Tunisia's Mounir Lazzez hopes a good performance at the Dubai Fighting Championship's Fight Night 2 twill edge him closer to his dream.
MMA: "The Sniper" has a UFC spot in his sights
Mounir Lazzez plans to celebrate his 25th birthday by pulverising his opponent at the Dubai Fighting Championship's Fight Night 2 this evening and propelling himself closer towards what he refers to as the "Olympic Games of mixed martial arts".
The Dubai-based Tunisian, like all serious fighters, harbours ambitions of competing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Only here, he says, can you test yourself against the very best. Tonight's local bout in the octagonal cage against the Iranian Ashkhan Mehdrdadpor is merely the latest stepping stone to realising that dream.
"The UFC is where you really start to see a difference in your game; it's where the best of the best compete and I want to compete against them," said Lazzez, who won his first professional bout in June.
"I know I have to take small steps, but I know I want this and I will work harder, longer and be stronger to ensure I get there."
Lazzez is under no illusion that his hardest fight will not come in the octagon, but rather in gaining the exposure necessary as he tries to battle his way into the thoughts of Dana White, the president of UFC.
White has been to the Emirates several times and hosted UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi, and Lazzez has several former training partners, befriended while living for three years in Montreal, who have gone to fight at the top level.
"I like to see my friends succeed and I want to be up there with them," he said. "That's big motivation for me. The UFC is the Olympics of MMA and I have the passion and the dedication.
"It's the only thing on my mind - to get there. But it's baby steps. I need to advance my skills and move at a level that I'm comfortable with."
His next step sees him headline tonight's 12-contest Fight Night 2 in Dubai. Although his quick defeat of Andy Cona, the British veteran, five months ago was Lazzez's first professional bout, he holds an undefeated record from his semi-professional bouts in Montreal.
"A lot of fighters try to jump before they can walk and that usually leads to failure on all aspects because they have beaten themselves mentally before they've even walked into the cage," he said. "I don't want to be a fighter with more losses than wins.
Nicknamed the Sniper, Lazzez was born in Sfax, a western port city of Tunisia, and raised by strict parents who taught him to never raise a hand in anger unless in self-defence.
People in his neighbourhood would refer to him as "a good boy" and he was rarely a young man looking for trouble. Aggression was not part of his character.
One afternoon however, he was walking home when he passed a kick-boxing academy run by Imed Mathlouthi, the former Tunisian world kick-boxing champion.
"I became mesmerised by the training," Lazzez said. "I ran home, grabbed my shorts, a T-shirt and some old boxing gloves that my dad had bought me a long time ago and went back that same day."
The response was not what Lazzez had expected. "The coach just chuckled at my gloves; they were really old," he said.
"He told me to come to the gym the next day at noon and I remember being so excited that night. I woke up very early and was the first one in the class. I fell in love with kick-boxing that very day and never stopped training."
After several amateur kick-boxing fights in his homeland, he made his professional debut in 2009 in Serbia, winning and qualifying for the world championships. A year later he was living in Montreal and fighting semi-professional MMA and by 2012 he was in the UAE working with Dubai Police and dreaming of a meeting with Dana White's representatives.
"I usually train anywhere between seven to 10 times each week: two or three sessions a day, a morning run or strength and conditioning and then in the evening I train either Muay Thai, wrestling or jiu-jitsu," he said.
The hard work is paying off. Since Lazzez's impressive victory over Cona, where he took him out with a knee to the face followed by a hammer fist while on the ground - "the most gratifying feeling ever" - he has taken silver at the Ramadan Games, gold at the Contender Grappling Challenge and gold in the Arab Grappling challenge. He also won bronze in the Asian Open Cup.
Such facts would indicate, on his 25th birthday, the passive "good boy" who grew up in Sfax, has developed into an angry and aggressive young man. Lazzez dismisses such an inference.
"I would never hurt someone intentionally. I don't like fighting in the streets or brawling for no reason. But in the cage … of course," he said. "When you step into the ring with me, you're in my backyard now and I will rip you apart in my backyard.
"I always see it like this. The guy on the other side of the cage is trying to take my job away. He's trying to take my dream from me and I can't let him do that."
Lazzez's dream continues tonight.
Fight Night 2 starts at 7pm at Habtoor Grand Hotel and features 12 bouts. The final hour of the event will be broadcast live on Dubai Sports. Lazzez fights last.
What: Twelve fights, including Mounir Lazzez v Ashkhan Mehdrdadpor
Where: Habtoor Grand Beach Resort & Spa, Dubai
When: Doors open at 6pm, action starts at 7pm
Tickets: Prices start at Dh200 and are available at Virgin Megastores.