Ilia Topuria walked out of the tunnel onto the soccer pitch of the 100-year-old Estadio de Mestalla in Valencia, Spain, last Sept. 4, alongside fellow UFC fighter Brandon Moreno. The home team, Valencia CF, was warming up for its game that night against Getafe CF. Topuria and Moreno were on hand as part of a collaboration between the UFC and Spain's famed La Liga.
When Topuria and Moreno appeared, some fans raced down from the stands to ask for photos. A few recognized Moreno, the first Mexican-born UFC champion. Others, though, called out, "Ilia! Ilia!"
Topuria, 26, lives in Alicante, about a two-hour train ride from Valencia, and has rapidly become the biggest star in Spanish MMA -- probably ever. Four months after visiting Mestalla, Topuria beat fellow up-and-comer Bryce Mitchell via second-round submission at UFC 282 on Dec. 10. He said things have blown up for him in Spain even more ever since.
"It's like everyone is recognizing me in the street when I go out," Topuria told ESPN. "In Madrid, in Barcelona, in my city, in my hometown everyone knows me."
Topuria has a chance to take things to the next level this weekend. On Saturday, he'll compete in his first UFC main event against Josh Emmett at UFC Fight Night in Jacksonville, Florida (3 p.m. ET on ABC). Emmett is coming off an interim featherweight title fight in January, and a win over Emmett would put Topuria right into the title conversation. ESPN's featherweight rankings have Emmett at No. 7 and Topuria at No. 10 (UFC ranks Emmett No. 5, Topuria No. 9).
It's not just that Topuria is very good, one of the most well-rounded fighters in the division. In MMA, fighters can be elite but not necessarily big stars. The multilingual Topuria has a chance to be both. His Instagram, which is creeping up on 800,000 followers, shows the fit, tattooed and immaculately coiffed fighter donning high fashion. Just recently, he was tapped for a feature in Spain's edition of GQ magazine. The YouTube page he started four months ago already has nearly 70,000 subscribers and clearly he's become a big deal in his adopted home country only five fights into his UFC career.
"People from outside the MMA world that don't even watch the sport are starting to acknowledge his name, and that is something that has never happened before with any MMA athlete here," said Laura Fernandez, the UFC presenter for Eurosport in Spain.
Topuria has embraced his "El Matador" nickname, though he was not actually born in Spain. His Georgian parents had Topuria in Germany before moving back to Georgia as a family when Topuria was 7 years old. Back in his original homeland, Topuria and his brother Aleksandre, also a promising MMA fighter, started training in Greco-Roman wrestling, a sport in which Georgia has won eight Olympic medals.
Topuria's love for martial arts had been ignited, but then his family moved to Alicante, a palatial city on Spain's southeastern coast. Spain is not known for martial arts and certainly not wrestling. Topuria's mother stumbled upon Climent Club, an academy for Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The gym, the first one of its kind in Alicante, was founded in 2002 by Argentinian brothers Agustin and Jorge Climent, who had trained in their home country with students of grappling pioneer Carlson Gracie.
It wasn't quite Greco-Roman, but Topuria fell in love.
"Since the first day I stepped into the gym, it was like something magical happened to me," Topuria said.
With wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu under his belt since he was a kid, Topuria started working more on his boxing, which has made an impact. He has three highlight-reel knockouts in his five UFC wins. For this camp against Emmett, Topuria did the final five weeks at Kill Cliff FC in Deerfield Beach, Florida, bringing some of his coaches from Climent Club with him.
Kill Cliff head coach Henri Hooft said Topuria has been working with everyone around his weight class at the gym, from Dagestani wrestlers to top-notch strikers, and performing very well. Topuria recently got in a light spar with former MMA pound-for-pound king Kamaru Usman. Hooft compared Topuria to other young fighters at the gym, such as Ian Garry and Shavkat Rakhmonov.
"He's so good," Hooft said. "Not only technically very good everywhere, but just very intelligent. He has everything you see in a guy championship-wise. ... Really well-rounded guy. I've got a couple young Russian kids coming up who are like 3-0 or 4-0, but have like 24-0 amateur records and have won Dagestan championships. They wrestled with him and they all said the same thing: 'Wow, he's really good.' Not just strong, but he knows positions. Especially for a guy that mostly trains out of Spain, where you don't [have much MMA], it surprised me a lot."
Another thing Hooft has noticed about Topuria is his style and starlike swagger. It could be a European thing, Hooft joked. Hooft is from the Netherlands, but he deadpanned that living in Florida, "I catch myself wearing shorts with socks and flip-flops on -- that would never happen when I was back home." Meanwhile, Topuria is regularly showing off fashionable fits on social media.
"The moment when he walks in the gym, you see somebody who comes in very confident," Hooft said. "Yeah, well-dressed, good-looking guy."
Topuria joked that his fashion sense is because "maybe I love myself too much."
"I always take care about me," Topuria said. "I always like to look good, be good. I like having everything the best. That's why I work so hard. In reality, that's not something I'm really concentrated about, being a superstar, something like that. I just try to be myself, and if people think I look like a superstar, great."
While being famous doesn't matter to him, helping to grow MMA in Spain does, and his popularity has been an asset.
"He's the main figure in Spanish MMA, and it's leading the way for the upcoming, young fighters," Fernandez said.
LaLiga, one of the top soccer leagues in the world, is also very high on Topuria. They didn't bring him to Valencia with Moreno without cause. The UFC and LaLiga announced an official sponsorship last November. LaLiga North America head of content and distribution Adrian Segovia told ESPN the league believes Spanish fans will follow Topuria in the future much like they do Spanish athletes such as NBA stars Pau and Marc Gasol and Formula 1 drivers Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz.
"We see Ilia as a standout UFC star for many reasons," Segovia said. "The first is that he's not just a successful UFC fighter, he's an incredible overall athlete. He's hard-working, intelligent, inspiring, a good person and very, very media-savvy. ... He is a star and he is going to be a UFC champion one day."
Topuria said he met with UFC president Dana White last year in Las Vegas, and White told him that if he makes it into the featherweight top five, the UFC will do a show in Spain. Topuria said one of his goals is to do for Spain in MMA what Conor McGregor has done for Ireland, if not more.
"I feel blessed and I know after this fight, it's going to explode in Spain," Topuria said. "It's going to be huge. Something I really want is to take the UFC to Spain. It will be huge. We're going to sell out the arena in one day. I don't have any doubt about that."
Topuria has to get through the hard-hitting Emmett first, which will be no easy task, though he's predicting a knockout. If he gets the job done Saturday and continues on this trajectory, maybe in the future his fighting fame will be the reason Spanish fans are filling a soccer stadium like Mestalla.
"I have the chance," Topuria said, "and I'm going to take advantage."