Kairat Akhmetov likes to keep his family close, especially when he is going through periods of triumph and turbulence.
The 29-year-old may now be the undefeated ONE Flyweight World Champion and own an impeccable 23-0 professional mixed martial arts record, but things were not always such smooth sailing when he was younger.
While “The Kazakh” was gifted, 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.
Family Is Everything
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,” the champ 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 mixed martial arts and dreamed about 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 at mixed martial arts. 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 23-0, the best record of any flyweight in mixed martial arts history. It also moved him within one win of tying the honor for longest active win streak.
“Since I was kid, I was following mixed martial arts and I had a dream to become a fighter,” 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 trains at Tiger Muay Thai & MMA. There, he is preparing for his 5 August title unification clash against Adriano Moraes at ONE: KINGS AND CONQUERORS in Macao.
“For five years, I went to fight 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.”
While Akhmetov wants to prove he is a fighting champion, and truly live up to his childhood dream in an even bigger capacity, 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.”