Red-hot Russian light heavyweight Ivan Shtyrkov signed with the UFC in March of 2019 on the strength of an unbeaten resume that boasted wins over former UFC champion Ricco Rodriguez, KSW champion Phil de Fries, Thiago Silva, Fabio Maldonado, Satoshi Ishii, and a slew of other notable names.
The sky was the limit for the 31-year-old, who was brought in on short notice for the UFC’s first-ever visit to the Russian city of St. Petersburg against light heavyweight Devin Clark, whose original opponent, Abdul-Kerim Edilov, withdrew due to injury.
Shtyrkov’s hulking, action figure-like figure and impressive 80% finishing rate prompted excitement among fans of the sport eager to watch his UFC debut.
They would not get the chance.
Prior to the event, reports emerged that Shtyrkov was removed from the event due to hospitalization. A month later, it was revealed that Shtyrkov had tested positive for boldenone, an anabolic–androgenic steroid. He then accepted a two-year suspension from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and left the UFC.
Speaking to The Body Lock with translation provided by his manager, Sayat Abdrakhmanov, Shtyrkov spoke for the first time about his doping violation and UFC release, claiming that his usage of the steroid was to recover from an injury.
“I intentionally used boldenone to recover from the knee injury,” wrote Shtyrkov. “At that time, I didn’t even have plans to fight in UFC. I didn’t know that this anabolic can stay in your system for so long and I didn’t expect USADA to trace picogram leftovers in my body.”
Shtyrkov continued, “I didn’t try to cheat; I knew I [couldn’t] take any prohibited substances if I [did] fight in UFC, but unfortunately, I was punished for something I took a long time ago when I didn’t even have intentions to sign for the organization.”
The Russian recounted the emotions he felt during the week of the fight and his subsequent departure from the promotion.
“My manager called me the night before the fight to tell me that UFC won’t allow me to compete just because I had atypical test results. I was shocked, and it was a very hard moment for me. Emotionally, I kept everything inside. It was a hard hit because I let down my supporters, my team, my manager, and my family. [The] fact that this happened in Russia didn’t help either. It was very difficult to digest everything that was going on. I wouldn’t even wish it to my foe, the emotional rollercoaster that was going on inside of me.”
Asked whether or not he would consider a return to the UFC once his suspension ended, Shtyrkov was non-committal.
“I don’t want to make any prediction about my future, UFC is a great organization, but I know now that there are many other top competitions outside of UFC. I’m not getting younger so I will make decisions based on the situation at the moment.”
Soon after he snd the UFC parted ways, Shtyrkov signed a “4 fight deal” with RIZIN Fighting Federation that allows him to compete in Russian Cagefighting Championships (RCC), a promotion run by copper billionaire Igor Altushkin, with whom Shtyrkov is closely aligned.
Shtrykov thanked both his management and RIZIN for allowing him to compete so quickly after his doping violation, noting that doing so might not have been the easiest process.
“Big thanks to my managers and organization for the hard work and trust put in me despite the situation around my persona at that time, Rizin was able to give me the opportunity to compete again very quickly.”
Notably, in December, Shtyrkov – a career heavyweight and light heavyweight – dropped a sizable amount of weight to compete in the middleweight division.
“It was my personal decision to cut down to middleweight,” said Shtyrkov. “I wanted to try and have that experience going down in weight class. At that time I had this motivation to cut because of the fight with Yasubey [Enomoto]. I wanted to challenge myself and wanted to find out if I could do it in the future.”
Shtyrkov’s fight with Enomoto, a former M-1 Global welterweight champion who has fought the likes of Alexander Shlemenko, Albert Tumenov, Roman Kopylov, and Rashid Magomedov, marked the light heavyweight contender’s first professional loss.
However, Shtyrkov says he was happy to learn from the loss, and from his experience fighting at middleweight in general.
“I’m glad I had this experience. I don’t want to say that I lost because of the weight cut and downplay Yasubey’s achievement. Weight cut was very hard and I didn’t have enough time to prepare for the fight and do the cut properly but I’m not gonna make excuses because of that, it was my experience and I’m fully responsible for the result. Yasubey fully used his advantages in that fight,” said Shtyrkov.
“Right now I don’t have any illusions about my future in that division, it could have been otherwise if I faced someone else in my middleweight debut, I’m grateful it turned out the way it did, now I’m focused on fighting at LHW.”
Shtyrkov’s focus on light heavyweight could have title implications in Japan, should he get his way.
“My goal in MMA was always to become a better fighter, to improve every day, to grow, and to be the best version of myself as a fighter and as a human being. Belts are good, it will bring more fame and money. But you should have something bigger, some internal motivation. But if we are talking about materialistic goals, right now I have the opportunity to win the RIZIN belt. We don’t have belts in RCC. The RIZIN championship will be a great achievement and right now it’s my main goal.
“I have the deal with Rizin and my priority is to fight there.”
The RIZIN light heavyweight was recently vacated, as former champion Jiri Prochazka signed with the UFC in January.
For now, however, Ivan Shtyrkov is focusing on staying safe during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“Life is on pause now. I’m trying to stay at home most of the time, but also trying not to get out of shape by being creative in my training routine by using everything I have in my house. Sometimes I go to the forest outside of the city to train outside. To be honest, there was no dramatic change to my life; when I’m in fight camp, I have a similar lifestyle, too. The biggest difference is panic going around.
“Obviously, with the current situation in the world, it is hard to make any plans. Let’s overcome this pandemic first and get back to normal as soon as possible.”
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.