It seems like every year a new country takes firm control of the MMA world, and 2020 was a banner year for Georgia in the UFC.
2019 was a mammoth year for the Oceanic region as Alex Volkanovski, Dan Hooker and Israel Adesanya went a combined 7-0. 2020 served as a year of unparalleled success for Georgian fighters, whose six active UFC fighters earned a combined 13-1 record in a 12-month span.
"I'm very proud to be Georgian and to represent my country in the UFC," says GLORY kickboxer-turned-UFC featherweight Giga Chikadze (12-2). "Fighting is in our DNA because since day one we were fighters, warriors, but warriors to protect our family, territory and religion."
The mettle of Georgia's populace is rooted in fighting for their share. In 1991, Georgia restored its independence from the Soviet Union after passing a referendum.
"In my country, just about everyone was a fighter back in the day when I used to live there," Chikadze explains. "We spent almost 100 years in the Soviet Union."
Early life in Georgia was difficult, but it served as a proving ground for a newly independent country and its youth.
"I was growing up in the street," explains ranked UFC bantamweight Merab Dvalishvili (12-4). "I was wrestling and fighting in the street and doing stuff. When I was nine, I moved to the capital city. At that time, the economy wasn't good because in 1991 we had a war with Russia. Russia tried again to occupy us. Also at that time, that's when we left the Soviet Union. We were defending the country and started everything from zero. The economy was very bad at that time. In 2003, we had a new government and everything changed."
"I was growing up in really hard times in Georgia," shares undefeated UFC light heavyweight Roman Dolidze (8-0). "I remember times where we had no lights, no water. To get a better education, my parents sent me to the church's school. I really know what it's like to live hard times in life. Now I'm in Ukraine because I started MMA here. I have my own gym here. But I am planning on going back to Georgia to live there."
"Definitely right now it's completely different than it used to be growing up. We tried to come out of Soviet Union," Chikadze reflects. "We made it when I was born. It was kind of a rough time. Politically we had to solve a lot of issues. We didn't even have electricity, some basic things."
Just about everyone and their uncle engaged in some form of combat sport, quite literally.
"When I was born, everyone was a wrestler," Chikadze shares. "Suddenly, karate became super popular. All my family -- my cousins, my dad, all my uncles and grandpas were all wrestlers. My dad was a judo fighter... I ended up in a karate school. I started when I was 4, 5-years-old."
"We have a really good background," adds Dolidze. "We have a good sporting scene in wrestling, Greco-Roman, freestyle wrestling, judo. We have Olympic champions in these sports. These things are very important for MMA. This background helped us make such a good career in MMA."
"When I was a kid, every day was a fight," says LFA bantamweight champion Zviad Lazishvili (12-0). "That was our entertainment. We used to just fight for entertainment. It is ridiculous to say now and I'm a little embarrassed to say it, but it is the truth. I remember one day we fought 23 times in one night. It was New Year's Eve. It's so silly, right? But that's how we entertained ourselves because there was no Internet, no phones, nothing. The only thing to do was to go outside and live in the streets and have this street life. Now, it's way different. It's calmer, more professional. Way better than it was."
"I was a very bad kid," Dvalishvili admits. "I was fighting in the streets, I was fighting at school. I became a good guy when I began competing in judo and sambo. I stopped spending time in the streets and started training and staying home. Staying out of trouble."
"It was very fun for me though because kids were outside," Chikadze reminisces. "We didn't have any computers back in the day. Even when the SEGA came, it was a big thing. Only one guy would have it in the neighborhood. All the kids would be staying with him. We would have a karate sparring [tournament] to see who had a chance to play the game. We would play soccer in the streets. It was more of the friendly, big family-style living because we're not a big country. If something were to happen outside in the street, everyone would know. The entire city would know. It was definitely a lot of fun."
MMA is a rapidly evolving game with new cheat codes discovered every year. Travis Browne's hellbows, calf kicks and increased feinting are just some examples of new wrinkles that revolutionize the sport. For Georgians; however, the secret recipe is generations old.
"I believe so much in Georgian fighters. And it's not only Georgians," says Lazishvili. "It's Caucasians. This area [the Caucus region mainly consisting of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and parts of Southern Russia]. In wrestling, pole lifting and these sorts of power sports, the athletes from there are ridiculously strong. I can tell you from my own experiences when I used to train in Georgia, I would never consider myself as a strong wrestler or fighter, physicality-wise. I was just average."
