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As some may guess based on my name, I was born in Russia, a country
with an incredibly rich, successful MMA tradition. It includes
legends regarded among the greatest ever, Fedor
Emelianenko
and Khabib
Nurmagomedov
, several other outstanding young champions who
have that potential, such as Petr Yan and
Vadim
Nemkov
, and three highly successful domestic promotions in
M-1 Global, Absolute Championship Akhmat and Fight Nights Global.

And who was the first Russian MMA star that preceded all of this?
There were actually two: Oleg Taktarov
debuted in the UFC in April of 1995 and won UFC 6 in mid-July,
while Mikhail
Ilyukhin
triumphed at the inaugural IAFC tournament held in Moscow on July 1, 1995,
winning five times in a single night. Unfortunately, not every
pioneer is a paragon of virtue. Taktarov is by all accounts a
wonderful person and a true martial artist who displayed some of
the most amazing, inspirational heart in MMA history in his
battles. On the other hand you have Ilyukhin, one of the sport’s
all-time dirtiest fighters and outright cheaters, and not for lack
of competition. Let’s take a closer look at this curious
character.

Ilyukhin was a relatively short but very powerfully built grappler,
generously listed at 5-foot-9 and weighing between 210 and 215
pounds in his prime, with very little of that being fat. His
background was listed as sambo, but a lot of his success came down
to plain old wrestling, taking opponents down with double-legs in
an era when no one except grapplers had any takedown defense. From
there, he would use his sambo to submit them, oftentimes going for
risky ankle locks and kneebars that would give up position. Winning
five fights in a single night seems insane today, and is certainly
a worthy achievement, but Ilyukhin’s opponents that night had very little fighting
ability
. Ilyukhin would take them down and submit them
immediately, having an enormous advantage in physical strength as
well as skill. His first four opponents lasted less than three
minutes total, a truly incredible statistic. His opponent in the
finals was a little more slippery and might have had some very
rudimentary ground skills, as he survived an entire three minutes
and 54 seconds.

The second IAFC event was held in November of 1995. The format was
the same, but this one was much tougher, attracting not only better
domestic talent, but quality fighters from Ukraine and even Brazil,
like 6-foot-8 future Pride Fighting Championships competitor
Ricardo
Morais
. Ilyukhin knew that winning wouldn’t be as easy, which
is when two infamous examples of his cheating occurred. After
easily submitting his first two opponents in under three minutes
total, he faced a 22-year-old Ukrainian who was listed at 200
pounds, but looked much scrawnier. His name was Igor
Vovchanchyn
.

Now, Vovchanchyn was still far from the legend he would become a
few years later. He was smaller and weaker and hadn’t yet developed
his grappling skills, or properly adapted his kickboxing base into
MMA. In fact, Vovchanchyn’s first MMA fight had come only a month
before. However, Ilyukhin found his opponent, green as he was, to
be difficult to overcome. While Ilyukhin quickly took him down,
Vovchanchyn already had a few wrestling and ground fundamentals,
and simply refused to give up. At one point, when Ilyukhin went for
an Achilles lock, his favorite submission, Vovchanchyn correctly
tried to keep his ankle straight, and pounded away on the Russian
from the top. Ilyukhin eventually regained top control, but with no
time limit, and over six minutes having elapsed already, he
desperately wanted to end the match. So he chose a shortcut.

This early MMA event had few rules. Fighters could pound away on
the back of the head of an opponent, deliver any kind of elbow they
wanted, soccer-kick or head stomp, knee downed opponents, grab the
cage, or break someone’s fingers (small joint manipulation). One
exception was that no eye-gouging of any kind was permitted.
Ilyukhin decided to ignore that, wedging his chin into
Vovchanchyn’s eye-socket and pushing it in with all his might. As
absurdly tough as the Ukrainian was, he had no choice but to tap.
Calling the action live, the Russian commentators were confused
about what happened, believing that Ilyukhin had applied a unique
choke they didn’t understand, or that Vovchanchyn had given up for
no apparent reason. Back then, very few people understood
grappling, analysts included. And Ilyukhin himself blatantly lied
in the post-fight interview, answering that yes, it was a
choke.

