It is sparring session at Allstars and Ilir’s first since the fight against Ryan Bader seven months ago. Even though he hasn’t sparred in a long time and says he weighs more than normal, he offer his friend Alexander Gustafsson tough rounds with thundering punch combinations and lightning fast head kicks. It’s an extraordinary experience to see the two giants crash into the wall of the cage, just a meter in front of us. Ilir had several injuries that needed attention already before the Bader fight, which is the reason he has gone through several surgeries over the last six months, to get his body fully restored. After the sparring Ilir sits down with us, ready to welcome us into his life story.

The Rocky tale

Two key individuals in Ilir’s life are his brother Arben Latifi and his head coach Selman “Putte” Berisha. ”My brother started training martial arts at an early age and he’s still active today. He has trained most styles, such as boxing, judo, shootfighting, BJJ and MMA. He was one of the first in Sweden to compete in No Holds Barred, which was that time’s MMA but without all the rules. He introduced me to MMA and grappling. Selman is my friend, countryman and head coach since several years back. He has a background in Taekwondo and possesses an incredible feeling for fighting. Even if he hasn’t competed in MMA himself he has a great ability to find the right fighting style for a certain individual. He lives in Miami and that’s why I spend most of my time there, training with him at the American Top Team.”


At the age of six, Ilir started wrestling and he liked that it was more than just a sport; it was an upbringing. “We were taught to train hard, compete a lot, win, lose and come back again. We learned to become strong, fearless and humble. We became tough, both physically and mentally. It was hard and I thought about quitting many times, but I always kept going. I was absolutely no talent, but I advanced only through hard work.” About ten years ago Ilir moved to Stockholm to train with Spårvägen BK, but at the same time he started getting tired of all the rule changes and the always present politics in the wrestling community. Big brother Arben introduced him to Omar Bouiche and from that point Ilir’s MMA journey began.

After a couple of years competing in MMA the chance Ilir had been waiting for finally came, even if the conditions were the worst imaginable. It was spring 2012 and Alexander Gustafsson was booked to fight the previous Strikeforce champion Gegard Mousasi, but he got injured just a week before the fight and it became urgent to find a replacement. “I was in a shop in Malmö to buy candy and sweets for our Easter celebration when they called. My weight was 105 kg (231 lbs) and they asked if I could drop down to 93 kg (205 lbs) in a few days. Just give me the fight and I’ll sort it out, I replied. Three days before fight day the UFC confirmed that they would give me the chance, so I started cutting weight straight away. 12 kilos (26 lbs) in three days. I still don’t understand how I managed to even stand up during the fight. It took me three – four months to restore my body after that extreme weight cut. It’s an unforgettable memory, all of it.”

This Rocky tale was completed with Ilir walking into a sold out Globe Arena to the tune of Eye of the Tiger and gave Mousasi a tough fight during all three rounds. Even if he lost the fight on decision, he still won the whole MMA community’s respect. The UFC President Dana White praised Ilir after his achievement and promised to give him more fights within the organization. Since that day he has had seven more fights and he has won five of them. He’s now ranked in the top 10 of his weight division and he’s popular with the fans, which his ability to finish his opponents has contributed to.

The Albanian Swede

Ilir has more than Swedish fans supporting him. Since he’s the first fighter ever in the UFC with Albanian roots, his fan base is huge among the Albanian population. He knows both cultures well and can easily point out the main differences. “I’m both Swedish and Albanian, I represent both nations equally much. You can tell how proud the Albanians are of their country and flag, while in Sweden it has been frowned upon to sing the national anthem and wave with the Swedish flag. People feel that it’s wrong to be proud of one’s country. In Albania there’s at least one flag in each home, often even two or three. It’s a pity it’s like this in Sweden when we have so much to be proud of. Sweden stand for diversity, equal rights and incredible opportunities. Wave the Swedish flag for those things! Use the flag as a symbol for something positive. I love Sweden and I encourage everybody to be proud of their country.”


