This Fighting Life #10: Val Ignatov

Monday, September 02, 2013

This is the tenth in the This Fighting Life series by Underground Blogger DeLeon DeMicoli, whose column is insipred by NPR’s “This American Life.” It covers in long essay form fighters and those that train.

Here the author profiles MMA Sambo pioneer Val Ignatov.

If World-Vice SAMBO Champion and UFC vet Val Ignatov catches you in a rolling knee bar and you decide not to tap, prepare for a hospital visit.

“When Val puts you in a leg lock, you don’t tap because of pain. You tap because of the horror of feeling the small bone in your leg start to bend. It freaks you out. You tap out of sheer panic,” said Matt Galindo, one of Ignatov’s students.

SAMBO is an acronym for SAMooborona Bez Oruzhiya. The English translation is “self defense without weapons.” The Russian martial art, known for takedowns and leg locks, is rooted from judo and wrestling.

“Sometimes I get grief from SAMBO instructors. They say, ‘How can you be a SAMBO coach without the gi (referring to the traditional kurtka worn by practitioners)?’ My answer to that is Jiu-Jitsu has gi and no-gi. But it’s all still Jiu-Jitsu. The bottom line is the meaning is self-defense without weapons. Not self-defense wearing a gi,” said Ignatov standing outside of the Combat Sports Academy (CSA) on a beautiful California afternoon.

Igantov pulled back on training traditional SAMBO after his unanimous decision loss to Matt Hughes at UFC 22. His traditional methods of preparing for a fight were not suited for MMA. During the fight, Val wasn’t able to get a good grip on Matt to set up his attack. Something that would’ve come easy if the SAMBO champion was wearing a kurtka.

“Here in California people don’t wear jackets, really. If you get into a fight you don’t have a jacket to pull around, so you need to be able to defend yourself without wearing a jacket. Now if you’re in Russia, like Siberia, then, yeah, you are gonna have a jacket, and you’ll need to know techniques to defend yourself wearing a jacket.”

Ignatov understood MMA was a constantly changing ecosystem. If you don’t progress, then fighters will surpass you, plain and simple.

“I remember talking to Mark Coleman after a fight (at UFC 18) because the UFC banned head butts and he was crying cause he lost a fight (to Pedro Rizzo). He said, ‘Dude with a head butt, nobody can beat me.’ He goes, ‘I can destroy anybody. Anybody!’ The moment that was outlawed his technique faded away because he didn’t evolve.”

Head butts, groin strikes, strikes to the back of the head and neck, and kicks to a downed opponent became illegal after UFC 14.

“In the beginning I was out there fighting on pure instincts. But, when they took away head butts, I had to learn a lot of other skills,” said Mark Coleman in the documentary “The Smashing Machine.”

Aspirations of Becoming a Hero Like Haralampiev

Val grew up in Sofia, Bulgaria, a communist country that sponsored sports. Coaches picked the best talent they could train into champions. The more champions they had training at their school, meant more money they’d receive from the government.

“I was about ten years old and there was a Russian movie about this guy named Haralampiev. It was called ‘The Undefeated.’ It was about the creators of SAMBO. After I watched the movie I fell in love and decided that’s what I wanted to be.”

Val knew of a Judo club close to home. He didn’t have any previous experience and used natural ability to get through the practice. After, the coach told him he had no talent for combat sports and kicked him out.

“That broke my heart. I kept telling my friends I wanted to train SAMBO. Two months later my friend said, ‘Hey, there’s this coach that came to school and said whoever wants to train SAMBO, they can go and train at his school.’ So they took me there.”

In Bulgaria, to train in combat sports you had to be at least eleven years old. At the time Ignatov was only ten. But, he lied to coaches during try-outs.

“The coach put me against this guy. I said (to myself), this time I ain’t gettin’ kicked out. So I did whatever I can. Then, afterwards, I thought the coach was gonna kick me out like the last coach. I asked him, ‘Can I come back?’ He goes, ‘Sure.’

