With the UFC in the midst of a nine-week stretch featuring a fight card every Saturday and nearly seven months into an annual calendar that will deliver more than 40 events into the Octagon this year, you can understand how fans and observers can sometimes have a little difficulty remembering the names of the latest emerging talent to make an impression from time to time.
Thankfully for 23-year-old lightweight upstart Nasrat Haqparast, his name is not one that is easy to forget and just in case that wasn’t enough, there is one other helpful way of remembering him: just look for the four-fifth scale version of Kelvin Gastelum.
“Kelvin is an amazing guy,” Hasparast said with a laugh, addressing a photo from his Instagram page where he and the middleweight contender are flanking Master Rafael Cordeiro, the head coach at Kings MMA. “When I went to Kings, he wasn’t there, so obviously we couldn’t train together.”
Haqparast has heard the comments, acknowledges the two look similar and obviously was having a little fun with the MMA community and steering into the joke by posing with Gastelum and posting the photo on his social media channels in advance of the former TUF winner’s epic interim title clash with Israel Adesanya in April.
That said, the 155-pound competitor believes there are big differences in their styles and promises to make that clear when he steps into the cage this weekend.
“He’s an amazing guy and I like his style,” he said of Gastelum, “but I think we’re a little bit different and you’re going to see next week what we’re working on.”
After a slight injury late in camp scuttled a proposed bout with John Makdessi earlier this year, Haqparast will finally make his 2019 debut on Saturday, stepping into the Octagon in a Fight of the Night contender against Brazilian Joaquim Silva that lands towards the end of this weekend’s afternoon affair at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
“In my opinion, everybody in the UFC is good,” said Haqparast, prefacing his thoughts on Silva. “This is like Champions League; everybody is strong. Joaquim Silva, I like his style — he’s going forward, throwing punches and people nowadays want to see exciting fights with good striking exchanges and that’s what has pushed me in training.
“I know this guy is going to come to break my face, so I’m going to train hard to break his face,” he added. “I’m really excited about Joaquim Silva — it’s going to be an exciting fight. My last fight was a good test for this fight because (Thibault) Gouti also fought with good pressure. (This fight with) Joaquim is going to be Fight of the Night.”
Haqparast collected Fight of the Night honors in his last effort, a decision win over Gouti last October in Moncton, New Brunswick, and pushing his winning streak to three with a second consecutive performance bonus could help silence the critics and detractors who have been critical of his quick rise.
The German prospect, who trains under Firas Zahabi at Montreal’s Tristar Gym, has been under the microscope since arriving in the UFC in the fall of 2017, as some questioned whether he was ready to compete on the biggest stage in the sport after amassing an 8-1 record on the German regional circuit, and his promotional debut didn’t sway opinions either way.
On one hand, Haqparast came out on the wrong side of the results. On the other hand, he was just a couple months removed from turning 22, took the fight on short notice and was still able to hang with Polish veteran Marcin Held for three rounds, impressing those who weren’t predisposed to being down on his potential.
Being highly scrutinized and saddled with lofty expectations is the kind of thing that could derail a young fighter, especially in the early stages of their career, but the thoughtful southpaw isn’t one to worry about the opinions and expectations of others.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” Haqparast said. “Before fights, I’m not nervous. Some people are scared, are nervous, they feel pressure because they want to impress people, but the most important thing for me — and this is my mindset — is that I don’t fight to impress people; I fight for myself. I don’t do it because of what people are going to say or to make people talk more about me; I don’t care about any of this.
“If you fight for other people, you’re lacking motivation. If you fight for yourself, to bring the best performance you can on that night, that’s different and that’s why I don’t feel any pressure. I enjoy everything about fighting and my training camp, even the weight cut.
“The only thing I don’t like about my training camps is that I’m far away from my family,” added Hasparast, who returns home to Germany following each fight and made a special note to thank his uncle, Bariz Soofi, for all the support he provides him and his family. “That’s a little hard, but I love everything about the fight so much, deep in my heart, and that’s why I’m never nervous because I embrace it.”
That attitude and approach is the type of outlook that can lead a young, talented fighter to make major developmental leaps between appearances.
Coupled with the wisdom of Zahabi and the leadership of Tristar’s most famous and successful representative, Haqparast believes he’s taken a considerable step forward in advance of his return this weekend.
“Firas Zahabi in my opinion is the smartest coach in the game,” said Haqparast. “He’s like a genius; he’s so smart about everything and the results speak for themselves. The improvements I’ve made since I have been with Firas have been incredible.
“In the beginning, everything was so different because I come from a different school and started with Dutch-style kickboxing; just going forward, throwing punches,” he continued. “It took a year to really get used to the style and since then, I’ve put everything together and the development I have made between fights is crazy.
“For me, the improvement is the most important thing,” Hasparast added. “I don’t train for a fight. Some guys, they only train six or seven weeks for their fight, to get in shape, but that’s why I love Tristar so much and think Georges St-Pierre is such a good role model for the sport — he’s coming to the gym twice a day and he’s retired.
“He’s accomplished everything there is in the sport and he’s still training so much because he loves to improve and to have that energy around you is infectious.”
With the injury that scuttled his fight with Makdessi long since healed and eight months worth of improvements in the books since his last outing, Haqparast is eager to make the walk to the Octagon for the fourth time this weekend and prove to everyone that he’s definitely a name to remember in the talent-rich lightweight division.
“I don’t like to give predictions; I don’t like to say, ‘I’m going to finish him; this or that.’ The only thing I know is that I am going to be victorious because I did everything in my power possible to prepare for this fight.
“You cannot train more than I did. You cannot sacrifice more than me. I have the best coaches. I didn’t cheat on my training or skip anything. Everything in my life is based on this sport, so that’s what gives me a lot of confidence.
“We’re ready for everything,” he added. “We’re ready for a big war and (Saturday night), you’re going to see an amazing fight.”