Who is Volkan Oezdemir?
That is a question a lot of people will asking as he fights Daniel Cormier for the UFC light heavyweight championship on Saturday night. Oezdemir seemed to appear out of nowhere last year—he only made his UFC debut on February 4, 2017 and now he is already fighting for a belt.
The reality, though, is that it was a long journey and a lot of hard work for Oezdemir to get that title shot. That odyssey is the subject of my new feature for VICE Sports.
After Oezdemir’s first UFC fight, my brother Adam told me excitedly that there was finally a Swiss in the UFC (our grandparents immigrated from Switzerland to Canada and we are dual citizens, so we are always on the lookout for Swiss athletes). As we watched him destroy his next two opponents in a combined 70 seconds, I was anxious to learn more about his story, but there just wasn’t very much to read.
As it became apparent that Oezdemir would get a title fight, I knew that someone would write a profile sooner or later and I decided that someone should be me. The problem was, I didn’t have any contact information for Oezdemir or anyone in the mixed martial arts world. I didn’t really have a firm plan, but in June I reached out to him on Twitter and emailed his former gym. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t hear anything back.
The story idea was still in the back of my mind and in September, on a whim, I sent a message to Oezdemir’s Facebook page. That evening, he responded. Not his manager, not his agent, not his social media branding expert. Volkan Oezdemir.
“How can we do this?” he asked.
I explained that I wanted to spend some time with him to report the story and he was immediately receptive. I was already planning to be in Miami in November, so the next step was to find an editor to commission the story. I pitched it to Bleacher Report first because I love their B/R Mag longform site and because I already had some relationships there after covering Formula One for them for three years. After a lot of back and forth, though, they turned it down.
Next, I pitched it to Chris Toman at VICE Sports, for whom I’d written a couple F1 pieces earlier in the year. He was immediately interested, so I headed off Florida with a rough plan to spend as much time with Oezdemir as he would allow. As it turned out, he was quite accommodating, from bringing me to his new house to letting me sit beside him for a two-hour therapy session for his injured hand. And over two days, nearly everything he did or said was on the record.
I found Oezdemir extremely laid-back, unpretentious and mischievous, but a very hard worker. He is also quite intelligent and thoughtful—qualities you may not expect from someone whose job it is to punch people in the face.
In addition to the punctuality, which I describe in the story, he also personifies another Swiss stereotype: cleanliness. His kitchen was basically spotless, but not clean enough for him and at the therapist, he spent time wiping down to entire counter around the sink after washing his hands, despite the fact that it must be sanitized daily. I think it was torture for him when he first moved to the U.S. and lived in a house with 11 other fighters.
There were a few people, including Oezdemir’s mother and UFC president Dana White, who I thought I was going to get interviews with, but it didn’t work out. And perhaps that’s for the best. The story was originally assigned at “around 2,500 words,” but I turned in 3,500. Sorry, Chris. His edits really helped tighten it up, though, and it ran at about 3,000 words.
I hope you enjoy it: