Merab Dvalishvili punches John Dodson in their bantamweight bout during...

Merab Dvalishvili punches John Dodson in their bantamweight bout during the UFC 252 event at UFC APEX on August 15, 2020 in Las Vegas. Credit: Zuffa LLC via Getty Images/Handout

Like plenty of unfortunate souls before him, Merab Dvalishvili left Atlantic City in April 2018 with his spirit broken and his wallet not as full as he’d like after an eventful Saturday night.

It wasn’t an unlucky streak at the blackjack table that had Dvalishvili dejected, but the New Jersey Athletic Control Board and its officials. A controversial ruling saw the country of Georgia native and adopted Long Islander lose his second consecutive fight since joining the UFC, and his odds to stay in the sport’s biggest promotion looked long.

“I was down, for sure,” Dvalishvili recently told Newsday about that night. “I was worried that my contract in the UFC would be over because of judges and a referee.”

Since, a refocused Dvalishvili has left little to chance by becoming one of the promotion’s greatest grapplers ever, setting records for takedown frequency and placing himself among the top 135-pound contenders. Seven convincing victories later, the North Bellmore resident is happy, fulfilled and settled into a UFC tenure that appears to have plenty of length left.

Now he faces the most prominent opponent of his career Saturday when he meets former featherweight champion Jose Aldo at UFC 278 on Saturday in Salt Lake City, hoping to keep the same focus that got him to this point.

“Nothing big changes, I just have another fight,” Dvalishvili said. “It’s another tough opponent in Jose Aldo, a former champion. He’s a great fighter so I’m just training like always — hard.”

Dvalishvili (14-4) was still a recent immigrant scraping by working construction jobs when he started his professional career, later signing with the UFC after a few years training with Ray Longo and the team at LAW MMA in Garden City.

A split decision loss in his first UFC contest was easy enough to write off. However, the result in Atlantic City — in which he was ruled to have lost by TKO after the final horn already had sounded — had Dvalishvili wondering whether the two fights remaining on his first UFC deal would ever happen.

While Dvalishvili earned a $50,000 bonus for fight of the night honors in that loss, he no longer was interested in putting on a show. If he was to have a real shot at a fruitful UFC career, he needed to be a more calculated competitor.

“I became a smarter fighter,” Dvalishvili said. “I was trying to make exciting fights for my friends and everyone, and I make that mistake, but after that I just made sure that I take people down and lay them flat. Not too many risks, not too much damage. I don’t want to leave anything in judges’ hands, I want to show everyone I am always winning the fight.”

The 31-year-old Dvalishvili’s dominant grappling has left little doubt in his results since. All six of his decision victories in the UFC were unanimous, with just three instances of a judge awarding a round to his opponent.

He made an even greater statement with a TKO in his last win over Marlon Moraes, his first UFC finish. That opened the door to a high-profile pay-per-view bout with No. 3-ranked Aldo (31-7), which No. 6 Dvalishvili believes is happening at the perfect time in his development.

“With this seven-fight win streak, I’m physically ready, mentally ready,” Dvalishvili said.” I have enough experience now and good skills, good technique and I believe I can beat him with my style.”

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