“After that I don’t think I missed training for four years straight. Everyday. No vacations. I loved it.”

The four years of relentless training paid off. Ignatov became a five-time national champion at sixteen years old, a four-time national wrestling champion, joined the Bulgarian national team and was ranked second in his division. A year later his team competed against the judo club that kicked him out previously. He wiped the floor with their team’s best.

“I don’t think I was the most talented one. The thing that really helped me a lot was I just wanted to learn. I went ahead and learned how to speak and read Russian because all of the SAMBO books were in Russian. Also, I had my own journal with all of my training techniques written down. I remember there was a column for a self-evaluation to see how I progressed. Years later when I looked back at my journal, I saw I never gave myself a good score. I was very hard on myself when I was young.”

After graduation, Ignatov enlisted in the military. There he received his teaching certificate in combat SAMBO. That certificate enabled him to become a coach at the school he began training at and earn a living doing something he loved.

Coming to America

“I knew a family in the Los Angeles area. In the airport I tried to dial their phone number they gave me. They never said I had to dial one before the number. This is when you used payphones. I stayed there for four hours trying to dial the number. Every time I try to talk to somebody, the female would yell at me something I don’t know.”

Since he didn’t speak English, Ignatov assumed the lady he was speaking to was frustrated with the language barrier between them. Finally security guards offered to help. Ignatov handed them the number and they made the call. Later, he learned the lady he spoke with was not a lady at all, but a recorded message that said, “If you would like to make a call, please hang up and try again.”

Laughing, Ignatov said, “At the airport I was thinking, why is she mad and yelling at me?”

Ignatov made his way to northern California to start a SAMBO club that didn’t pan out a few months after settling stateside. He attended college and learned to speak English. Began training in Lodi, CA with friends and hooked up with Caesar Gracie and Bob Shamrock.

“Caesar was the first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu guy that didn’t want to kick me out of his school for being a SAMBO guy. All the other schools I trained at weren’t as open-minded after rolling with me and getting caught in leg locks.”

Ignatov trained with Nick Diaz, Nate Diaz, Gilbert Melendez, Jake Shields, Dave Terrell and the rest of the Caesar Gracie Fight Team when they were just starting out.

UFC 19: Ultimate Young Guns

Ignatov’s unique skill set landed him a fight in UFC 19 against Evan Tanner.

“Back then when you were getting ready for a fight, you don’t think how you’re fighting Evan Tanner. You just think you are fighting some dude. You didn’t know anything about your opponent back then.”

Ignatov recalled taking the fight on a week’s notice. Bob Shamrock had him weigh-in wearing his clothes and packed his pockets with miscellaneous items to appear bigger when standing next Tanner.

“I think he (Tanner) was supposed to fight someone else, but they pulled out. He had like twenty pounds on me.”

At the sound of the bell, both fighters met in the middle of the cage. Tanner hit Ignatov with a stiff jab and then pressed him up against the cage. Ignatov clinched up. The fight took to the ground. Tanner mixed up his attacks with ground-and-pound and trying to pass Ignatov’s guard. Ignatov remained on his back, looking to tie up an arm.  Then Tanner did the unexpected, reaped Ignatov’s leg and went for an ankle lock.

“I can’t believe he was so stupid. But I was cocky too and went for a leg lock. I thought, oh, I got this guy and then he pulled out and got on top of me.”

Tanner scrambled to mount and started striking with elbows.

“It looked like he really hits me hard. But it wasn’t. They didn’t cut me or make any marks. The problem was as soon as I put my hands up, Big John (McCarthy) stopped the fight.”

Ignatov recalled approaching McCarthy after the fight and asked, “Why did you stop the fight early?”

McCarthy explained he appeared to be in serious trouble when he lifted his arms to protect Tanner’s elbow strikes and stopped the fight before any serious injuries occurred.

“I noticed after that fight, he (McCarthy) will ask guys if you are okay or look at a reaction before he stops the fight.”

