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'Maybe I should already be dead so I'm just enjoying life with every chance I have'

It’s been a fascinating journey to the octagon for one of the fighters competing tonight at UFC Belem.

10312663_767678309919005_4262805851503950593_n Damir Hadzovic Source: Dolly Clew/Cage Warriors

FOR EACH ATHLETE’S profile on the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s official website, they’re asked to name their heroes.

Most tend to cite a former mixed martial arts star or another figure from the world of sport. Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson are popular choices. But for UFC lightweight Damir Hadzovic, the answer can be found much closer to home.

His heroes are the people responsible for ensuring that he lived beyond his sixth birthday. They’re the people who brought him to safety by fleeing 1,700 kilometres away from a war that killed 100,000 people. They’re the people who fought for a country whose flag he’s proud to carry in the octagon.

“Other fighters can inspire you,” says Hadzovic. “But they’re not my heroes. My heroes are the ones who took care of me, who made sacrifices for me: my mom and dad. They were willing to give their lives for me. That’s what a hero is.”

When he fights tonight for the third time in the UFC, Hadzovic (11-3) will again represent two nations. As he puts it himself, the 31-year-old is made of Bosnian hardware, Danish software.

Hadzovic made his UFC debut in April 2016, yet only a decade earlier he had no combat sport experience. His main sporting interest back then was weight-lifting. Squats and bench presses made him look like the kind of guy who could handle himself in a scrap, but Hadzovic soon discovered that it’s not always about the size of the dog in the fight.

10151297_723872790966224_2039616244_n Damir Hadzovic stops John Maguire at Cage Warriors 66. Source: Dolly Clew/Cage Warriors

“I was 20 when I first went into an MMA gym,” he explains. “My first experience was with this guy who was much smaller than me — probably by eight or nine kilos — and he just destroyed me on the ground. I was a big, muscly guy but I learned a lot then about how to use your strength properly. That was a big lesson.”

Hadzovic’s first professional bout came three years later. He gradually earned a reputation as a promising fighter in Denmark, with his only pre-UFC losses coming via decision against Andreas Stahl and Krzysztof Jotko, both of whom would also reach the UFC.

In March 2014, Hadzovic achieved what he admits was a turning-point victory in his career. John Maguire, who’d had the last of his five UFC outings nine months earlier, was his opponent when Cage Warriors staged an event in Copenhagen. Maguire had only been stopped once in 26 previous professional bouts, but Hadzovic knocked the English veteran out in the first round.

Two more impressive wins followed — against undefeated Scotsman Martin Delaney and former Cage Warriors champion Ivan Musardo — before Hadzovic was snapped up by the UFC.

After Mairbek Taisumov got the better of him in his debut for MMA’s premier organisation, Hadzovic rebounded in resounding fashion last May. Taking on well-regarded Polish fighter Marcin Held, he upset the odds with a brutal third-round KO.

A couple of months after his victory, Hadzovic received the “huge honour” of an official invite from Muhamed Ramović, the mayor of the Bosnian city of Goražde, where he was born.

As Bosnian Muslims, Hadzovic, his mother, two-year-old brother and grandfather fled Goražde in 1992 after the outbreak of the Bosnian War. They eventually found asylum in Denmark, but his father stayed behind as Bosnian Serbs laid siege to the city. Hadzovic was only six at the time, but the images of war aren’t easily erased from one’s memory.

“Goražde was the worst city to be in during the war because it was 100% occupied from every side,” he recalls. “I remember hiding in the attic with my dad and my grandfather as the houses were burning. Food could only get in by being dropped in from the air. Many people were even crushed by it. It was a crazy situation.”

The war, which brought the worst atrocities Europe had seen since the Nazi era, ended in 1995. Almost four years had passed by the time Hadozvic’s father made it to Denmark to be reunited with his family.

“All that time we didn’t know if he was alive or not. Between the ages of six and ten is a crucial time for a kid. You need your dad. But my mom and my grandfather were both great. I knew and I understood what my dad was doing too,” says Hadzovic, who’s now based in Copenhagen after the family originally settled in Esbjerg in south-west Denmark.

