In December 2016 Marat Balaev won the ACB Featherweight Championship. While his journey culminated with him competing in the cage, it was an arduous and meandering path which lead him there.
A young Turkmen boy of Ossetian descent had lofty dreams and aspirations of one day representing his country at the Olympics. The year was 1982, and at that time, Turkmenistan was still very much a part of the former Soviet Union.
The sunny village of Karamet-Niyaz, in the north-east of Turkmenistan, was only small. But that still didn’t stop one of its inhabitants, a six-year-old Marat Balaev, from having big dreams. That dream; to one day become an Olympic gold medalist in Freestyle wrestling.
Training with his older brother, Marat would find he had a knack for the grappling arts. From that point on his days and nights would be spent enthusiastically training in the gym, working hard to make his dreams tangible. The effort wouldn’t go unnoticed and eventually, Marat made it to the Olympic reserves in his home state. All those grinding training sessions where he was weak, exhausted and dripping with sweat had finally paid off for the determined, young Balaev.
The selection process itself was very stringent. Only the most resilient characters would make it through the gruelling selection process to represent the Soviet Union. But getting through that process meant you had the talent to succeed at the highest level of competition.
As Marat grew older he would go on to find success in the sport, winning first place in the Olympic reserve schools throughout the whole of the Soviet Union – and if you believe Marat, he took a victory over future Olympic silver medalist, Gennadiy Laliev, by a margin of 7-1. The following year, in 1992, he’d win the CIS championship before being asked to represent Turkmenistan at the Olympics in Barcelona. But as fate would have it, Balaev’s journey towards Olympic gold would be struck an almighty blow. Just months prior the dissolution of the Soviet Union had taken effect, with it impacting the many states that had formerly resided within it.
Many people would be marginalised and oppressed. It lead to funding slipping away from those particular regions, and in turn, there was no funding for a sixteen year old Marat to get to the Olympics. His dream was being ripped away from him by issues he couldn’t control.
The dissolution had even more severe effects on Marat and others in the region. States which were once eligible were no longer able to claim state ran education, and many families were evicted from their homes. It was at this point Marat decided to make a change in his life.
Balaev’s journey would take him further east as he joined the army in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Marat would spend a short time in Tashkent, with relatives trying to persuade the teenager to emigrate to the Greater Caucasus region of Ossetia. His relatives finally succeeded in persuading him to move in 1994.
At eighteen years old, Marat would move in with his Aunt in Ossetia. The area was great for his training. But financially Marat was struggling. His Aunt would make him three meals a day and often give him small amounts of money to cover his training and travel, but it wasn’t a long-term solution. He was barely making ends meet.
Persevering, Balaev would spend seven years training in Ossetia, still with aspirations of making the Olympic team. Unfortunately the money available for an older Olympic hopeful just wasn’t there. With no sponsors, Balaev’s coach would attempt to forge the age of Balaev on some entry forms – putting his age at three years lower than he actually was – so he would be eligible for youth tournaments where there were still opportunities for sponsorship and funding. Ultimately Marat decided against it.
As he grew older, Marat gradually stopped training. The friendships he’d founded in the gym soon became nefarious, as he found himself drawn into a life of crime. It was predicated on necessity rather than any Ill-will, but it was a slippery slope that would prove hard to climb back up. Marat’s crimes weren’t of the violent nature. He was involved in stealing items from people’s homes. Some would call him a common thief, while others would see a man just trying to stay alive.
One night, Marat was stopped by police that wanted to check his documentation, and as they searched him they found the equipment he used to burglarise homes. Marat was given a five year sentence at the age of twenty-seven.
Marat’s time in prison was fairly horrific. According to curate.cool, Balaev would be humiliated, bullied and often subjected to beatings. But being locked in a cage can force even the most placid of men to do menacing things, as Balaev would regrettably find out for himself. After coming to the aid of a friend who was being badly beaten, Marat would receive a further five years on top of his original sentence. It meant Marat had his original sentence doubled and he would be detained at the pleasure of the state until he was into his late thirties.
A harsh punishment for what was an act of selflessness.
With no prospect of an early release, Marat spent the full ten years in prison. The likelihood of him finding a normal job made it all the more daunting once the cage doors were opened. Furthermore, while he was incarcerated, his wife had divorced him and moved to the Ukraine with his two sons.
It could have been a real low point for Balaev had he not met a girl shortly before his detainment. While Marat was inside they would keep communicating. She soon became his girlfriend and she even waited a further eight years for his release. Once he was free they proceeded to move to St Petersburg for a fresh start.
Struggling to find work in St Petersburg, Marat would spend the first month out of prison racking his brain for his next career move. Prison had taken away the majority of his prospects, so he had been left with very few options. As the weeks went by he would decide to get back into training, but after ten years of inactivity, it was no easy task. Nevertheless, Marat would start training and eventually he secured himself a job as a wrestling coach for his local gym.
As Balaev acclimated back into training he became interested in competing in MMA. Having watched guys from his gym, he believed his skill set would allow him to compete, even in spite of his age. Marat took inspiration from older fighters such as Randy Couture, Dan Henderson, Bernard Hopkins and George Foreman. All would fight well into their forties, and in the case of Hopkins, even longer.
