Gian Villante lost his scheduled opponent a week before his fight. The next day, a replacement fighter was named. That gave Villante very little time to adjust ahead of Friday’s UFC Fight Night in Albany.
Not helping matters for the Levittown-raised Villante? His new opponent is making his UFC debut, so there’s no familiarity with him beyond whatever clips Villante could find online. Also, it took a few tries to get the search terms correct for Russian-born light heavyweight Saparbek Safarov, who also occasionally appears as Saparbeg Safarov.
“I can barely spell it to try to find him on YouTube,” Villante said. “I’m fighting a guy with a blank face.”
Villante (14-7, 4-4 UFC) was referring to the silhouette image as a placeholder for Safarov opposite Villante on the UFC.com event page for the Albany fight card the past week, a standard practice for new fighters joining the mixed martial arts promotion.
Villante had been scheduled to fight Patrick Cummins in Albany but Cummins withdrew because of a staph infection. Villante was supposed to fight Marcos Rogerio de Lima at UFC 205 in Manhattan last month, but he was forced to pull out of that fight in September to have knee surgery.
“I was definitely disappointed, I was looking forward to fighting him,” Villante said of 12th-ranked Cummins. “It was more just about getting a fight once I found out. I didn’t care if they gave me [No. 1 ranked] Anthony Johnson. I just wanted to fight. I was ready to go.”
Villante, the No. 14 ranked light heavyweight in the UFC, last fought in March at UFC 196 when he lost a unanimous decision to Ilir Latifi. Safarov (8-0) has finished all of his opponents in Russia and Ukraine before signing with the UFC on short notice. Safarov, from Dagestan, Russia, has six knockouts and two submissions. Only his last fight, against Rodney Wallace at WFCA 17 in Russia, lasted more than one round.
This is the first time Villante, who trains out of Bellmore Kickboxing Academy, will compete in his home state in MMA. The last time he competed in an official athletic event in New York was as an All-American football player for Hofstra in 2007. He began his MMA career in 2009 with fights in Ring of Combat in New Jersey, just as most Long Island- and New York City-based fighters did.
New York had remained the last state with a ban on professional MMA, a law enacted in 1997 and finally overturned last March. Friday’s Albany event, headlined by heavyweight Derrick Lewis vs. Shamil Abdurakhimov, is the second UFC event in New York. Queens welterweight Randy Brown also is on the card against Brian Camozzi. Villante said he expected a big showing of support from friends and family making the trip from Long Island to the state capital. The card airs on UFC Fight Pass, a digital streaming network.
This will be the first time Villante competes on a card using the early weigh-in process, which gives fighters a two-hour window in the morning to make weight rather than wait around until 4 or 5 p.m. local time for the official weigh-in show like in years past.
Villante didn’t expect that to be a problem since he usually gets to the right weight the night before.
“I’m not a morning person,” said Villante, who weighed in Thursday morning at 205.8 pounds to Safarov’s 205. “So I don’t like waking up early and cutting the extra weight.”