Ilia Topuria walked out of the tunnel onto the 100-year-old Estadio de Mestalla soccer field in Valencia, Spain on September 4, along with fellow UFC fighter Brandon Moreno. The home team, Valencia CF, was warming up for that night’s game against Getafe CF. Topuria and Moreno were present as part of a collaboration between the UFC and the famous Spanish La Liga.
When Topuria and Moreno appeared, some fans ran down the stands to ask for photos. Some recognized Moreno, the first Mexican-born UFC champion. Others, however, shouted: “Ilia! Ilia!”
Topuria, 26, lives in Alicante, about two hours by train from Valencia, and has quickly become the biggest star in Spanish MMA, probably of all time. Four months after visiting Mestalla, Topuria defeated fellow upstart Bryce Mitchell via second-round submission at UFC 282 on December 10. He said things have gotten even better for him in Spain since then.
“It’s like everyone recognizes me on the street when I go out,” Topuria told ESPN. “In Madrid, in Barcelona, in my city, in my hometown everyone knows me.”
Topuria has a chance to take things to the next level this weekend. On Saturday, he will compete in his first UFC main event against Josh Emmett at UFC Fight Night in Jacksonville, Fla. (3 pm ET on ABC). Emmett is coming off an interim featherweight title fight in January, and a win over Emmett would put Topuria squarely in the title conversation. ESPN’s featherweight rankings have Emmett at No. 7 and Topuria at No. 10 (UFC ranks Emmett at No. 5, Topuria at No. 9).
It’s not just that Topuria is very good, one of the most complete fighters in the division. In MMA, fighters can be elite but not necessarily big stars. The multilingual Topuria has the opportunity to be both. His Instagram, which is reaching 800,000 followers, shows the fit, tattooed and impeccably coiffed fighter wearing couture. Recently, he was selected for a role in the Spanish edition of GQ magazine. The YouTube page that he started four months ago already has nearly 70,000 subscribers and has clearly become a big deal in his adopted home country with just five fights in his UFC career.
“People outside of the MMA world who don’t even watch the sport are starting to recognize his name, and that’s something that has never happened with any MMA athlete here before,” said Laura Fernandez, a UFC presenter for Eurosport on Spain.
Topuria has adopted his nickname “El Matador”, although he was not actually born in Spain. His Georgian parents had Topuria in Germany before returning to Georgia as a family when Topuria was 7 years old. Back in his homeland, Topuria and his brother Aleksandre, also an up-and-coming MMA fighter, began training in Greco-Roman wrestling, a sport in which Georgia has won eight Olympic medals.
Topuria’s love of martial arts had ignited, but then his family moved to Alicante, a palatial city on the southeastern coast of Spain. Spain is not known for martial arts, let alone wrestling. Topuria’s mother stumbled across the Climent Club, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu academy. The first of its kind in Alicante, the gym was founded in 2002 by Argentine brothers Agustín and Jorge Climent, who had trained in their home country with the students of grappling pioneer Carlson Gracie.
It wasn’t quite Greco-Roman, but Topuria fell in love.
“From the first day I walked into the gym, it was like something magical happened to me,” Topuria said.
With wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu under his belt since he was a child, Topuria began to work more on his boxing, which has had an impact. He has three standout knockouts in his five UFC wins. For this camp against Emmett, Topuria spent the last five weeks at Kill Cliff FC in Deerfield Beach, Florida, bringing along some of his Climent Club coaches.
Kill Cliff head trainer Henri Hooft said Topuria has been working out everyone in his weight class in the gym, from Dagestan wrestlers to top-tier punchers, and has performed very well. Topuria recently feuded with the former pound-for-pound king of MMA, Kamaru Usman. Hooft compared Topuria to other young fighters in the gym, such as Ian Garry and Shavkat Rakhmonov.
“It’s so good,” Hooft said. “Not only is he technically very good everywhere, but he’s also very smart. He’s got everything you see in a guy championship-wise… A really well-rounded guy. I’ve got a couple of young Russians who are like 3-0 or 4-0, but they have amateur records of 24-0 and have won Dagestani championships. They wrestled with him and they all said the same thing: ‘Wow, he’s really good.’ Not only is he strong, but he knows the positions, especially for a guy who trains mainly outside of Spain, where he doesn’t [have much MMA]I was very surprised”.
Another thing Hooft has noticed about Topuria is her star style and swagger. It could be something European, Hooft joked. Hooft is from the Netherlands, but he said that living in Florida, “I find myself wearing shorts with socks and flip flops, that would never happen when I was at home.” Meanwhile, Topuria regularly shows off trendy outfits on social media.
“The moment he walks into the gym, you see someone walk in with a lot of confidence,” Hooft said. “Yeah, a well-dressed, good-looking guy.”
Topuria joked that her fashion sense stems from “maybe I love myself too much.”
“I always take care of myself,” Topuria said. “I always like to look good, to be good. I like to have all the best. That’s why I work so hard. Actually, that’s not something I’m really focused on, being a superstar, something like that. I just try to be myself, and if people think I look like a superstar, great.”
Although he doesn’t mind being famous, it is helping the growth of MMA in Spain, and his popularity has been an advantage.
“He is the leading figure in Spanish MMA, and he is leading the way for the next young fighters,” said Fernández.
LaLiga, one of the most important soccer leagues in the world, is also very high up in Topuria. They did not bring him to Valencia with Moreno for no reason. The UFC and LaLiga announced an official sponsorship last November. LaLiga North America head of content and distribution Adrián Segovia told ESPN that the league believes Spanish fans will follow Topuria in the future just as Spanish athletes like NBA stars Pau and Marc Gasol do and Formula 1 drivers Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz.
“We see Ilia as a breakout star in the UFC for many reasons,” Segovia said. “The first is that he’s not just a successful UFC fighter, he’s an incredible athlete overall. He’s hard-working, smart, inspiring, a good person and very, very media-savvy… He’s a star and he’s going to be a UFC champion one day.”
Topuria said he met with UFC president Dana White last year in Las Vegas, and White told him that if he makes it to the top five at featherweight, the UFC will put on a show in Spain. Topuria said that one of his goals is to do for Spain in MMA what Conor McGregor has done for Ireland, if not more.
“I feel blessed and I know that after this fight Spain is going to explode,” Topuria said. “It’s going to be huge. One thing I really want is to bring the UFC to Spain. It’s going to be huge. We’re going to fill the arena in one day. I have no doubt about it.”
Topuria first has to get past the hard-hitting Emmett, which won’t be an easy task, even though he’s predicting a knockout. If he gets the job done on Saturday and continues on this trajectory, perhaps in the future his fame as a boxer will be the reason why Spanish fans pack a soccer stadium like Mestalla.
“I have the opportunity,” Topuria said, “and I’m going to take it.”