rocked Desilets with a right hook five seconds into the fight, threw him to the ground, and submitted him with a triangle choke two and a half minutes later.

Almost a year after that, Cirkunov got an opportunity with Hard Knocks Fighting, a Calgary-based outfit founded by Ari Taub, a Canadian Olympic wrestler. Cirkunov was given an immediate title shot against Rodney Wallace, a former UFC light-heavyweight and easily the most accomplished, experienced opponent he had ever faced. He knocked Wallace out with a head kick two minutes into the fight.

Cirkunov defended his title just once before the UFC took notice, and inked him to a four-fight contract early in 2015. Suddenly, Cirkunov’s name was gaining traction, especially after he knocked out his first UFC opponent in four minutes and finished his second with one of the most devastating submissions in recent UFC history, cranking his opponent’s neck so far sideways he fractured his jaw. After another submission in his next fight—his third in 10 months—Cirkunov was finally given a shot against a top-10 opponent: Krylov. “It’s exciting,” Cirkunov says. “I’ve met him. He’s a really nice person, nice guy. But it’s a hard business. I’m going in and I’m planning on winning the fight. And I’m planning on being top-10 guy myself.”

“In this game, people are studying you and looking for your weaknesses. I try to show up for the fight and be a completely different person. That’s the key.”

This is true of every opponent Cirkunov will face at this level, but Krylov is the most dangerous fighter he’s ever met. The 24-year-old won the first 12 fights of his career—in a span of five months—before suffering his first loss. He’s knocked out UFC heavyweights and light-heavyweights alike. But Cirkunov is a finishing specialist himself, with only two decisions on his 14-fight record and victories in each of his last seven bouts—four by submission, three by knockout. It’s a competitive matchup, which is what the UFC wants, and what Cirkunov wants, too. That’s because, even at 29, Cirkunov is still looking to evolve and develop as a martial artist. He figures he has another decade to go in the sport. And he says he’s only getting better.

“It’s never-ending process,” Cirkunov explains. “In this game, people are studying you and looking for your weaknesses. I try to continue to improve at everything. They see one guy on tape, but I try to show up for the fight and be a completely different person. That’s the key.”

Taking sides
Cirkunov slams a kick to the side of Alex Nicholson during their bout at UFC Fight Night 82 in Las Vegas

Cirkunov is undoubtedly a completely different person today than he was when he and his family arrived in Canada. He’s fluent, successful, thriving. And he knows first hand it doesn’t always work out that way. After years of failed efforts, Oleg couldn’t make it work in Canada and moved to Russia in search of more fulfilling employment. Cirkunov still speaks to him every so often. Olga was more fortunate. She still lives in Toronto, where she’s built a strong hairstyling business near her High Park condo.

“My mom, she’s like me. We really love Canada and Canadian people,” Cirkunov says. “When we first came here it was tough. Very, very hard times. But we fell in love with it. We saw how Canadian people were—so nice and polite. And we wanted to be that. We learned the language, we found friends. All of a sudden, things get easier. We’re really happy here.”

Whatever happens Saturday night, Cirkunov won’t be going anywhere. He wants to work in MMA for his entire life. He wants to continue training the young, up-and-coming fighters he’s groomed at Xtreme Couture and, hopefully, see them through to the UFC. Of course, first he wants to win. He wants to fight for the light-heavyweight title, capture it, carry it and defend it, just like his idol Georges St-Pierre did in the UFC’s welterweight division years ago. But Cirkunov knows better than most that there’s only so much you can do. He knows that in fighting, like in life, you make the best of what’s in front of you.

“You know what? Everything I went through, it made me so much tougher. It made my skin so tough. I don’t know what you’ve got to throw at me to really get under my nerves,” he says. “I’m ready for anything. Whatever UFC or MMA or life has to throw at me, I’m ready for it. I’m ready for maybe not being employed, you know? Reality is, we’re all humans. Things happen. But no matter what, you just work hard and believe in yourself. And that’s it.”

Photo Credits

Fred Chartrand/CP
Neil Davidson/CP
L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP