NEW YORK – Rafael Aghayev dominated his main event showdown with Zsolt "The Soldier" Habda at Saturday night's Karate Combat event, setting up a long-awaited bad blood showdown with French rival Davy Dona later this month.
It was Aghayev's first appearance for Karate Combat since winning a silver medal for Azerbaijan in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He carried his world-beating form into the pit, controlling the fight by mixing tactical mastery and raw physicality where required.
The game Habda – who entered the pit with some heavy taping around his knees and lower leg – gave his all against Aghayev but it was always going to be an uphill struggle: Aghayev is one of the most decorated competitors in karate history and is considered a legend by his peers, including Habda, himself.
Having won the unanimous decision and emerged from the fight with no injuries, Aghayev will head to Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla. on Saturday, June 25 to fill a vacant slot opposite Dona. The two came to blows backstage at an event in Europe several years ago and will now settle their differences in the pit.
In the chief support bout, Bruno Assis – coming off an unsuccessful lightweight title shot in his last outing – was able to outfox and out-land dynamic fan favorite Vitalie Certan to win a unanimous decision.
Certan, who was edging into title contention himself and had considerable momentum built up, now finds his win streak ended and has to rebuild himself into a contender position.
Assis will join Aghayev on the June 25 card in Florida, having accepted a fight with former Bellator and GLORY champion Gabriel Varga, who will make his Karate Combat debut on that card.
Dagestan's Myrza-Bek Tebuev returned to action in fine style with a win over Jesus Lopez in the bantamweight division.
The tough Caucasus fighter went viral last year after suffering a fractured skull during a fight, but made a full recovery and was given the all-clear to return to competition this year after extensive rounds of testing.
He showed no hesitation against Lopez and the two had a full-blooded encounter, with Lopez at one point hitting one of the best throws ever seen in Karate Combat, launching Tebuev into the canvas with stunning force and leaving him on shaky legs for the remainder of that round.
Brazil's Gabriel Stankunas had an auspicious start to his Karate Combat career, taking a decision over Damian Villa in the opening bout of the card. The heated battle earned both fighters a long-term contract offer from Karate Combat.
"Aghayev sent a message to the welterweight division tonight, and I think we will see fireworks in his showdown with Dona later this month," Karate Combat president Adam Kovacs said. "Assis and Certan always deliver, tonight was no exception. Lightweight is a shark tank right now and Assis has a tough challenge in Gabriel Varga coming up. Myrza-Bek Tebuev took a big step closer to a bantamweight title shot tonight as well."
Karate Combat's next event takes place Saturday, June 25 at Universal Studios.
Rhode Island's Ross Levine headlines in a middleweight title shot against defending champion Shahin Atamov, while Ireland's Eoghan Chelmiah defends his bantamweight title against French rival Illies "The Madman" Mardhi in the co-main.
Tickets for this event – the first in Karate Combat history to be open to the public – are available via Karate.com/tickets.
"Karate Combat: Season 4, Event 3" results include:
- Bruno Assis def. Vitalie Certan via unanimous decision
- Rafael Aghayev def. Zsolt Habda via unanimous decision
- Myrza-Bek Tebuev def. Jesus Lopez via unanimous decision
- Gabriel Stankunas def. Damian Villa via unanimous decision