UFC

Latifi the opportunist

Could Latifi be primed to shock the MMA world?
International Man Of Mystery: Sweden's Ilir Latif.
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A.J. Perez

A.J. Perez previously worked at USA Today, AOL and CBSSports.com, covering beats ranging from performance-enhancing drugs to the NHL. He has also been a finalist for an Associated Press Sports Editors award for investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter.

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Given Ilir Latifi’s background, there wasn’t a chance the Swedish light heavyweight would pass up his first shot at a UFC bout.

Not even if Latifi had a matter of days to prepare for Saturday’s UFC on Fuel TV 9.

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“I thought they’d find somebody in the UFC, but as time passed, nobody wanted the fight,” Latifi told FOXSports.com. “That’s when they asked me. My goal has been to fight in the UFC. I’m ready for the UFC. I said, ‘I’ll face Mousasi.’”

Gegard Mousasi’s path toward victory in the main event seemingly got much easier when his original opponent, Alexander Gustafsson, was forced out with a facial laceration and his training partner, Latifi, was tapped as a replacement.

Saturday's coverage begins online at FOXSports.com with live prelims at 11 a.m. ET. The Main card airs on Fuel TV beginning at 2 p.m. ET.

“Alex was happy for me,” said Latifi, who was not at the gym at the time of the injury. “We’ve been training together for a while. We’re close friends. He knows my struggles in MMA and how I’ve been waiting for a shot like this. Of course, he was disappointed he couldn’t take the fight. That’s normal.”

Latifi (7-2 with one no-contest) has had 10 fights to Mousasi’s 38. And unlike Mousasi, Latifi — while he said he’s in shape — wasn’t training for a bout. On the plus side, Latifi only has to worry about a three-round fight instead of the standard five rounds for a main event. The bout duration was lowered due to the short notice for the fight.

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Latifi’s resume is not empty. He was a Swedish national wrestling champ. While he may not have fought in Strikeforce, Dream and Pride or other top leagues like Mousasi, Latifi did train with the Rashad Evans and the Blackzillians.

Probably the most notable fighter Latifi has faced since he turned pro in 2008 is Blagoi Ivanov. Ivanov defeated former MMA sensation Fedor Emelianenko in the World Sambo Championships that same year.

Latifi’s debut MMA pro fight against Ivanov, however, didn’t last long — and not because of any sort of normal stoppage. A post in the ring collapsed and the fight was deemed a no-contest.

“He was one of the first guys to beat Fedor,” Latifi said. “That fight helped people get to know me.”

Latifi, 29, gained recognition as a youngster with his wrestling, a sport he started participating in at age 6 as he went on to become one of his nation's elite.

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He grew up with his family in Rosengard, a district within the southern city of Malmo. Rosengard has a high immigrant population with massive unemployment. Riots between disenfranchised youth and law enforcement have become common over the years.

“It was like the projects,” Latifi said. “It was a tough neighborhood. I’ve lived there all my life.”

His father is a bus driver and his mother worked as a social worker. Latifi rents a one-bedroom apartment in the same neighborhood.

“I don’t live a glamorous life,” Latifi said.

Latifi is now one fight — maybe even one punch — away from possibly an MMA contract and a more comfortable existence.

“You just have to be in the right place at the right time,” Latifi said. “It’s happened before. The champ or the guy favored has lost before. I believe in myself.”

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