"As soon as I moved out to Georgia, I training in Europe, Russia and America. Everywhere I go, they tell me, 'You're so strong for your weight class.' I thought they were joking with me," he adds. "Literally, sometimes I would wrestle with the heavyweights and I wouldn't feel their power. I could hold their hand and control it, control them in mount and side [mount]. I really believe that Georgian fighters, Caucasian fighters, Armenians, Azerbaijan, Dagestan fighters, they have so much potential."
The boom of successful Georgian fighters in the UFC has hyper-accelerated the sport's growth both in terms of available talent and fanbase. Giorgi Kokiashvili is the social media manager for Adjarasport TV, UFC and ONE Championship's official broadcast partner in Georgia.
"Tens of thousands of fans are watching MMA," Kokiashvili says. "Our UFC 254 broadcast broke every record over the internet with more than 50,000 unique viewers."
"Here we are, in 2021 with 13-1 victories in 2020. It's more like a holiday for Georgian people and Georgian supporters to see our fellows win. We are not successful in many sports but MMA has become different for us," he continues. "We win together, we support together. We know, our warriors are giving their best for Georgia."
50,000 may not appear to be a jaw-dropping number, but keep in mind MMA is still a relatively new sport in the country. Georgia has a population of approximately 4 million, less than the state of Oregon.
"10-years-ago, nobody really knows what was MMA. Most of the country thought MMA, kickboxing, karate and all these things were the same. Fighting without rules. Right now, it's getting so much more popular. They always sent me opinions about my fights, how I'm going to win, what's better for me, what I should concentrate on," Chikadze chuckles. "I'm glad they're doing this because it says to me that they are very involved in this sport right now. Back in the day, even sports journalists didn't know anything. When I use to fight in K-1 and Glory, they would put some of my highlights on TV and announce it as 'Giga just had another UFC win.' I'm like,' No, that's not UFC. It's not even MMA. I'm a kickboxer. What are you guys talking about."
"People are getting more educated. They understand more. They also see Georgian fighters' success in this field and it's awesome. Georgia is such a small country. We are 4.5 million people in the whole world. We already have six fighters in UFC," notes Lazishvili. "Countries 10 times bigger than us have one or two fighters [in the UFC]. That shows how athletic and much potential our country has. People are slowly starting to acknowledge it and I like that."
"Georgia is a very small country," Dolidze adds. "Very small country near Russia, between Russia and Turkey. We had really hard times in our history. It's very important for us to be in this position in the UFC. More and more people know about UFC and know about fights. Little by little, MMA has become the most popular sport in Georgia because of what all of our fighters are doing in the Octagon."
Lazishvili says the only things stalling a greater quantity of success for Georgia in the UFC are travel restrictions.
"This problem is still there. Even I am facing this problem, even though I live in the United States. The only reason I am not able to fight in the UFC right now is because of my documents," he asserts. "I guarantee you as soon as the visa thing gets better, you'll see so many more Georgian fighters in the UFC. There are five or six coming up fighters, young fighters, they are total beats. You will see in a couple of years when they manage their papers, there will be so many UFC fighters from Georgia."
What became most apparent over the course of conducting these interviews was the tight bond shared by the UFC's handful of Georgian mixed martial artists. Each fighter mentioned at least one of their fellow Georgians over the course of a conversation.
"We even have LFA champion who is ready to step in UFC, Zviad Lazishvili in the bantamweight division. He will be a problem for everyone when he gets there," Chikadze assures.
"I would say the biggest role was played by Merab Dvashelli," Lazishvili says of Georgia's MMA boom. "What Merab achieved showed Georgian people that we can do this. He even showed me."
"For me, he is the inspiration," he continues. "I always say that. I've known him for a long time. His talent is hard work, literally. His hard work and his heart. That is his talent. Seeing him doing what he did and where he is now if you ask me who is the best fighter in the UFC I would say Merab."
Lazishvili also credits Chikadze as an early trendsetter: "Giga Chikadze too. But in Giga's case, he is already an athlete and a fighter. He is elite in K-1. Transitioning to MMA is also another plus for Georgian fighters."
"We don't have many, but whatever we have they are talented warriors," Dvalishvili says. "They have a fighting heart and they're fighting hard. We have six Georgian fighters in the UFC and we're all doing good."
Chikadze, Dvalishvili, Dolidze and Lazishvili all now fight abroad. Dolidze trains in Ukraine while everyone else has relocated to America; however, the fighters are still deeply tied to their homeland. Dolidze plans on moving back to Georgia one day, and Dvalishvili wants to take it one step further.
"In the future, I want to do something after I retire. I want to build some gyms in Georgia," Dvalishvili reveals. "I want to help Georgian fighters to train good and train smart and fight at a big, big level."