Imagine two mythic giants from yore, reborn as mixed martial artists, prepared to beat the living daylights out of each other inside a steel cage on Dana White’s Contender Series for pennies on the dollar. I’m certainly here for it, which is why they pay me the small bucks and sometimes even the big bucks to write down these stories. And this dust-up was a doozy: in one corner, you had Shamil Gaziev, a mountainous Dagestani who seems to have walked straight out of the Ciscaucasian legends. Standing an imposing 6 feet 4 inches and weighing a bulky yet surprisingly light-footed 259.5 pounds, Gaziev boasts a true heavyweight reach: 78.5”, and he fights even longer. Representing Bahrain for public relations grandeur, but undeniably Dagestani to his core, the taciturn, uni-browed, and neckbearded Gaziev is no mere mortal but a well-rounded pressure wrestler on a 11-fight winning spree.
In the opposing corner stood Greg Velasco, colloquially known as "The Viking King” to the handful of on-the-spectrum obsessives who follow the regional fighting scene. He's an equally massive American who measures 6 feet 2 inches in height and tips the scales at 263.5 pounds. Intriguingly, Velasco's 70-inch reach makes him appear deceptively shorter. Hailing from Union Beach, New Jersey, Velasco was a psychology major and collegiate wrestler at Rider University, where his skills on the mat were honed to a razor's edge over the course of a career that saw him qualify for the NCAA tournament—he wasn’t much of a winner, to be sure, but he did the work of keeping his broad shoulders off the mat. With a background in track and football and good jiu-jitsu skills to boot, I thought Velasco was a fun bet at +600. Can’t win you if you don’t play, am I right?
The atmosphere was as electric as a crowd-free gym can be when referee Jason Herzog signaled the commencement of the evening’s featured bout. In a display of raw power and precision, Gaziev’s opening salvo was a devastating right hand that connected squarely with Velasco’s jaw, instantly felling the American. Like Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, meeting its mark, the punch showcased Gaziev's formidable striking abilities—he hits you and you go down.
But wrestling is Velasco's bread and butter, and as Gaziev pursued him to the ground, "the Viking King" proved why. Velasco’s quick reflexes enabled him to recover, deftly scrambling to take Gaziev's back. Though it seemed like the perfect setup for a rear-naked choke, Velasco was slightly misaligned, his positioning hampered by the Russian's width—those T-Rex arms and legs of the former NCAA qualifier wouldn’t fit around the bigger man’s body. Prior to the fight, former interim heavyweight champ Ciryl Gane, as shrewd and skilled a heavyweight striker as anyone on the active roster right now, complimented Gaziev, focusing his praise on the Dagestani’s size. “He’s so big,” Gane explained, awestruck despite being the same height as Gaziev. But that’s understandable: two men can appear to be the same size, at least on paper, yet one is much smaller on the inside. Gaziev, shambling and sloppy, fights big; Gane, dexterous and sculpted from marble, fights small.
Against Velasco’s unexpected pressure, Gaziev used the bigness with which he had been blessed to effect a masterful turn, reclaiming the top position and effortlessly passing to half guard. His long forearms pressed into Velasco’s neck like a vice grip, an unbearable pressure that foreshadowed the looming end. Advancing to full mount, Gaziev's fists rained down, causing Velasco to give up his back. Gaziev initiated a rear-naked choke, tightening his grip around Velasco's throat. Perhaps wishing to fight another day, Velasco failed to resist the hold, seemingly frozen as Gaziev applied the inexorable squeeze. The tap out was inevitable and at the 2:38 mark of Round 1, the battle was won.
Shamil Gaziev, now in possession of a UFC contract, modestly deflected the adoration that post-fight interviewer Laura Sanko showered upon him. "My goal is to win a title," he told her, the words hanging in the air, each guttural utterance a portent of the dread he plans to instill in future opponents. "That day, you will see me happy."
As for Greg Velasco, his journey might’ve suffered a setback, but it's far from over. His wrestling background and jiu-jitsu acumen make him a compelling character in the bare-cupboard world of heavyweight MMA; we can probably expect to see him in the UFC sooner or later, perhaps losing to the likes of Chris “Beast Boy” Barnett or Martin Buday on short notice.
Tonight, however, belonged to Gaziev, Dagestan’s latest undefeated prospect in the UFC. His victory confirmed that the UFC’s heavyweight division has a new behemoth to reckon with, a man who towers not just in height but in ambition—and perhaps a logical next opponent for Buday, a similarly-proportioned Slovak who doesn’t seem like he’s ready for a top 15 opponent despite his own winning streak. For Gaziev, choking out Velasco was the beginning, and the end remains years in the future. Mark these words: The day the big Dagestani claims a title, be it in the UFC octagon or elsewhere, is the day we'll witness the full manifestation of a sizable legend in the making.