Muhammad Mokaev made a harrowing journey to Britain via continental Europe from his homeland in Dagestan, Russia, after his mother’s death in 2012.
The Manchester-based flyweight can boost his growing reputation by extending an unbeaten record to nine fights against Jafel Filho at UFC London on Saturday.
But Mokaev’s treacherous path to the top of MMA began in Dagestan, known as the “land of the mountains,” more than a decade ago.
“I moved here as a refugee,” Mokaev explained. “I started in the sport here. I had done some training in Dagestan, but I didn’t really want to compete.”
“When I started fighting here, I was drafted to the national team and then drafted to the national team in MMA.
“I went to represent Great Britain at European and world championships.
“My father made the right decision at the right time. We went through France as refugees.
“Now I understand how he felt, because I also have a son and I understand how difficult it is to have a family.
“At the time, I didn’t understand what was happening. I thought, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ I’m the only kid at school who’s like a refugee.
“My life changed. I don’t look back.”
The years that followed proved more stable for the 22-year-old and his family, but that all changed in 2017 when they received deportation letters from the Home Office.
He said: “I didn’t know where we were going to end up. I had already lived here for five years, so I didn’t expect anything to change.”
“It was very difficult. I think some people waited 10 or 15 years for the decision. Some lost [in] cut and continued for another 10-15 years.
“They give you like £5 a day and you have to save for food and lawyers too. You can’t work, they don’t let you work officially.”
“I think it was more difficult for him. [my father] that I. I think he told the Home Office, keep my son here and send me.
“We won the court [battle] at the end of the day.”
Since then, Mokaev has thrived as an MMA fighter, but insists that other refugees deserve opportunities to pursue their own dreams.
“I don’t think they [people] understand,” he said.
“Respect refugees more. Give them a little push and motivation to change their lives. Help them open doors and show them the right path they can take.”
The same doors were opened to him through his UFC connections, he remains on his way to being one of the youngest champions in UFC history.
“I think this fight gets me up to No. 10. And I know I’m one or two fights away from the title.
“I hope to be defending it by March 2024.”
If Mokaev beats Filho in style, could he continue on a collision course with reigning UFC flyweight champion Brandon Moreno?
“I think Moreno is stylistically an easier opponent than anyone in the top 15, I know how to beat him,” Mokaev said.
“It’s a big claim, I can show how confident I am, I’m ready to quit if I lose.
“If I say something, I’ll do it.”