“My dad was my hero. Somebody had to stay. Imagine if all the men had left Bosnia. We would have lost it all. Now we have a country, we have a home. He got the veteran’s benefit from being in the army there. He fought for his country. When I go back, I’m proud because of that.

“But it’s important for me to say that I had a good childhood. My mom made sure I had a good childhood in Denmark. That’s why I want to represent Denmark well. I am a Dane — a Bosnian Dane. In Bosnia they call me a Dane and in Denmark they call me a Bosnian, but nobody in Bosnia can say anything about that because the fact is that my dad defended his country. I have the right to be there whenever I go.”

Tonight at UFC Fight Night 125 in Brazil, which will be headlined by a middleweight bout between Lyoto Machida and Eryk Anders, Hadzovic will take on Alan Patrick (14-1). His Brazilian opponent will have the backing of over 10,000 of his compatriots in the arena, as well as the bookmakers’ seal of approval. But Hadzovic has never been daunted by anything MMA can throw at him.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m living on borrowed time because we were in the very last convoy to leave town during the war,” he says. “We just survived. Most people were slaughtered and thrown in the river. That’s why I could never be nervous for a fight. Maybe I should already be dead so I’m just enjoying life with every chance I have.

“I know that sounds crazy but that’s how I see it. This is just a fight — and I love it. Things could have been much, much worse for me. I’m so grateful every day for what I have and where I am. A fight against another guy is nothing to be nervous about when I look at it like that.”

You’re unlikely to hear Damir Hadzovic call out Conor McGregor, the champion in his division, any time soon. That, he insists, is down to the fact that he’s a realist, and not because of any lack of ambition. A win tonight would be just his second under the UFC banner.

Aided by the $50,000 ‘Performance of the Night’ bonus he was awarded for his win over Marcin Held, Hadzovic has been able to train full-time for this bout. Devoting himself entirely to fight preparation isn’t a luxury he has often been afforded. A gig as a bouncer at The Dubliner Bar in Copenhagen helps to fill in the financial holes when needed.

I have always accepted every fight that has been offered to me! I have never said no to any opponent and I always wanted to fight the best! If you wanna be the best, you gotta fight the best 👊🏼 #Repost @mma.bosnia.herz ・・・ According to FightMatrix, UFC fighter Damir Hadžović @hadzo is the best ranked fighter out of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Hadžović is ranked #36 in the world, Mirsad Bektić is ranked #48 and Roberto Soldić is currently ranked #94. ____________________________ Prema stranici FightMatrix UFC borac Damir Hadžović je najbolje rangirani MMA borac iz Bosne i Hercegovine. Hadžović je 36. na svijetu, iza njega je Bektić koji je 48, dok je treći najbolje plasirani Roberto Soldić (94. na svijetu). #mma #damirhadzovic #ufc #rankings #fighter #bosnia #denmark #bosniaandherzegovina #futurechampion #knockout

A post shared by Damir Hadzovic (@hadzo) on

“I always set realistic goals,” he says. “I don’t want to talk about any belt. I just want to be the best fighter I can be, to be a guy that people recognise and respect. It’s always been about small steps for me in MMA.

“I never expected to come this far when I started. This was never the plan. I wanted to learn this sport to defend myself. Then I did well in some fights and it just went from there. You have to be in that top ten before you can talk about the belt. But if a time ever comes when they offer me something like that, I’ll be ready.”

He adds: “The bonus made a big difference because I was about to get married and I needed a car too. I took the train every day, switching two trains to get to training. It’s just about making my life easier. I don’t want to get rich and spend lots of money.

“As long as I can make enough so that I can train properly and have everything I need to prepare for each fight, then I’m happy.

“A lot of fighters when they get to the UFC they slacken off. They think they’ve made it. But it’s been the opposite with me. I’ve never been more serious about what I’m doing.”

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Paul Dollery

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