On Friday Night, 2 December, Bulgarian Sotir Kichukov will step inside the cage and square off against Filipino-American superstar Mark “Mugen” Striegl in a catchweight bout at ONE: AGE OF DOMINATION, which broadcasts live from the Mall Of Asia Arena in Manila, Philippines.
Although he only got the call to replace Brazilian prospect Rafael Nunes three weeks ago, Kichukov is more than prepared.
“The short notice is not a problem to me. I am always ready to fight. I train all year round and being a fighter is in my blood,” the 26-year-old says. “Fighting Mark, I have no predictions. All I know is I am strong and ready, and because of this, I hope Mark is ready too.”
Striegl presents a formidable challenge. The Evolve MMA product, who calls the Philippines home, is a grappling specialist. He owns a solid 14-2 record with twelve victories coming by way of submission.
“Mugen” was on an absolute tear until he was upended by number one bantamweight contender Reece McLaren at ONE: SPIRIT OF CHAMPIONS last December. Now, he is looking to redeem himself and re-start his ascension up the divisional ladder.
Kichukov wants to get into the title picture, too. The Bulgarian, who holds a respectable 13-4 record, has eight submission wins and a pair of TKO victories to his name. His last fight, however, was a little controversial.
In his promotional debut at ONE: ODYSSEY OF CHAMPIONS back in September 2015, referee Olivier Coste called off the bout when he saw Kichukov tap out to Yusup “Maestro” Saadulaev’s arm triangle choke. The Bulgarian disputes the tap, but regardless learned a valuable lesson.
“I learned that I should signal that ‘I am ok’ during a fight. I did not tap and I never give up. I will learn from this experience and grow,” he explains. “After all, that is the past, and I am looking to the future and getting the victory. I never tap to chokes. I would rather sleep.”
What cannot be disputed is the fact that Kichukov is full of fire, something he has had all of his life.
Raised by a loving family in the Bulgarian seaside town of Pomorie, Kichukov was fortunate never to go hungry. His parents always provided for him and were more than able to put food on the table, as well as spend time with their son. An active kid, he made lots of friends in the neighborhood. He had his fair share of bullies, but he never backed down, even if they were double his size.
When he was 16, however, he was hanging out with the wrong crowd, and he knew it. Kichukov needed something positive in his life. Having remembered his love for martial arts films, most notably Jean Claude Van Damme’s Kickboxer, it was only natural for him to want to be like the actor’s character Kurt Sloane.
“I was inspired to train in martial arts because I had gotten involved with undesirable people who were not good for me, and I wanted to channel my energy constructively,” he admits. “I had no direction in my life. Martial arts gave me goals, not only physically, but also mentally and spiritually.
“I truly believe martial arts is not just about hurting people, but about bettering oneself and becoming a better human. When your find your goal, your life has purpose, you focus on your goals [and] you have discipline. This makes you a better person in life.”
In 2006, Kichukov went to the just-opened Warrior MMA club in Pomorie and extensively trained under Teodor Karastoyanov. He proved to be a quick study. In 2008, at his second competition, he won and became a Bulgarian Kickboxing Champion. He immediately made the transition to MMA, took a couple of amateur bouts, and turned professional the following year.
“In my heart, I always knew I was a fighter and this was my focus. Every area in my life improved,” recalled Kichukov. “I was regularly going to school, working hard, and doing well on tests. My teachers truly could not believe it, and I was shocked myself when I went to university.”
Kichukov had to be a little shocked, too, in regards to how well he was performing inside the cage. Making his professional debut in 2009, he became a mainstay in the Max Fight organization, racked up thirteen wins, and claimed the organization’s bantamweight championship. He did enough to impress ONE Championship officials, and they signed him in 2015.
Right before he debuted in ONE, however, he made the biggest change in his life by leaving the safe confines of Pomorie, Bulgaria, for the exciting new world of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where he trains and teaches at the state-of-the-art Saigon Sports Club.
“When I was in contact with [my teammate from Bulgaria] Georgi Stoyanov, he told me how wonderful the gym and team was at Saigon Sports Club,” said Kichukov. “Then when I came here, it was not just the gym — I loved the climate, the Vietnamese people are very friendly, and I got to meet people from all over the world in this gym, which is so cool.
“I have also met a beautiful and smart girl, who is very supportive. I am very happy here.
“I love teaching martial arts. I know how it has changed my life and I see how it has improved other peoples’ lives. This is what makes me love my job — to see people grow as I did in a truly amazing sport.”
Kichukov has remained in Ho Chi Minh City ever since arriving, and has yet to return to Bulgaria to see his friends and family. But after his upcoming battle against Striegl, he plans to return with a win and get a homecoming welcome.
“My focus is my fight and I am doing everything to get the victory,” he states confidently. “After that, I will return home to visit at Christmas a champion and make my people proud.”