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Welcome to the UFC: Anton Zafir

This series highlights new UFC-signed athletes and briefly details how they have made their way to the premier combat sports organization in the world.
Queensland’s Anton Zafir is like most in the mixed martial arts community in Australia. His plans for next weekend have been set for a while, and they involve making the close to four-hour plane ride to Melbourne to watch UFC 193.

Then he got a call Friday, and all of a sudden he needs to unload that ticket. Usually, that’s bad news, but in Zafir’s case, he will move from the stands at Etihad Stadium to center stage in the Octagon, as he will replace the injured Brendan O’Reilly and face James Moontasri in a UFC 193 prelim bout in the welterweight division.

Now that’s making an entrance.

“I was going to be one of those 70,000 people,” Zafir said. “Now I get to fight in front of them. It’s a dream come true to be part of such an amazing show at an amazing time. It is going to be historic, and to be able to fight on the card and make that historic event in your own country, there’s not much else you can ask for.”

Well, he could ask for a little more time, but opportunities like this don’t come along too often and when O’Reilly let him Zafir know that he was injured, he also offered to put his training partner’s name in the ear of UFC matchmaker Joe Silva.

“I’m close with a couple of the guys,” said Cannonvale’s Zafir. “I did a week training with Brendan and Richard (Walsh) and I’ve known Brendan for quite a while. He said he was injured and that he had to tell Joe that he couldn’t fight, and he said he would put my name forward if I wanted it.”

Zafir wanted it, and despite the short notice, training isn’t something the 28-year-old does solely when he has a fight scheduled. He’s been in the gym since his first-round TKO win over Ryan Heketa in March, and as Chael Sonnen was fond of saying, when they call his name, he’ll make that walk.

“I try and train all year round just to keep improving,” he said. “Where I live I’m pretty isolated, so I don’t really have that many training partners, so I’ve got to keep pushing myself.”

He also has to fit his day job as a high school teacher into the schedule. If that story sounds familiar, a pretty fair former UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin had the same background, so don’t be surprised when Zafir is writing up lesson plans for his students while cutting weight in Melbourne.

Are those sacrifices? Absolutely, but the goal was always to make it to the big show, and now after putting together a 7-1 pro MMA record that includes a current five-fight winning streak, he’s got his shot, one he believed was going to happen eventually.

“I thought I proved myself,” he said. “I was constantly trying to fight the best guys in Australia and I came pretty close both times on The Ultimate Fighter, so I know I was on the radar; I just had to keep showing that I was capable. It was one of those things where I hoped it (the call) was (coming), I thought it was, but I didn’t know it was going to be yesterday, that’s for sure.”

He laughs, a moment of levity before what will likely be a stressful week. But competitors like Zafir usually perform best when under that pressure, and while he’s in with a tough opponent in Moontasri, scouting the “Moon Walker” isn’t one of those stressors.

“I leave that to my coaches,” Zafir said. “As a fighter, you constantly have that little seed of self-doubt, and I think that’s what makes you work harder to push yourself, and watching people’s fights, I just don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t help me out in any way. So I trust my coaches a hundred percent, they look at him and go ‘this is what he does, this is what we need to do, go in there and do it.’ It’s still a fight. You can go in with a great game plan or an idea of what you want to do, but it changes up at the spur of the moment, so you have to trust in your instincts and trust in your ability.”

Zafir’s life changed on the spur of the moment yesterday, and he’s gone from UFC fan to UFC fighter in the space of a phone call. It’s a great story for the local hero, and one that will be tough to top next time. He’s not worried about his encore just yet though.

“You enjoy the moment and enjoy the experience, and then basically go back on Tuesday and get back to working on things that need to be worked on for next time,” he said. “You try not to get caught up in it, enjoy it, don’t let it overwhelm me, and go out there and keep improving.”

Thomas Gerbasi is the editorial director of Zuffa, has covered the sport since 2000 and has authored the official UFC Encyclopedia and UFC: A Visual History. Follow him on Twitter @tgerbasi

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