Former ONE Flyweight World Champion Kairat “The Kazakh” Akhmetov knows all about perseverance in the pursuit of your dreams.
After stumbling in his cage career five months ago, the 30-year-old has an opportunity to recapture gold. He will face Geje “Gravity” Eustaquio in the main event of ONE: GLOBAL SUPERHEROES for the ONE Interim Flyweight World Championship. The title bout takes place from the Mall Of Asia Arena in Manila, Philippines on Friday, 26 January.
This is the latest step in Akhmetov’s quest to regain his world championship, and as he has shown in the past, he always comes back stronger.
Although Akhmetov now owns a sparkling professional record of 24-1, 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 older 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.
Conquering Early Obstacles
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, and followed that up a year later by winning the Asian Greco-Roman Wrestling Youth Championship. He took things to the next level in 2008 when he was coached by his grappling hero Aset Imanbaev, a Kazahkstani Olympian and decorated wrestler in his own right.
That led to a hallmark moment in both Akhmetov’s life and career, as he captured a national title in 2009.
“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 Lifelong Quest Fulfilled
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 at the time, 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, having dominated Eastern Europe.
“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 recent memory.
“Since I was kid, I was practicing 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.”
From The Pan To The Fire
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 nearly two years ago 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, Tiger Muay Thai & MMA in Phuket, Thailand, as he trained for the title unification bout against Moraes, who had previously won the promotion’s interim belt a year earlier
“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 last 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 in 24 bouts.
Rise And Rebirth
Though it was always difficult to deal with a setback of that magnitude, Akhmetov used that loss as an opportunity to rise to even greater heights. As he has shown throughout his life, setbacks have only made him stronger.
“The Kazakh” returned a month following his loss and faced Eustaquio in the headlining bout of ONE: TOTAL VICTORY.
Although Akhmetov had the edge in the opening two rounds, he tried to get the stoppage victory in the third round.
“I dropped him and was ready to finish the match, but Geje was tough and collected,” he reminisces. “I tried to finish match again with guillotine choke, but I was not successful with that, and he finished the round on top.”
Akhmetov may have gotten the split decision victory on that September night, but when he meets Eustaquio in their rematch on Friday, he will do everything in his power to finish him and claim the ONE Interim Flyweight World Championship. He will leave no doubt this time.
For “The Kazakh,” this is the next 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.”