Dennis Buzukja found as big a stage as he could to make his debut as a professional mixed martial arts fighter last month. Nassau Coliseum. Bellator.
Several thousand people saw him perform for his seventh overall MMA fight but just his first with a paycheck.
Buzukja, who is from Staten Island and now lives in Seaford as he trains with the Serra-Longo fight team, called the experience “so addicting.” That’s perhaps why he booked his next fight on the walk back to the locker room.
“The second I walked out of the cage after I won, I stepped out and I walked past Lou,” Buzukja said, referring to Lou Neglia, who promotes Ring of Combat and helped Bellator put together its undercard for the Long Island event. “I gave him a hug and I said thank you for everything. And he said, ‘Nov. 16, think about it.’ I was like, ‘Let’s go!’ So, 10 seconds out of the fight, I was like ‘Let’s go, who’s next?’ Just a young kid, you know, ready to take on the world.”
Buzukja, 1-0 as a pro and 5-1 as an amateur, faces Nick Rodrigues (2-1) of North Carolina in a lightweight bout at Ring of Combat 66 at The Tropicana in Atlantic City on Friday night.
Buzukja turned 21 last month and has the confidence and invincible feeling to match. But, his maturity level would have many questioning that "1997" on his birth certificate.
He’s the son of immigrant parents from Albania and has a younger brother and sister. He moved to Long Island on “a leap of faith” to live with UFC fighters Al Iaquinta and Aljamain Sterling. Amid his training, he remains a part-time student at the College of Staten Island pursuing a degree in sociology.
“There’s always somebody out there working harder than me, or trying to beat me,” Buzukja said. “I always keep that in the back of my head so that I don’t get outworked.”
Buzukja’s fight is just one part of a very active weekend for the Serra-Longo fight team. UFC flyweight Ulka Sasaki, who has been training with Ray Longo for almost a year, faces Alexandre Pantoja in Argentina on Saturday. Mizuki Inoue faces Viviane Pereira in an Invicta strawweight bout on Friday in Oklahoma.
Most fighters make their first walk as a professional in a smaller venue than NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum. Most do so in smaller promotions than Bellator, and on a night not headlined by one of the sport’s best all-time fighters in Fedor Emelianenko. Such was life for Buzukja, who credited his cornermen of Longo, Iaquinta and former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra for keeping him in the moment and making sure that moment didn’t become bigger than it needed to be.
“I remember when I stepped in the cage and I just looked up and I saw the whole arena, just all those people, all those bright lights, different type of lights from the amateur ranks, I don’t know man, it still feels like a dream,” Buzukja said. “I was just so in the moment, so on cloud nine that I won the fight, it was just like, ‘This is real.’ I just love it. It’s so addicting. I can’t wait to get back in there. I just want to fight every weekend now.”