EXCLUSIVE | Partners in pain: Sampo, Ozkilic walk together toward flyweight stardom
From college dorms, to regional shows, and now considered among the best in the world, flyweights Josh Sampo and Alp Ozkilic are bound by a brotherhood forged through the trials and tribulations of combat sports.
Sampo is currently 9-2 and the Cage Fighting Alliance flyweight champion. Ozkilic, at 8-1, is the Legacy Fighting Championships No. 1 contender and some feel one of the key reasons ex-Legacy champ Will Compuzano was stripped of his belt.
No matter how you stack it, there are plenty of media outlets that consider the former college roommates and now longtime teammates at St. Charles MMA (located just outside of St. Louis) among the best in the world among 125-pounders.
Fightmatrix.com has Sampo ranked No. 3 with Ozkilic at No. 8. Sherdog.com has Sampo at 10 and Ozkilic coming in right behind him. While USAToday has Sampo ranked 13, Bloody Elbow slots Sampo in the 11th slot while Ozkilic is 18th.
Both fighters, who have superb wrestling combined with crisp striking, have said without one you wouldn’t have the other.
“Alp is almost solely responsible, if not a major influence, of why I’m where I’m at in my career,” Sampo said. “He’s been a great friend as far as pushing me and keeping me motivated and being a training partner that beats the crap out of me. It’s helped me elevate my game to where I can compete against the top guys.”
At 29, Sampo is two years older than Ozkilic and has shown the way to success.
“He’s someone I look up to,” Ozkilic said. “The reason I’m good today is all him. We have good coaches but we pretty much train ourselves all the time. It’s me and Josh pushing each other on a daily basis. I’ve lived with the guy and I’ve seen his discipline. In college, he was always there for me. I watched his amateur career while I was still in college and I saw his dedication and he definitely influences a lot in my career and life. He’s always there for me whether it’s fighting or life.”
Both seem to be on the cusp of reaching their dream of getting into the UFC. For Sampo, it has been a nagging issue all year.
“It seems like every time we have an upcoming a fight somebody says that this is your ticket in,” Sampo said. “Now I’m like unless Dana White calls me himself, then I’ll believe it. We know that it’s political, we know that they at least they know who we are. I think we’ve made enough of a splash, we’ve beat big enough people that it at least has put us on the map. They know where we’re at, they know how to get in contact with us. Now it’s just a matter of time before we either get that phone call or don’t. In the meantime, I’m just going to train for it and be prepared and hopefully something big happens. I ultimately have zero direct influence about that decision being made. All I can do is control my training and the fight I have in front of me.”
Sampo will be defending his CFA flyweight strap on Oct. 12 in the main event of CFA 12 against Sam Thao.
Ozkilic’s patience is a virtue. He differs to Sampo when it comes to who should get the call and who shouldn’t.
“We’re both on the radar but I think Sampo is way ahead of me,” Ozkilic said. “I think this is his time. As far as I go, I’m just being patient and I think the time will come. I’m not rushing anything and I know (the UFC) is watching and when it’s the right time, it’s the right time. I’m OK with whatever decision they make.”
After defeating Antonio Banuelos in the fall of 2012, Sampo registered the most significant win of his career in January when he defeated Alexis Vila by submission in the fifth round to win the CFA title.
Ozkilic is piecing together a solid 2013. He started off with a TKO of Josh Robinson then he faced Banuelos in May and flat lined the veteran with a 30 second TKO. He could easily return to the Legacy cage by the end of the year with the flyweight title at stake.
But before there were cages, there were wrestling mats.
The two began a friendship at Lindenwood University, located in St. Charles, MO. Sampo, a transplant from Nevada, was two years ahead of Ozkilic and had just wrapped up his wrestling career. The Turkish-born Ozkilic came to the then NAIA school with an impressive grappling pedigree. He was a Greco-Roman national champion in his native country and parlayed that into an All-American run at Nassau Community College located in Long Island, New York.
Sampo was still on campus as part of a work study program. Among his duties included helping out with the wrestling team. The two instantly clicked and ended up becoming roommates.
“One thing that stuck out in my mind was that he has awesome throws,” Sampo said. “Judo throws and Greco throws and I asked him one time, ‘Why don’t you throw these guys are their head?’ That’s an awesome skill to have. It was like he was almost embarrassed to do it.”
While Ozkilic was finishing out his collegiate career, Sampo was ripping through the Missouri amateur MMA scene, collecting belts by the handful.
Sampo’s success became contagious and both of their passions that started in wrestling carried over into fighting. The two quickly joined forces at St. Charles MMA, which soon became a hot bed for some of the best talent in the St. Louis area, including current UFC welterweight Lance Benoist, Strikeforce vet Matt Ricehouse, and Bellator vet EJ Brooks among many others.
Despite the hullabaloo and drama associated with young fighters trying to claw their way to the top, Sampo and Ozkilic have stayed away from the crab- in-a-bucket mentality. For these two, it is the opposite. Neither is snarky nor jealous. It’s a kindred spirit, a competitive flame that’s stoked by each other’s success.
“He is one of my best friends,” Sampo said. “We talk about everything from girls to politics to religion, everything. We live in the same apartment building, two doors down from me. You can tell when we spar that it’s like that brotherly love. We hit each other hard then hug afterwards.”
If –or when- the duo actually makes it to the UFC, the prospect of having to fight each other is something neither is shy about talking about.
“We’re going to be friends before and we’re going to be friends after,” Sampo said. “We both know that it’s about business. Would it affect our personal relationship? No. We both know that it would be about business. He doesn’t drink, but I do, and we’d have a beer after. It would definitely suck in the moment but we’re both able to treat it as a business opportunity and treat it the best that we could.”
“You’re not going to see calling each other out,” he said. “We come in here and hit each other on a daily basis, we spar everyday for free. If it’s for a good reason and for a good amount of money and for a good cause, it’s defiantly possible. Right now, don’t even want to think about something like that.”
Until then, these cage comrades are going to galvanize and propel each other to the pinnacle of their potential.