Family is the key to overcoming any obstacle. Just ask former ONE Flyweight World Champion Kairat “The Kazakh” Akhmetov.
The 29-year-old will have to come back from the brink once again, as the faces the Philippines’ Geje “Gravity” Eustaquio in the main event of ONE: TOTAL VICTORY. The bout will take place in Indonesia’s Jakarta Convention Centre on Saturday, 16 September.
It is the first step of the former champion’s quest to regain his title, just one month after losing his coveted belt in a rematch to undisputed champion Adriano Moraes, and suffering the first defeat of his career in the process.
Family Is Everything
Although Akhmetov now owns a sparkling professional record of 23-1, he had trouble realizing his potential when he was younger. “The Kazakh” was undoubtedly gifted, but he had to cultivate his natural talent. At times, that meant enduring a few setbacks and leaning on his family for support. Only then could he blossom.
Raised in Taldykorgan, an administrative center in Kazakhstan’s Almaty region, Akhmetov enjoyed a comfortable upbringing, though his parents still instilled strong values and morals into their children. They also had high expectations.
“I learned that the family always should be number one,” he says. “My parents taught me everything and raised me well. My father was very strict with me, but my mother was more gentle. They did a lot for my future.”
“The Kazakh” also had an elder brother, who served as one of his earliest inspirations.
“I have one elder brother, and he was the one I always looked up to,” the Kazakhstani continues. “He wanted me to succeed in life and supported me all the time. He influenced me with his confidence and determination.”
During his adolescence, Akhmetov played several sports with his friends, including football and rugby. He also watched martial arts on television, and dreamed of becoming an elite athlete competing inside the cage.
However, it was not until he was 12 that his life was forever changed when his elder brother brought him to a wrestling class. A young Akhmetov fell in love with grappling, and upon learning some of the basic fundamentals, he was thrown into the deep end.
“I had my first competition when I was 12 years old,” he recalls. “I did pretty well. After that, I fell in love with Greco-Roman wrestling. My family was happy with it.”
This made his dad especially proud, as he himself was a former amateur Greco-Roman Wrestling Champion. Now, his son was just following in his footsteps.
The Trials Of Wrestling
Akhmetov would quickly learn that becoming a champion, either on the professional and amateur level, was not an easy undertaking. He even went through a slump. Kazakhstani wrestling competitions were notoriously tough, and there was a period where he would simply lose and find it impossible to elevate himself to the next level.
That clearly frustrated him, and like so many others, he thought about stopping before his career even started.
“I had a lot of times when I lost and thought about quitting,” he admits. “But over the years, due to my obstinacy, I always kept pursuing my goals. Of course, all athletes in amateur sports, when they fail, start thinking about ending their careers. Those who overcome this difficulty can see the positives of losing.”
“The Kazakh” was determined to be better than “good”. He wanted to be great, and his family and coaches helped put the pieces together for him to achieve that. The young Kazakhstani began attending wrestling camps in different cities and countries, and that is when everything started to click.
In 2002, he became Kazakh Greco-Roman Wrestling Youth Champion in 2002, and followed that up a year later by winning the Asian Greco-Roman Wrestling Youth Championship. It was then time to take things to the next level, and in 2009, he had a hallmark moment in both his life and his career. He won a national title.
“I am most proud of the first time I won the Kazakhstan [Greco-Roman Wrestling] Championship,” he admits. “After that, I always believed in myself. That achievement gave me a lot of confidence.” Akhmetov would win that title twice more in 2010 and 2011.
A Childhood Dream Is Realized
In 2010, however, he circled back to his childhood dream, and started to try his hand in the cage. He even made his professional debut in May of that year, winning in 48 seconds via rear-naked choke. That victory was followed up with another quick one later that summer.
Both of those wins further encouraged him to leave the sport he only knew, wrestling, for the one he had dreamed about as a kid.
Akhmetov made a couple of other wise decisions, too. Although he called the Alash Pride gym his home, he regularly cross-trained with revered coach Greg Jackson at Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico as well.
Coupled with his dedication and mental strength built through Greco-Roman Wrestling, he went on a flawless run. By the time he arrived in ONE Championship, Akhmetov had already racked up a perfect 22-0 professional record.
“The Kazakh” was granted an immediate title shot at the ONE Flyweight World Championship upon his promotional debut in November 2015. He went through a five-round war with then-titleholder Adriano Moraes, and was able to snatch the belt from his grasp via split decision.
It was a culmination of a childhood dream. With the victory, Akhmetov moved to 23-1, the best record of any flyweight in the world today. It also moved him within one win of tying the honor for longest active win streak.
“Since I was kid, I was practising martial arts and I had a dream to compete professionally,” he reveals. “and I was happy to become ONE Flyweight World Champion. In Kazakhstan, I have a lot of people supporting me and following ONE.”
The Rise After The Fall
Akhmetov has always been close to his family since he was an adolescent, but now that he is a father with a wife and three children of his own, he is even more driven to perform to the best of his ability.
“Family is my main motivation,” he states. “They help me psychologically and mentally, and I draw strength from them, and work even harder when they with me.”
It was also the closeness of family that gave him the strength to power through the biggest setback of his competitive career, that being a longtime back injury that was re-aggravated last year in New Mexico.
At one point, the pain was so bad, it caused him to consider retirement. But the support of his family would erase that doubt, and drove him back into the life he loves.
Realizing the impact his family has on him, “The Kazakh” decided to move his entire household with him to Phuket, Thailand, as he trained for the title unification bout against Moraes, who had previously won the promotion’s interim belt a year earlier, at Tiger Muay Thai & MMA.
“For five years, I went to training camps in different countries, and my family always stayed at home. I did not spend enough time with my kids, and missed them a lot,” he says. “This time, I decided to come to Thailand with my family, so I can train hard with my motivation always next to me.”
Akhmetov made his illustrious return to the cage this past August and met Moraes in the heavily anticipated title unification bout at ONE: KINGS & CONQUERORS. Cage rust was apparent, however, as the Brazilian simply outpointed the hesitant champion. Moraes won via unanimous decision, captured the undisputed title, and handed “The Kazakh” his first career loss.
Though it is always difficult to deal with a setback of this magnitude, Akhmetov is using this latest loss as an opportunity to rise to even greater heights.
“I learned that I cannot stop learning and evolving [if I want] to keep winning. I cannot afford to have weaknesses. Now I know on what I should work on more, and to never give up.”
On Saturday, 16 September, just six weeks following his lone defeat, he will clash with Team Lakay’s Geje “Gravity” Eustaquio in the main event of ONE: TOTAL VICTORY, live from the Jakarta Convention Center in Indonesia.
For Akhmetov, this is the first step to regaining the ONE Flyweight World Championship. But now, he is not doing it to satisfy a childhood pleasure, as he now has another purpose in life. That purpose is to provide his children with a comfortable lifestyle, and an upbringing packed with strong values, much like the one he and his elder brother experienced when they were growing up.
“I want my kids never to be in need,” he states. “Firstly, I want them to be religious. And like my father, I want to give them a good education, and to respect their elders. I want them to be honest, and have a fear of God. I want them to continue in my ways and reach great heights.”