Dennis Buzukja poses for a portrait at the LAW MMA gym...

Dennis Buzukja poses for a portrait at the LAW MMA gym where he trains on July 11 in Garden City. Credit: Dawn McCormick

Dennis Buzukja fights again on Tuesday night in Las Vegas for a chance at a UFC contract, but this journey really began to take shape back in January 2020 when the coronavirus still was “novel” and just a thing in a faraway land that occupied no more than a couple of minutes of people’s daily lives, if at all.

That’s when Buzukja, an MMA fighter from Merrick by way of Staten Island, first felt a struggle breathing.

“It felt like I was on bottom and I had a 300-pound guy on me in side control, chest to chest and I'm trying to breathe,” the 145-pound featherweight told Newsday. “That's what it felt like all the time.”

Still, the following month, the Serra-Longo trained Buzukja fought and won the Ring of Combat featherweight title, managing to last 15 minutes to win a unanimous decision over Tim Dooling.

“I was on antibiotics in that fight, and an inhaler,” Buzukja said. “We just thought it was like a bad flu. You know, weight cut, immune system’s low, training hard, winter.”

It wasn’t.

It was COVID-19, and it didn’t go away for more than a year. Still, Buzukja tried to push his way through the debilitating symptoms — he said a test showed he was at 68% lung functionality — and not let it derail his career path and dreams. He was offered an opportunity to compete for a UFC contract on Dana White’s Contender Series in September 2020, and in mixed martial arts, when the big dog calls, you sit up, wag your tail and bark. Buzukja lost by unanimous decision to Melsik Baghdasaryan.

Dennis Buzukja, left, punches Melsik Baghdasaryan in a featherweight bout...

Dennis Buzukja, left, punches Melsik Baghdasaryan in a featherweight bout during Week 5 of Dana White's Contender Series season four at UFC APEX on Sept. 1, 2020, in Las Vegas. Credit: Zuffa LLC/Chris Unger/DWCS LLC

Buzukja said the UFC called him again last year for another go on Contender Series, but he turned it down. “Because I still didn't recover from COVID,” he said. “I was still actually really messed up.”

Still not fully recovered, Buzukja (7-2) took a fight in Florida in March 2021, which he said “was stupid” to do, but he doesn’t regret it because he won.

There were times the 24-year-old professional athlete in otherwise great physical shape thought his promising career in MMA had seen its last fight.

"I was always so tired. Crazy brain fog, like I would be here and not know where I am. It would be like I was concussed all the time but I had inspired in like six months," Buzukja said. "I would get panic attacks, anxiety attacks at dinner tables with my friends, with my girlfriend and our family, with my friends in the Bronx. I remember so many scenarios, where panic just hit me and I was like, ‘What's going on? Am I gonna die?’ I couldn't breathe. I never had stuff like that before.

“I can't even live happily or comfortably, how can I fight? How can I compete or train or try to be one of the best in the world? And in a sport as dangerous as this? You could be as healthy as you want, there's still imminent danger in front of you. So it was a hard mental battle. But I overcame all that and I feel like bulletproof now."

It wasn’t until his Ring of Combat fight in October 2021 — a first-round knockout victory — that he said he was back to competing at full strength.

“Going into that fight, I could fight a [expletive] gorilla,” Buzukja said. “Because I was like, I've been fighting with no lungs. Now I got my lungs. I was like nobody's stopping me now.”

So what happened in between? Where did his fatigue go? The panic attacks? The “crazy brain fog”?

The mountains of Albania, his family’s native land, happened.

Buzukja said he spent time “up in the mountains” in Albania for both physical and mental cleansing. He said he drank the colostrum from cows. He said he visited a church that many Albanians believe has spiritual healing powers.

“I tried every possible thing. This is going to be my last go,” he recalled, a final straw after months and months of tests, exams, medical charts and doctors’ offices. “This is my last try if I can get my lungs better. If not, I'm done.”

It wasn’t until Buzukja, 24, found himself running on a beach in Albania that he noticed something. After five miles of running along the water — double the longest he’d run since first contracting the virus a year and a half earlier — he stopped and realized what he had done. He ran five miles. Without issue.

“I texted Ray [Longo] immediately, ‘Yo, I’m back,’ ” Buzukja said.

He won a unanimous decision last February and now faces Kaleio Romero (6-1) of Team Alpha Male on Tuesday night in the Contender Series. Both fighters weighed in at 146 pounds Monday for the featherweight bout that streams on ESPN+ starting at 8 p.m. Eastern.

A win is nice, sure, but that doesn’t necessarily get you into the UFC. There’s a need to impress the bosses sitting cageside. If Buzukja can win and wow on Tuesday night at the UFC Apex, the next goal on his list will be achieved.

“It's just business for me right now,” Buzukja said. “The last one, I was a little bit too in the moment. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy. My life's gonna change, my dreams are gonna come true.’ And I let it take away from my focus of all right, I got 15 minutes. I got to slip his left hand, come back with the right, block the kick then come back with another kick, head outside single. It took away from the actual task at hand.”

More MMA

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months