Igantov believed he could’ve won if the fight continued. When both men spoke backstage afterwards, Ignatov recalled Tanner telling him he was gassed and was happy the fight was stopped. Then Tanner was nice enough to invite Igantov to train with him to help improve his standup game. But, Ignatov was too proud and never followed up.

A few months later, he accepted his second fight.

UFC 22: Only One Can be Champion

“Pat and I went over the strategy backstage.

“’This guy Val Ignatov is a SAMBO champion,’ he explained. ‘Big on ankle locks. You’re a wrestler, so you’re going to be fine.’”

-Excerpt from “Made in America” by Matt Hughes.

After the Tanner fight, Ignatov had a game plan on how he was going to beat newcomer, Matt Hughes, in his first UFC fight. He knew Hughes focused on his double leg. Then, he’d beat up his opponents with ground-and-pound. Ignatov planned on trapping Hughes in his guard. When Hughes got to his feet to attack, that was when Ignatov would set up the leg lock. But that never happened during the fight. Hughes won via unanimous decision. Ignatov believed other factors were in play.

“What I didn’t know ‘til after was that my training partner for six months, Jens Pulver, switched camps about a month before the fight and he told Matt everything I was doing to prepare. Matt even told me after the fight, ‘Hey, your buddy, Jens Pulver, says hi. He told me everything about you.’”

To make matters worse, Ignatov only received three hundred dollars for his fight against Hughes.

“I was expecting fifteen hundred dollars. He (Ignatov’s manager) said he took care of everything and gave me what was leftover. It wasn’t a big deal, but still,” exclaimed Ignatov with a frustrated expression that proved it still bothered him to this day. He figured if this was how business was handled from a professional sport (owned by SEG at the time), then he didn’t want any part of it.

“I learned without fighting I had to figure out another way to take care of myself and make a living. After that I started working construction to support myself.”

The bitter taste of betrayal was hard to swallow and lingered on Ignatov’s taste buds for years. He stopped teaching, stopped training. Every two to three months he’d drop in to roll for an hour or two just to show his teammates and friends he was still alive, but nothing like in Bulgaria when he trained two-three times a day while in school.

Then, there was a breakthrough.

Behind Every Great Man There’s a Great Woman

In this case it was Ignatov’s wife, Claudia. She had a heart-to-heart with him, explained when he didn’t train and teach SAMBO he wasn’t himself – a caring and loving man that brought three wonderful children into the world and did whatever it took to support his family.

When he did train, he was a better man, husband, father and friend. That was enough motivation to get Ignatov back inside the gym on a regular cadence. Now he balances his time teaching combat SAMBO at CSA and training pro fighters.

“I’ve been working with Nick and Nate Diaz for over twelve years. Other pros I’ve worked with are Yancy Medeiros, Alexis Davis, Miriam Nakamoto, Sarah D’Alelio, Dominique Robinson and James Chaney. Plus two up and comers that are going to be a force in MMA for years to come – Nick Pica and Gaston Bolanos. Everyday I see these fighters grinding and sacrificing to make their dreams come true.”

And what about Ignatov, what’s his dream? Well, he’s living it, back to what he calls his drug of choice – SAMBO.


DeLeon DeMicoli writes and trains in San Francisco, CA.  He is currently writing a novel on Mixed Martial Arts.

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Previous Pieces by DeLeon DeMicoli:
This Fighting Life 9: Lynda Chunhawat, part 2
This Fighting Life 9: Lynda Chunhawat, Part 1
This Fighting Life 8: Author Frank Bill
This Fighting Life 7: Brett “The Hitman” Hart
This Fighting Life 6: Chris “Maximus” McNally
This Fighting Life 5: Kevin Roddy vs. Hurricane Sandy
This Fighting Life 4: Mirko Büchwald
This Fighting Life 3: Bashir Ahmad and MMA in Pakistan
This Fighting Life 2: Diorelle and Brooke
This Fighting Life 1: Casey McEachern