”Two other things that differ between the countries are perspective and safety. When my parents grew up, people in Albania were extremely poor; they had to borrow each other’s shoes and they didn’t have electricity or tap water. My father came to Sweden in 1973 and since that day he has never been unemployed. He loves Sweden and the possibilities you have here. In Albania it was everybody’s dream to get a job. They couldn’t think about becoming a fighter, an artist or something like that. In Sweden on the other hand, we have an extremely safe society, and that has unfortunately made us insecure. What I mean is that as soon as the bus is late, or some other trivial issue occurs, we panic. We’ve developed a fear of the unknown and I’m sure that’s a major reason to the high rate of mental illness in our society today. If you grow up in an insecure society you’re used to it, and you chose all the time to do the best of every situation.”

The recent shootings and riots in Swedish suburbs have received major attention in the media and even Ilir has spoken his mind about it in social media and interviews. Through his own childhood in Rosengård he has good insight to the problems and we ask him to explain what he believes are the main issues. “There are several issues. First of all I think the integration policies have failed. You can’t say that people are welcome to Sweden and then not letting them into the society. I know immigrant women who applied for 200 – 300 jobs without getting a single one! Second, the legislation has to be stricter so that the consequences are clear. People need demands to be put on them, to become part of the society. You can’t pamper people! What are you going to say to a young guy who carries a vest and a gun and earns 200 000 SEK per month? Are you going to tell him to quit what he’s doing and go to the Employment agency, where he might get a job as a cleaner and earn 10 000 SEK per month?”


At the Swedish Martial Arts Awards – Kampsportsgalan – 2016, Ilir was awarded Role model of the year, and role models are needed more than ever right now, in his opinion. “What role models are given attention in Sweden today? Participants from reality shows like Paradise Hotel and Big Brother! We need to acknowledge people who have really made an effort, athletes like us. The suburb kids need role models they can relate to, other immigrants who succeeded. And I don’t mean immigrants who live in seven million SEK apartments in Stockholm’s hipster areas who hang around with the cool media people. When you give attention to real role models the kids will realize that they’re also capable of succeeding. You’re not a role model just because you don’t cross the street when it’s red light! To me, the greatest role models have made big mistakes, but they managed to turn their lives into something positive.”


The Fighter and the team

The standard line from many fighters who suffered a loss is that they have to get back to the drawing board, start over and re-create their fight game. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see Ilir react in a completely opposite way after his loss to Bader – shrugging his shoulders and accepting that the margins are really small in MMA. “The margins are small in boxing, but they’re even smaller in MMA. We don’t count when someone gets knocked down so you can recover; if you get knocked out it’s over! And it’s not like team sports where you can just substitute someone who has a bad day. Sure, a fighter has his team, but when you enter the cage you’re alone and everything is on you. I’ve had many setbacks in life, so a loss is nothing new to me.”

As he moved to Miami, Ilir can enjoy the warmer climate, but also train with world class fighters like “King Mo” Lawal and Junior Dos Santos at American Top Team. But he wants to make it clear that there are few gyms in the world that train as hard as they do at Allstars in Stockholm. “I’ve trained at many gyms in the USA and I can say that our sparring, wrestling, strength and conditioning in Sweden are 10 points. People in Sweden are fast, after someone’s loss, to say that he has to move his training camps to the US to succeed. But when Allstars have success no one says anything. And when Jimi [Manuwa] comes here to train, instead of going to the US, no one says anything. Unfortunately it’s easy to criticize your own and praise others.”

We talk a little bit about the next generation of Swedish fighters who are supposed to take over. Ilir points out that you shouldn’t just look at the big gyms, but that the next world champion might as well come from a small gym in Småland or Lappland, as it’s all about who’s hungrier and trains the hardest. As always we also ask what fighter he’d like to read an interview with. “Fedor [Emelianenko]. What an incredible fighter, so skilled and dangerous in all situations. And so ahead of his time.”

Since Ilir just started training again after his injuries, he won’t be able to fight on the UFC card in Stockholm at the end of May. But while this is being written, the UFC confirms that Ilir is booked to fight Antonio ”Little Nog” Rogerio Nogueira, 25th of June in Oklahoma. FighterInterviews wishes Ilir good luck!