Eye-gouging an opponent to win and lying about it is bad enough.
But Ilyukhin wasn’t done yet. After the match against Vochanchyn,
which at six and a half minutes had been the longest of the event
thus far, he was worried about his energy for the last two fights,
especially since a showdown with the aforementioned Brazilian
monster Morais loomed in the finals.

His semifinal opponent was Akhmed
Sagidguseinov
, not only a fellow sambo practitioner, but a
training partner of Ilyukhin’s. What followed is in my opinion
perhaps the most hilariously fixed, fake fight in MMA history. It
makes Mark Coleman
vs. Nobuhiko
Takada
seem legitimate and serious by comparison. Just take a
gander at this farce.

Sagidguseinov instantly flopped onto his back the moment Ilyukhin
grabbed hold of him, and from there, calmly lay flat, almost
relaxing, while Ilyukhin applied a loose ankle lock, at which point
he immediately tapped. The entire fight lasted five seconds, which
would be one of the fastest submissions ever if it were legitimate.
It was so bad that even the English play-by-play guy who appeared
to know little about fighting — yes, this event had both a Russian
and an English commentary team, which was ahead of its time — could
sense something was very wrong.

Ilyukhin’s efforts were not rewarded. In the finals, he did indeed
face Morais. After the Russian took him down early, Morais scored a
nifty sweep that one still sees used today, after which he battered
Ilyukhin with elbows and punches to the back of the head before
securing a rear-naked choke at almost 10 minutes in. It’s a classic
of old-school MMA and I advise every reader to check it out, as it
can be seen at the end of the video embedded above.

Murky circumstances also surround Ilyukhin’s most famous fight, a
1999 victory over Randy
Couture
in Rings. In this case, however, it’s only partially his
fault. After being dominated by Couture the whole fight, beaten up
on the feet and out-wrestled, Ilyukhin found himself on his back,
holding onto a kimura from his half-guard. Couture wasn’t
particularly bothered by it. Since they were close to the ropes,
the referee decided to restart them in the middle of the ring.
Ilyukhin did so, only this time he put Couture in his closed full
guard before taking the kimura: a different, more dangerous
position. The referee either failed to notice or chose to allow it,
Ilyukhin immediately cranked the hold at the restart and Couture
tapped. Couture and his corner, including Dan
Henderson
, protested, but to no avail.

Even Ilyukhin’s last professional fight, against Jordanas
Poskaitas, was a foul-plagued circus. The fun starts around the
eight-minute mark. In Rings, one was not allowed to hit a downed
opponent in the head, regardless of the fighters’ relative
positions. When Poskaitas threw a punch from his back at Ilyukhin,
an illegal blow, the Russian went berserk. After gesticulating to
the referee, he immediately threw two punches to the head of the
still-downed Lithuanian, and when the referee pulled him back, he
shoved the official as hard as he could and continued trying to
attack his downed opponent, including another punch to the head and
an attempted stomp. The crowd was in a fervor at this point and a
flood of men arrive to the ring to control Ilyukhin. Eventually,
several officials wrestled and restrained him to the ring
apron.

Amazingly, the fight was not stopped at that point. They resumed
fighting and at the beginning of Round 2, Ilyukhin successfully
applied a standing ankle lock and Poskaitas tapped. Naturally,
Ilyukhin refused to let go of the hold even after the referee
physically struggled with him. It’s only after the referee pushed
him down that the hold was released. Rousimar
Palhares
would have been proud.

Thus ended the career of Mikhail
Ilyukhin
. I remember well my excitement a few years ago when I
started first round out about this accomplished pioneer of Russian
MMA, and my disappointment the more I learned. On an amusing note,
the first and third videos above come from Ilyukhin’s own YouTube
channel. According to his most recent video from 2016, he is now a
coach, including of children. For all I know, he has mellowed in
his middle age or turned over a new leaf. Regardless, I hope he
doesn’t teach his young pupils the tactics from his fights
mentioned above.


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