Perseverance is undoubtedly a key component to success and arguably the most important. No matter your walk of life or your profession, we all must overcome the odds in some capacity. In seldom few professions is this fact more prevalent than combat sports. Grueling training, weight cutting, competing at the highest level, the painful sting of a loss, and of course injuries. The journey for combat athletes is typically a long and arduous road, which is why, statistically speaking, such a minority of these warriors reach the pinnacle. However, in several cases we have been fortunate enough to witness greatness manifest itself, and in the world of kickboxing, Gokhan Saki epitomizes the moxie of such greatness.
Saki amassed an incredible record of 81-16-1 in the realm of striking and has competed against virtually every distinguished kickboxer of our generation. His illustrious career has already afforded him riches and notoriety, but as his aptly named monicker suggests, Gokhan is a rebel, and has always gone against the grain. Many argued that the Turkish-born Dutchmen was undersized to compete at heavyweight with the giants in K-1 and Glory. Yet his ferocious tenacity proved to be unrivaled, silencing his doubters time and time again.
If perseverance was personified, it could very well look like Gokhan Saki.
Gokhan Saki vs Daniel Ghita at GLORY 6: Istanbul.
As his journey continued, ‘The Rebel’ found himself at an impasse; continue competing in kickboxing where he was one of the last of a dying breed, or undertake the risky endeavor of pursuing a second legacy in MMA. To no surprise, Saki chose the latter. The announcement of his UFC debut was soon to follow, and the hardcore fans rejoiced as one of combat sports all-time greats had entered the fold. Saki made his UFC debut in Japan against Henrique da Silva on September 23rd, 2017 and rendered his opponent unconscious within the first round, capturing a performance bonus to further sweeten the victory.
The next challenge on the ‘Rebel’s’ road would come in the form of Khalil Rountree, who just like Saki, is inclined to starch his opponents with any of the eight deadly limbs. The two had been scheduled to square off at the end of 2017, but following an injury sustained by Saki, the fight was rebooked for July 6th, 2018 at UFC 226. Unfortunately for Gokhan, Rountree was able to control distance early and subsequently won the contest via TKO in the first round. Now with a record of 1-2 in MMA, Saki went back to the drawing board with even more resilient impetus to get back on course.
After some time off, he was finally scheduled to return against Saparbek Safarov on March 16th, 2019 in London, England, but fate had other plans as it often does. Saki yet again faced another bump in the winding road as he succumbed to another injury and was forced to withdraw from the bout.
Reflecting on another setback, BJPENN.COM asked Saki to express his disappointment and rank it amongst other obstacles he’s faced over the years.
“On a scale of 1-10….a 20,” Saki told BJPENN.COM. “I left my home, family and friends behind in Turkey to train in the Netherlands. I was training two times a day in different areas. I was driving 4 hours a day just to train. So if you give everything you have and more just to give your fans what they deserve and get injured in the process, that’s a huge disappointment.”
Combat athletes rarely compete at optimum condition and there’s almost always some form of nagging injury leading up to fight. However for Saki, a plethora of hinderances were behind his withdrawal. When asked to detail what happened, he candidly gave us the rundown.
“Both arms had tennis elbow and inflamed shoulders. So after a while I couldn’t keep my hands up. I was training MMA with Mousasi and his team. I did a lot of wrestling and my lower back got hurt in a training. I got a few injections against the inflammation. A few weeks before that my grandmother passed away and a day after the funeral I was training again. My manager told me to take a week off and also to go and check my shoulders out. But I wanted to train, I didn’t listen to my body and maybe in the process of mourning I pushed myself too much in training.”
Losing a loved one is difficult in and of itself, we’ve all been there. Compound that mourning with a few injuries and feeling as though you were forced to let your fans down? That’s certainly a rough patch to say the least. Though as a true professional who has been overcoming the odds his entire career, Saki is approaching his recovery time judiciously.
“Every time someone comes back from an injury they want to make it up fast,” said Saki. “But that going fast will provide you nothing but problems. I’m now starting slowly with my trainings and I wont rush it this time. In a month from now I will be fasting. So let’s see what happens after that.”
