In February, UFC flyweight Ali Bagautinov enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime moment, as he carried the Olympic torch for the 2014 Winter Games held in Sochi, Russia.
Had his life veered left instead of right years ago, he might have competed in them.
Bagautinov (13-2) will look to achieve gold of the UFC title variety Saturday, as he’ll take on current flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson in Vancouver. The 125-pound title fight will headline UFC 174 at Rogers Arena.
Earlier in life, Bagautinov, from Dagestan, Russia, believed his athletic mark would come in the sport of amateur freestyle wrestling. He excelled on the mats at a young age and says he even competed internationally by his mid-teens.
When he was 16, however, his life changed. His father suddenly passed and he was put in charge of financially caring for his brother and sister -- so he left the wrestling room.
“My dream was to reach the Olympic level,” Bagautinov told ESPN.com, through an interpreter. “But my dad passed away and for two years, I was not doing anything [athletic]. It was a sudden death. No one foresaw it. Two days and he was gone.
“I went to a university and worked in accordance with my career. To supplement my income, I had to go to different construction sites and work manual labor. My dad had wanted me to be a good wrestler, but I had to take care of my family.”
Bagautinov, 28, transitioned to combat sambo after providing for his family and has built an outstanding resume as a professional. Nicknamed “Puncher,” Bagautinov has accumulated nine finishes in his career and bewildered three UFC opponents.
Wins over Timothy Elliott and John Lineker last year proved the Dagestani’s place among the elite tier of the flyweight division. And while Johnson (19-2-1) is looked upon (correctly) as a step up from them, Bagautinov doesn’t see a wide gap.
“Fighting those guys was no walk in the park,” Bagautinov said. “They are top-level and [Johnson] is right at that same level.”
Bagautinov says he is prepared for Johnson, despite several potential distractions that occurred during his recent camp.
Visa issues prevented Bagautinov from flying from Russia to Jackson-Winkeljohn in Albuquerque, New Mexico on schedule, which left him with a slightly shortened camp at the facility. Reports also surfaced he was involved in an altercation with fellow Dagestani fighter Rustam Khabilov.
In May, it was reported the International Sambo Federation had suspended him for two years and stripped him of titles for testing positive for methylhexanemine two years ago. Bagautinov strongly denied those accusations to ESPN.com.
“I can say that it’s fake and false information,” Bagautinov said. “I have no idea what was the source of it. There is no way anybody could strip me of my titles.
“I was really upset because at this level of my training for the title, there are reports coming out from different sources out of different countries. That is really upsetting because they all have this negative feel to it.”
Bagautinov said he submitted multiple drug tests during international competition and never once, to his knowledge, tested positive for a banned substance.
The reports never threatened Bagautinov's title fight this weekend, which is where, he says, his complete focus lies. After having to sacrifice his first athletic dream due to life interfering, you can't blame his determination to not let it happen again.