How Topuria found a home in Spain and arrived at the doorstep of a title

ALICANTE, Spain — Of the 40 Olympic medals Georgia has won since its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, 19 were earned in wrestling. Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling are parts of the country’s fabric and a source of pride for the nearly 4 million Georgians in the country and those abroad.

Among those in the latter group are Ilia Topuria and his parents, who moved to Germany because of the political strife between Georgia and Russia before eventually settling in Spain. Topuria, 27, faces Australia’s Alexander Volkanovski for the featherweight title at Saturday’s UFC 298 in Anaheim, California (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV).

Despite the historical implications of Topuria’s fight with Volkanovski, “El Matador” is quick to point out that his success has been part of a master plan waiting to be fulfilled. As the first Georgian fighter to compete for a UFC title, he hopes a potential championship belt has enough sway to convince the UFC to hold an event in his adopted country of Spain.

“It gives me a sense of satisfaction, of appreciation and gratitude, that a declaration I made a long time ago is now being discussed and planned. That the new generation could fight at home and have easier access than I did,” Topuria said.

When Topuria was 7, his family returned to Georgia, where he and his brother Alexsandre turned to Greco-Roman wrestling to channel that inner warrior spirit. It wasn’t long before thoughts of Olympic medals occupied their imaginations. Still, those were quashed when the family moved again, this time to the Mediterranean port city of Alicante.

Zaza Topuria, Ilia’s father, worked seven days a week as he sought to settle his family into a new country and keep his sons in school. Their Olympic ambitions took a back seat.

“It was a bit difficult because I knew, for example, that their coach in Georgia thought they had a great future in Greco-Roman wrestling,” Zaza said. “He always said he could turn them into Olympic champions. However, life takes turns, and children have to be at their parents’ side. A gold medal is nice, but being with your parents is more important.”

Still, the Topurias refused to submit. Upon arriving in Spain, the family looked for a wrestling gym specializing in Greco-Roman, but had no luck. The boys signed up for judo, but a chance meeting steered them back into their preferred path.

“My mom was working at this place, taking care of a kid, and one time when she took him for a stroll she saw a man with cauliflower ears,” Ilia said. “She knew that wrestlers developed ears like that, so she approached him and told him about her two sons who were looking for a Greco-Roman gym, in case he knew of any close by where we could sign up.”

That man was Hamlet Perez, who practiced jiu-jitsu, grappling, MMA and other combat sports at the Climent Club. He was sure the expanded offerings would delight the boys.

The gym was established by brothers Agustin and Jorge Climent, students of legendary Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach Mario Sukata, who left Argentina amid the country’s economic crisis at the turn of the century. The Topuria brothers quickly took to the Climent Club, beginning with learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu before trying out MMA. After a few months, they would drop out of school and dedicate their time fully to their combat pursuits — inspiring Topuria’s ambition to become the best in the world. He was just 15 years old at the time.

As a result of the geographical back-and-forth experiences early in his life, Ilia learned to speak four languages by age 15: German, Georgian, Russian and Spanish. His daily training at the gym in Alicante made it easier for him to learn and adapt to the local customs.

Topuria proudly represents Georgia’s colors, but his following in his adopted home has gone beyond traditional MMA news outlets, to the point where he considers himself a Spaniard.

“All these bonds that I have, everything around me, those closest to me, the friendships I have made, it all happened in Spain,” he said. “This is where I became a professional. My parents live here, my brother, me, my house is here. My son was born here and lives here. Everything I have is here.”

The Climent coaches — who also consider themselves adopted sons of Spain — always believed there was greatness in the Topurias despite the sacrifices and challenges along the way.

“I always knew it was going to happen and frankly it happened in stages, some more difficult as with anything,” said Agustin, who has been in Ilia’s corner since the fighter’s days as an amateur.

“Time flies when everything is going well, but when it’s not it stands still, and we went through it all. We had great moments and hard ones, like in any process. Now we’re here, nearing that dream we’ve been chasing for a while, and Ilia is going to make it happen for all of us to enjoy.”



Ilia Topuria snatches Volk’s belt off the desk

Ilia Topuria is met with a crowd of boos after snatching Alexander Volkanovski’s championship belt.

Topuria’s time in the UFC has been short. He is undefeated in six fights from October 2020 to June 2023, with four of those wins coming either by KO or submission. Despite the success, Topuria’s team has changed his regimen, opting out of training in gyms in the United States and instead creating a more private setting at Topuria’s home to keep distractions at bay. There, he trains with brother Alexsandre, fellow Georgian UFC fighter Guram Kutateladze and rising Spanish prospect Pepe Torres.

The team arrived in Las Vegas three weeks ago to monitor Topuria’s weight, knowing they couldn’t take any chances with the opportunity at hand. Since his first faceoff with Volkanovski at UFC 290, Topuria has imagined these moments ahead of the biggest fight of his career. He expects his best performance to come Saturday, so much so that he has changed his X bio to read “Undefeated 15-0, UFC World Champion” — even if Volkanovski has a solid case to be considered one of the best featherweights of all time.

“I visualize a work of art against Volkanovski,” Topuria said. “Fans are really going to enjoy it, enjoy a work of art. They’re going to see what MMA really is, watching ‘El Matador’ in action.”

After the Volkanovski challenge, the next step for Topuria would be to secure an event in Spain, something UFC CEO and president Dana White has been considering. Among the possible venues for such an event would be Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, the legendary home of Spanish soccer club Real Madrid.

“Bernabeu would be legendary,” said Topuria. “If it happens there, it would be marvelous.”

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