A young man journeys back to Las Vegas in search of his fortune. He gets one opportunity — one roll of the dice, if you will — to make a name for himself, to turn his dreams into reality and begin carving out the life he envisions.
For Dennis Buzukja, no dice will be rolled. No cards will be flipped, no buttons pushed, no levers pulled. Instead, for the man from Merrick by way of Staten Island, there are fists and elbows and kicks and knees and chokeholds and leg locks. Buzukja is a mixed martial arts fighter, five fights into his professional career, with No. 6 carrying a significant prize: a contract with the UFC.
“My future depends on this fight,” said Buzukja, the son of immigrant parents from Albania. “But I love that. I love the pressure. I love to get down to business.”
Buzukja (4-1), Ring of Combat’s reigning featherweight champion, will headline Tuesday night’s episode of Dana White’s Contender Series against Melsik Baghdasaryan.
The show, in its fourth season, features 10 fighters looking to capture the attention of the UFC president. After the five fights, the winners sit in chairs and await White’s declaration of who gets signed to a UFC contract and who must search for their glory elsewhere for the time being. Through the first four episodes this season, 16 of the 20 winners were awarded contracts. Only two so far have been featherweights.
“You got to go out there and put on a show and impress them. You got to impress them,” said Buzukja, a Serra-Longo fighter. “You can’t go in there and just decision a victory. He's looking for finishers. Even if you don't get the finish, but if you're looking for it, I think that's what he's looking for. And that's what my style is. That's what I bring to the table. I'm not worried about him liking me. I just got to go out there and get the job done. I know this contract is mine.”
Buzukja, 22, last fought in February when he won the RoC title via unanimous decision against Tim Dooling in a tough and a grueling stand-up bout. Since then, it's been about finding ways to train amid the coronavirus pandemic. With gyms being closed in New York until Aug. 24, that has meant training with teammates in his garage at the home he shares with fellow UFC fighter Al Iaquinta.
Buzukja also has a knockout win by spinning back elbow on his resume (and embedded on quite a few MMA websites). Baghdasaryan (4-1) last had an MMA fight in September 2019. The 28-year-old Californian is a former kickboxing champion.
The fight will take place in front of no fans at the UFC Apex, a place Buzukja is familiar with as he cornered Aljamain Sterling and was there with Merab Dvalishvili, both Serra-Longo teammates, for their fights in June.
“You get familiar with the environment, there's less external factors that throw you off that take your mind off of the actual task at hand,” Buzukja said. “Being there with Aljo and feeling it and knowing how things work it's definitely it helps a lot.”
He was a supporting actor those weeks. Now he’s in the lead role.
“It's crazy when it's for me, you know what I mean? Like, it hits a little different,” Buzukja said. “I came for Aljo a few weeks ago. Of course, it was amazing. But when it's your turn to take care of business, it's like it's more meaningful in a way.”