How Blagoy Ivanov cheated death to become a UFC contender

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — A bit shaky, Blagoy Ivanov stood in a doorway at Pirogov Hospital in Sofia, Bulgaria, on May 19, 2012. Camera flashes were going off. Questions were being asked by members of the media. Ivanov answered all of them, smiled softly, then gave a thumbs-up sign. He turned around slowly and, with the help of doctors and nurses, gingerly walked back to his room.

He had been in the hospital for three months — 68 days of which he was in a coma — after an attack that ended with his heart pierced and lung punctured.

Ivanov was a stiff, skeletal 190 pounds on that day. Seven years later, that same man will fight Tai Tuivasa on Saturday at UFC 238 at Chicago’s United Center. Expected to weigh in around 255 pounds, Ivanov is now No. 13 in the UFC’s official heavyweight rankings and a former World Series of Fighting heavyweight champion.

It’s still hard to believe.

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On Feb. 26, 2012, Ivanov was hanging out with a small group of friends at a nightclub in his hometown of Sofia. Two months earlier, the 5-foot-11 bear of a man had finished former UFC heavyweight champion Ricco Rodriguez on a card in Russia to move to 7-0 (1 NC) as a professional mixed martial arts fighter.

The future was bright for Ivanov, who was best known at that time for beating MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko in a combat sambo match in 2008. Ivanov, nicknamed “Bagata,” was thought to be a future star, with two Bellator finishes under his belt. Ivanov had already moved to Las Vegas to get better training. He was set to head back there in a week.

Then disaster struck, and Ivanov’s life, let alone his promising MMA career, nearly ended.

Ivanov and his three friends got into a verbal altercation with a group of nine or 10 people at the nightclub, Ivanov estimated. These were men Ivanov said he already knew, and there were hard feelings. Things got physical, and one of the men stabbed Ivanov in the chest with a 12-inch blade.

“If we started fighting, they’d have no chance,” Ivanov said. “They were scared.”

Ivanov saw the blade go in but broke free of the scuffle. He said he didn’t feel pain — just the warmth of blood as it soaked the front of his dress shirt. He stumbled outside to the street and hailed a cab. It was the early hours of the morning, Ivanov said, and he thought that would be faster than calling an ambulance.

As the taxi headed for the hospital, Ivanov said he started to feel “not good.”

His next real memory came on May 12, 2012, nearly three months later. He had just been taken out of a medically induced coma.

“When I woke up, my first question to the doctor was, ‘Can I fight again?’

“And they said no.”

The knife cut the bottom part of Ivanov’s heart, penetrating the myocardium (middle layer) and pericardium (inner layer), his physician, Dr. Milan Milanov, told the media at the time. Ivanov’s lung also was punctured. He was placed in intensive care and underwent six hours of surgery.

The heart was sutured, but the lung continued to be an issue. Ivanov had to be given a tracheostomy, creating an opening in his neck to provide an airway and remove fluids from his lung. He was placed in a medically induced coma.

After two weeks, Ivanov was considered stabilized, and he regained consciousness. Milanov warned at the same news conference at Pirogov Hospital that the ongoing fear was infection in the lung.

“Of course, I can’t hide from you the fact that these issues are very serious, and for now, we are very cautious about his perspective,” Milanov said at the time, translated from Bulgarian.

The doctor’s words proved prophetic. Seven days later, on March 12, 2012, Ivanov’s condition took a turn. Another surgery was needed on the lung. Infection set in. Ivanov was once again placed in a medically induced coma.

Liubina Ivanova, Ivanov’s wife, was by his side. She said she always believed he would recover, but at one point, doctors told her Ivanov’s life was in the hands of his strength and God.

“It was the most difficult time, not only for us as a family, but it was devastating for all his fans, friends and the whole country,” Ivanova said. “Everyone that knows him is touched by his personality and good soul.”

Meanwhile, in the days after the stabbing, Bulgarian police arrested a 23-year-old with the street name “Dampela” (“The Dumbbell” in English) for the attack. The government blamed organized crime.

In Las Vegas, Glen Amador, Ivanov’s coach and the man he stayed with while he was in the United States, was in constant communication with Ivanov’s family. For nearly three months, it was an ongoing worry of “what’s going on?” he said.

“We weren’t really worried about him fighting again,” Amador said. “We were just worried about him living with function.”

Ivanov regained consciousness in mid-May 2012. A shell of the man who won the combat sambo world championship four years earlier, he addressed the media on May 19 at the hospital. He had lost nearly 100 pounds and could barely walk.

But there was only one thing on his mind: getting back into the cage. Doctors told him it wouldn’t happen, but Ivanov was confident.

“I felt like I can fight,” Ivanov said. “In my mind, I felt it. I knew I could fight.”

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Ivanov, now 32 years old, said it took him about two weeks to learn how to walk again under his own power. Ten days after that, he said, he was back in the gym shadowboxing. He spent a few more months in Bulgaria before flying to Las Vegas, where he lived with Amador.

There, Ivanov had another hump to get over. Amador said he returned to Vegas at about 275 pounds, and it wasn’t good weight. Ivanov was determined to fight again; his mind was strong. But his body couldn’t always do the things he asked of it. Amador said they’d go for a jog or walk, and Ivanov would have to lie down for the rest of the day to recover. Amador’s goal at the time was to get Ivanov not into fighting shape but just into adequate physical fitness.