The stage was set, Balaev would take his first fight in August of 2014, fighting for M-1 against a low-level, Spanish opponent. Marat would only earn $900 for the fight, but that night he realised he may actually be able to make a career out of it.
Balaev would return to training with a renewed vigour and focus. He gave up drinking and started working on his endurance. He knew he still had the technique to win but he needed to grow other aspects of his game. One of Marat’s main training partners would introduce him to the world of striking in painful fashion. His training partner, Pavel Vitruk, was an M-1 veteran and still undefeated in 2014. Both he and Balaev would take to the mat for a sparring session and it wasn’t long before Vitruk landed a strike to the liver of Balaev. He creased over from the shooting pain. Not learning from this first shot, Balaev would get caught again, and once again he dropped to the ground. From that point on Marat made a conscious effort to improve and evolve.
Moving forward, Ali Hasanov became Balaev’s head striking coach. With the dedication and work ethic that Balaev possessed he improved at a very fast rate over the coming months. Within the next eighteen months he’d accrued two more victories, moving to 3-0.
According to an interview with allboxing.ru, in March 2016, Marat was presented with an arduous task with interesting potential.
Just eight days out from ACB 31, Balaev’s manager would get a call to see if he could fill a late spot on the card. The fight was going to be against an 8-1 Chechen named Mukhamed Kokov. It was a dangerous fight to take on a full fight camp, never mind a little over a weeks notice, but the ever competitive Balaev accepted the challenge. He had to. He needed the money to visit one of his brothers in Vladikavkaz, back in Ossetia.
Balaev accepted the fight and started on his weight cut. He was almost 25lbs out from fighting weight, so for the next four days he dieted and trained in Crossfit. But time was running out.
The event itself was being held in Grozny, which presented Marat with another issue. He no longer had a valid passport so he was forced to travel by car across mountainous terrain for two days. He and Sergei Nikitin, his head coach, would arrive at the hotel at 11:00pm the night before the fight. Balaev still had a little over 12lbs to cut before the 9:00am weigh-ins, so he ran all night and sat in the steam room trying to wring out every last bit of moisture from his body. It was a struggle, but at 9:00am he jumped on the scales and weighed 146.2lbs, the exact same as his opponent. The fight was set.
That ordeal itself was arguably tougher than the fight turned out to be, as Balaev, while looking drained, still managed to control the majority of the action in each round. It was a huge feather in his cap. Kokov had only lost to Zabit Magomedsharipov, after he had broke his hand in the second round of their fight.
With that win, Balaev was unexpectedly ascending the rankings. No one thought a forty-year-old on eight days notice would subdue a fighter of Kokov’s quality. He shocked a lot of people that night.
A short three months later, Balaev would fight Suleiman Bouhata, picking up a quick, first round submission win. That victory thrust Marat into an opportunity to compete for ACB’s vacated Featherweight championship against the impressive twenty-one year old, Yusup Raisov. Balaev was suddenly a highly regarded commodity.
And so the stage was set for a showdown between two of the divisions top performers.
There was an interesting contrast between the two, with an almost twenty year age gap. In the build-up to the fight, Balaev had likened Raisov to his sons. Marat’s two sons lived in the Ukraine with his former wife, and both were involved in a Boxing club. He would mention the fact that his sons were almost the same age as his opponent, with one being sixteen and the other being eighteen. Conversely, Raisov was just three years older than his eldest.
It gave Marat pause for thought, but he had a goal to accomplish. This couldn’t stand in his way.
The fight itself turned out to be one of the most exciting fights of the year, as both fighters had their moments as the momentum swang back and forth in incredible fashion. Ultimately, Balaev won a Unanimous Decision in a well contested, five round thriller, which left neither guy coming away a ‘Loser’.
Marat was the new ACB Featherweight champion. He was just three years removed from sitting in a prison cell. It was an incredible feat.
ACB’s president, Mairbek Khasiev, rewarded each fighter with a little extra money as he gave them one million rubles each – $17,250 – as a ‘thank you’ for a great fight.
To round the year out, Balaev would go on to win ACB’s fighter of the year for 2016. Collecting over 13,000 votes, to second place, Abdul-aziz Abdulvabhakov’s 10,491. It was another worthy accolade for the ‘Motivator’.
Sergei Nikitin first gave the nickname ‘Motivator’ to Balaev, as it represented how he inspired and motivated all the younger fighters in the gym. The troubled journey which had brought him to that point, and seeing a guy of his age work so hard, after everything he had persevered through, was a real inspiration. And with what Marat has achieved in the three years since, that nickname is only becoming more and more true.
Balaev’s incredible story continues to inspire young Russian’s who may have fallen foul of the law in their youth. Marat is an example of what a strong mind, determination and perseverance can achieve. And even though Marat may not have won that Olympic gold medal he had dreamed of all those years ago, he finally had a different, well deserved piece of gold to call very his own.
Marat Balaev will defend his ACB Featherweight championship against Adlan Bataev at ACB 61, May 20. Do not miss this fight.