Regardless of the timetable for his return, Saki is confident that his evolution into a well-rounded MMA athlete is progressing accordingly. When asked how he’s been adjusting in the gym, he laughingly replied, “Well I think if my neck and back could speak to you, it wouldn’t be a fun conversation. I had to get used to getting thrown on the ground over and over again. The distance and footwork are different. But I’m doing good, man. I was really looking forward to showing my progress.”
As mentioned earlier, Saki had gotten back to his roots and was training with familiar faces back in Holland. Training with the people who know you best is usually the ideal recipe for success and Gokhan was doing just that. Rolling around with Gegard Mousasi will certainly evolve anyone’s game, but when it comes to striking, some coaches and training partners shine above the rest. One coach in particular is Holland’s famed Mike Passenier of Mike’s Gym.
Saki was sharpening up his destructive striking with the intention of reminding fans and his division that there’s levels to the game. He stated, “I was training the last couple of months with Mike, upgrading my stand up. I had a few nice surprise moves for the UFC London match. Definitely highlight material.”
Saki continued, “Mike and I go way back. We understand each other and going back to my roots gave me a stronger base. Before my last fight I was doing 90 percent, wrestling/jiu jitsu and 10 percent striking. My greatest weapon was getting dusty and sitting on the bench instead of working on that and adapting it. So we changed the plan with Mike to get the old Saki back.”
With world-class coaching also comes world-class training partners, like fellow staple of Mike’s Gym, Badr Hari. Imagine the sparring sessions between the tactical tandem of Gokhan and Badr. As you may have guessed, it’s a sight to behold.
“It was the Super Bowl of kickboxing,” said Saki. “Badr and I trained a lot and we both have grown mentally. Badr also physically, he looks like the Hulk. We worked almost every day. He was a huge asset to me and the team and he pushed me mentally and physically to the next level. We will train together soon enough. The heavyweight division in kickboxing has a huge problem now with him in this shape and mindset.”
Evolving as a martial artist is paramount, but continuing down the path of progress withstanding, along with it comes the importance of victory. While the saying ‘you’re only as good as your last win’ is a sad but truthful cliche in this sport, defeat is also an undeniable element. When asked if he believes that his next fight is make-or-break for his UFC tenure, Saki replied, “Every fight for me is a do or die. I always try to go for the knockout and give a great show. First fight I showed some, second fight I didn’t. So it’s 1-1. But I understand that because of my name and accomplishments, a loss is mind-blowing for people. But it’s part of the game. Like the quote from Jet Li in Romeo Must Die, ‘Some you win and dim sum you lose.’”
Asian cuisine puns aside, Saki holds the respect and admiration of UFC president Dana White. Following the loss to Rountree, White expressed his appreciation of what Gokhan brings to the table for the company, and had no intention of letting him go. In response to the favorable approval by the bossman, Saki stated, “I’m thankful and I appreciate the words he spoke of me after my last fight. Dana is a great guy and when he’s got your back it’s extra motivation. He believes in my qualities and I hope to show them as soon as possible. He did a hell of a job with the UFC and putting MMA globally on the map. If anyone knows how to get the job done, it’s Dana. Period.”
Saki concluded by praising the fan base that has supported him through and through. A diehard army of hardcore fight-fans that truly appreciate the picture he paints and the determination he conveys in every outing.
“I just can’t show enough of my gratitude, man,” he said. “I really can’t. I have the best fans in the world. They support me through everything. I hope to give them a great show soon and meet a lot of them. Like the Terminator said: ‘I’ll be back.’ ”
There’s no doubt Gokhan will return to prime form soon enough. When that inevitable day comes, we can all expect to see more beautiful violence expressed in it’s purest form. As the journey further unfolds for Saki, he continues to show the resiliency that brought him fame. Some men take the road less traveled while others choose to blaze their own path; the road of ‘The Rebel.’
This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 4/25/2019.