“I think at the time, his inability to perform or come back as fast as he wants was an identity [crisis],” Amador said. “Like, what am I without this? Not in those words, but I think he just needed time.”

Amador said Ivanov would become emotional and frustrated when he couldn’t do things he was able to do before the stabbing. Ivanov had been an athlete his whole life, and it wasn’t just his passion; it was also how he made money for his family.

“The first two years, your strength is not the same,” Ivanov said. “But you have to work more on it. The strength is coming back. … I think one of the important things for [fighting] is the mental. Everything is the mental. Because when you are a professional athlete, everybody is almost even, strength and technique. The mental is a different thing.”

“I felt like I can fight. In my mind, I felt it. I knew I could fight.” UFC heavyweight Blagoy Ivanov

On Sept. 13, 2013, 19 months after the stabbing and a mountain of hard work, Ivanov made it back. Amador said he wished he videotaped every day of the recovery, from Ivanov walking to jogging to running to finally training. In his comeback fight, “Bagata” submitted Manny Lara with a standing guillotine choke just 1:17 into the first round at Bellator 99. Even with the knowledge that he wasn’t as good as he was before the near-death experience, Ivanov was beside himself with joy.

“I was feeling like amazing,” Ivanov said. “When I won, it was like, ‘F—, I feel great.'”

Ivanov won three more after that, two by submission, to earn himself a spot in Bellator’s Season 10 heavyweight tournament final against Alexander Volkov. Volkov won by second-round submission and remains a top-flight heavyweight in the UFC, but for Ivanov, it was a major setback and the first loss of his MMA career.

Ivanov’s trip takedown attempt was countered by Volkov, who promptly took Ivanov’s back and locked him in a rear-naked choke. Ivanov stayed down for an extra few seconds looking apoplectic. He wasn’t tired or hurt, just upset with himself.

Despite it being a simple technical error, Amador said the defeat crushed his student.

“‘Guess what?'” Amador said he told Ivanov. “‘You’re alive. You know you can fight. You know you can reach a high point.’ … We accomplished what nobody thought he could accomplish, which was one, coming back to fight and two, coming back and fighting for a title.”

Ivanov signed with World Series of Fighting for his next contest and promptly won that promotion’s heavyweight title, beating Smealinho Rama by third-round submission in June 2015. He went on to defend the title four times, extending into the brand change from WSOF to PFL, before signing with the UFC in 2018.

“I think I’m better now than I was before [the stabbing],” Ivanov said. “The whole story, it makes you strong mentally. I feel blessed.”

When Ivanov looks in the mirror, he sees the scars. There’s one right in the middle of his torso, just below his chest plate. The other, on his neck from the tracheostomy, is especially jarring up close. To Ivanov, they’ve become normal.

“This was a long time ago,” he said. “I don’t think about it [often], but sometimes it helps. Remembering where you’ve been and where you are right now.”

For the past few years, Ivanov has done his training camps at American Kickboxing Academy, sparring with the likes of UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and former champ Cain Velasquez. Ivanov leans heavily on Cormier as a teammate, he said, and vice versa. Ivanov went to AKA for just two weeks ahead of the Tuivasa fight because Cormier was injured and out of the gym.

“I think what it does is it allows him to keep everything in perspective.” Cormier said. “It’s a fight. Ultimately, we’re fighting. But it’s a sport. Blagoy had to fight for his life. When a guy can get through that, you just understand that there’s a little something different about that person. It is a show of what kind of mentality Blagoy has, especially if he has something as his goal. For him to even be here, it’s inspiring.”

AKA head coach Javier Mendez said he wasn’t working with Ivanov one-on-one until 2017, when asked by Ivanov’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz. Now, Mendez said, “I’ll never not work with him” because of the kind of person Ivanov is. Amador describes him as a “Brahma bull but a humble giant.”

Mendez is high on Ivanov’s potential in the UFC’s heavyweight division. Ivanov has a sambo and judo background, so he has the grappling prowess. The key now is to improve his striking, specifically his footwork, balance and power.

“I think he has the potential to be the world champ,” Mendez said. “It’s just a little bit more seasoning, a little bit more here and there. He definitely has the heart, he has the chin, and he has the punching power. We’ve just gotta keep chipping away.”

This will be Mendez’s third training camp working directly with Ivanov, who has lost just one other time in his career, in a unanimous decision defeat to Junior dos Santos. Ivanov went into that bout with a torn meniscus but chose not to withdraw. “Bagata” is coming off a unanimous decision victory over Ben Rothwell at UFC Wichita in March.

The fight with Tuivasa is significant for Ivanov — and not just because of the rankings. The Chicago area has one of the largest populations of Bulgarians outside of Bulgaria, reportedly around 200,000. Ivanov is expecting a partisan crowd, including Bulgarian soccer legend Hristo Stoichkov.

“It’s a very important fight for me,” Ivanov said. “I fight for the fans too.”

Just fighting itself is a major achievement. Just living. Seven years removed from the attack that almost cut everything short, Ivanov remains in the prime of his athletic career. His wife, with whom he has a 2-year-old son and another baby on the way, couldn’t be prouder.

“For me to be able to witness such a miracle in life, how someone gets a second chance [at] life, how once again he has the opportunity to do what he loves most and is soon to be a father for a second time is extraordinary,” Ivanova said. “He is such an inspiration to his kids, never to give up on their dreams.”