After recording a highlight-reel finish last time out, Canadian light-heavyweight Misha Cirkunov has had to wait 18 months to step back into the UFC spotlight.
Injuries and the pandemic delayed his progress. But the 34-year-old from Toronto, by way of Latvia, is finally healthy and ready to go.
Just how far depends on a date with Ryan (Superman) Spann on Saturday in the co-main event of a UFC Fight Night card in Las Vegas.
Cirkunov (15-5-0) is ranked 11th among 205-pound contenders while Spann (18-6-0) is No. 13. They are two big men with a lot of weapons.
The main event at the UFC's Apex production facility features England's Leon (Rocky) Roberts, ranked third among welterweight contenders, and No. 13 Belal (Remember The Name) Muhammad. Roberts' original opponent, Khamzat Chimaev, was forced to drop out due to the lingering effects of COVID-19.
There are two other Canadians on the card.
Gavin Tucker (13-1-0) faces Dan (50K) Ige (14-3-0), ranked ninth among featherweight contenders. And Charles (Air) Jourdain (10-3-1) takes on Argentine featherweight Marcelo (Pitbull) Rojo (16-6-0). Rojo replaces the injured Steve Garcia.
Tucker, a 34-year-old from Ship Cove, N.L., who fights out of Halifax, has won three straight. Jourdain, a 25-year-old from Beloeil, Que., is coming off a draw with Joshua Culibao.
Cirkunov now calls Las Vegas home. He was drawn by the training, plus the fact more has been open there during the pandemic.
"Life is still kind of happening here," he said.
He needed surgery after an injury in training in January 2020. Just as he was regaining his health, the pandemic struck and everything locked down.
The Spann fight was originally set for Dec. 19, but was pushed back when Cirkunov was hurt again in training. He declined to detail either injury.
"It was kind of like a tough depressing year," he said of 2020. "And then the second lockdown and people losing jobs and businesses. Just a weird year in general for everybody.
"As a fighter, I definitely felt it as well."
Cirkunov won his first four UFC fights then lost three of his next four outings, albeit to elite opposition in Volkan (No Time) Oezdemir, Glover Teixeira and Johnny Walker. Oezdemir and Teixeira have both fought for the title with Teixeira likely due for another shot.
Cirkunov bounced back last time to submit unbeaten Jimmy (The Brute) Crute in a frenetic three minutes 38 seconds on a Fight Night card in September 2019 in Vancouver.
After lashing the Australian with a pair of body kicks, Cirkunov then took him down within 20 seconds of the opening bell. He moved into side control, then full mount. Crute reversed the position and got back to his feet.
They ended up back on the ground with Crute on top, delivering some heavy blows. A bloodied Cirkunov managed to get back to full guard, absorbing some two dozen blows while the referee hovered nearby,
Cirkunov then swept Crute, putting him in a front headlock before tying the Aussie up in a rare Peruvian Necktie choke, forcing the tap from the pretzel-like submission.
"I actually have a few more moves from the front headlock," Cirkunov said by way of warning.
He was No. 15 in the rankings at the time.
The six-foot-five Spann fought twice in 2020. He defeated (Smile'n) Sam Alvey by split decision at UFC 249 to extend his win streak to eight before suffering a first-round knockout loss at the hands of Walker last September
"It's a high-level fight … We're going to go at each other and we're going to look to finish the fight," said the six-foot-three Cirkunov, who owns a black belt in judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press