When he first arrived in New York at age 22, Merab Dvalishvili wasn’t sure this was the place for him.
He always dreamed of coming to the United States and fighting at the highest level. When he arrived from Georgia (the country), half a world away from family and friends, it didn’t quite feel like home.
That is, until he met trainer Ray Longo.
“When I come here, I don’t know nobody, just Georgian friends, but they don’t know about MMA, they just working here. It takes time,” Dvalishvili said. “I found Ray and I found this gym, everything changed, everything is easier.”
Dvalishvili, 26, makes his UFC debut Friday, facing veteran Frankie Saenz in a bantamweight bout at UFC Fight Night 123 in Fresno, California. It’s an opportunity he says he wouldn’t have if not for Longo and his teammates at LAW MMA in Garden City.
“This is my big family here,” Dvalishvili said. “When I come here, everybody loves me and helps me and we help each other.”
Dvalishvili says he was fairly well-known in Georgia before leaving thanks to his days competing in judo and sambo. But when he decided to pursue a career in mixed martial arts, he knew a move would be necessary.
“My dream was UFC and my life is fighting. If you want big fights and want to train good, you come to USA. That’s why I come here.” he said.
With a decent Georgian population in the area, Dvalishvili chose New York and settled in New Hyde Park. At times, he thought about moving to Brooklyn to be closer to friends who’d moved from their home country to the Brighton Beach area.
But one chance meeting later, Dvalishvili scrapped those plans.
During a training session at Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan, Dvalishvili was working with his friend and fellow fighter David Tkeshelashvili, who had recently faced LAW MMA fighter Eddie Gordon in a Ring of Combat bout.
Enter Longo and his top pupil, UFC middleweight Chris Weidman, who came to the gym to train for Weidman’s first title fight against Anderson Silva.
“This guy came up to me and said, ‘Do you remember me?’ in broken English, and I realized he fought ‘Truck,’ [Gordon]” Longo said.
Longo and Dvalishvili were introduced, and it didn’t take long for the pair to click.
“He said, ‘Come to our gym, you guys are 10 minutes away from our gym,’ so I was so happy,” Dvalishvili said. “After I came once, I started training here and every day I come and I’m happy.”
Longo said Dvalishvili made an immediate impact in the gym.
“He’s one of those guys that everybody loves in the gym because his work ethic is second to none,” Longo said. “He’s a gamer, he’s an old-school grinder and that’s what I love about him. He listens and he’s very respectful and I don’t think you can ask for anything more from a fighter than that.”
In the time since, Longo and Matt Serra have helped Dvalishvili round out his game. Longo said Dvalishvili (7-2) was winning his early fights solely with aggression, but his technique is miles ahead of where it once was. He’s also benefited from sharpening his wrestling with the help of Weidman and fellow UFC veterans Aljamain Sterling and Al Iaquinta over the years.
Sterling also is on Saturday’s fight card. He faces fellow highly ranked bantamweight Marlon Moraes on the main card, which starts at 10 p.m. Eastern on FS1. Cub Swanson and Brian Ortega headline the main card. Dvalishvili and Saenz kick off the prelims at 8 p.m. on FS1.
With Longo and Serra in his corner, Dvalishvili showed his improved striking with a spinning back fist knockout in 15 seconds at Ring of Combat 59 last June.
UFC president Dana White was watch cageside as part of his Internet show “Lookin’ For a Fight” with him, Serra and Din Thomas. White often awards a UFC contract to the best fighter he sees that night.
That night, it was Dvalishvili.
Dvalishvili’s biggest assets, Longo said, are his intangibles.
“It’s his mindset, his endurance, his aggression,” Longo said. “I think that’s where you’ve got to beat him. You’ve got to kill him to beat him at this point. He’s willing to go the extra mile in training and he’s a hard guy to beat. He’s a conditioned guy who can take a lot and just keep going. He’s got an immigrant mentality, he’s a worker, he’s not an entitled kid.”
That mentality may be evident to others, but to Dvalishvili, that’s just who he is. And at this point, Long Island seems a lot like Georgia.
“I don’t feel I’m an immigrant or anything here anymore,” Dvalishvili said. “I feel like I’m home.”