Nikita Krylov’s life seems full of contradictions. He bears a Thompson machine gun tattoo on his left arm, an angel with a Christian cross on his right. Krylov fights under the Ukrainian flag, but he maintains a difficult relationship with his motherland, and while he travels all over the world as a mixed martial artist for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, he often returns to his native Ukraine and the small mining village from which he originated.
It was no accident that Krylov was known as “Al Capone” early in his career. He grew up in a disadvantaged area, and between the ages of 16 and 20, he was engaged in “not quite right things.” Fortunately for Krylov and those closest to him, he exhibited athletic talents that were noticed early.
Warrior at Heart
Krylov made his pro debut at just 20 years age and fought 13 times in six months before a one-off appearance in M-1 Global, where he knocked out Gabriel Tampa in April 2013. He was then offered a contract by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and three weeks later, he succumbed to punches from Soa Palelei in his Octagon debut at UFC 164. Then something unexpected happened. UFC President Dana White, who rarely singles out fights between organizational newcomers, cited Krylov-Palelei as one of the worst he had seen.
“You better not ask me about Palelei’s and Krylov’s fight,” White told reporters afterward. “I am ashamed of it. Both fighters looked half-hearted and tired during the very first minute, and both of them did not show anything. MMA fans should not see such s--- in the UFC. It was really embarrassing. What do you think will happen next with these guys in the heavyweight division?”
Though his dreams were threatened, Krylov plowed ahead. He knocked out Walt Harris in 25 seconds in his next outing, and over the next three years, he fought seven times and posted five wins. However, following a 2016 defeat to Misha Cirkunov, Krylov was released by the UFC with one fight still left on his contract.
“Before the fight with Misha, I had a streak of five straight victories,” he said. “I worked with the UFC for two contracts, and the figures in the second were much higher than they were in the first one; and in the third contract, I was suddenly offered the same money that was in the second. I told them I wouldn’t sign it, and they told me that the UFC could release me from my contract ‘right now’ if that was what I wanted. My managers contacted the largest MMA organizations in Russia, and they offered me better terms than the UFC.”
Unsatisfied with his situation in the UFC, Krylov signed with Fight Nights Global, went 3-0 with the Russian promotion and captured its light heavyweight championship. Everyone knew his services came with a hefty price tag, and it was rumored that he “would not enter the cage for less than $40,000.” When asked if the figure was accurate, Krylov was short and direct with his answer.
“Yes, in Fight Nights I fought for that kind of money,” he said. “I think I was one of the highest-paid fighters in the region outside of the UFC, Bellator [MMA] and [the Professional Fighters League]. Athletes are now paid much more than I was then. If you’re interesting to the fans, the promotion is ready to pay you a lot of money. That also applies to other former Soviet countries, although financial issues are not resolved as lightning-fast as they are in the United States, where you receive your check immediately after you leave the cage.”
After observing Krylov’s performances outside the Octagon, White changed his tuned and offered him a more lucrative contract to return to the UFC.
“I’m probably the only one who managed to leave the UFC without a scandal and come back two years later for much more money,” Krylov said. “It was also important to me that the promotion would not be as likely to set me up with weaker fighters because they were paying me a considerable amount of money.”
In the first fight on his new contract, Krylov submitted to an arm-triangle choke from Jan Blachowicz at UFC Fight Night 136. His luck had taken a sharp, downward turn yet again.
“Before the fight with Blachowicz, I was in the worst shape of my entire career,” Krylov said. “Two weeks before the fight, I had back pain from a herniated disc, then suffered through a cold. Usually, I weigh about 220 pounds, and I cut to 205. However, a week before the bout with Blachowicz, my weight was even less than 205. There was nothing to cut. I never wanted to refuse the fight, even though my entire team advised me to. How could I turn down my first fight since returning to the UFC? In addition, the fight was supposed to take place in Moscow. That’s my place. The first 30 seconds of the fight showed I was wrong. I realized I didn’t have the strength to compete. I was exhausted.”
Krylov has since experienced a series of highs and lows, as he avenged a previous defeat and confidently submitted Ovince St. Preux before losing a split decision to Glover Teixeira. In his most recent appearance, he was awarded a unanimous verdict over Johnny Walker at UFC Fight Night 170 on March 14.
“Before the fight with Teixeira, I had food poisoning,” Krylov said. “I wasn’t far from winning. Despite the defeat, I don’t consider the fight a failure. First, Teixeira is a serious opponent, and I gained invaluable experience working with him. Second, I went the distance for the first time in my career. I wanted to prove to myself that I was more than just a finisher.”
Mining His Own Identity
Now ranked eighth in the UFC’s light heavyweight division, Krylov believes he has readied himself to fight for a championship. He has two bouts remaining on his current contract and was offered a Top 10 opponent, only to turn down the opportunity to return to his homeland. Krylov has grown accustomed to unexpected events associated with his career.
“I was very happy with the UFC’s proposal, but family circumstances prevented me from signing the contract,” he said. “It was urgent that I go to Ukraine to tend to some business there and to help my relatives. I hadn’t been home in four and a half years, but before the borders were closed due to the quarantine, I managed to get there. My father has a small farm with a dozen and a half heads of cattle, which is a lot for our area, and I spent four months helping him set up his business. I have many relatives—I have a younger brother and sister—and they all need my support. I can say the same about my wife’s family. Because of current circumstances, there are very few ways to earn money in my homeland.”
The circumstances to which he refers revolve around a war that broke out in the Ukrainian Donetsk coal basin in 2014. Due to the violence, almost all large investors fled the area, worsening an already difficult financial situation for the local population. According to the United Nations, at least 3,350 civilians have died and more than 7,000 people have been injured since the start of the war. In the winter of 2015, active battles that included the use of artillery were raging just 20 kilometers from the Krylov home; shells and missiles whistling over his village became commonplace. It was then that he elected to change his nickname from “Al Capone” to “The Miner”—a moniker that means much more to him today.
Despite the tumultuous nature of his situation, Krylov managed to graduate from the East Ukrainian National University with a diploma in international law. However, he did not see himself as a future jurist. Rather, his efforts were more of a tribute to a widespread tradition in the post-Soviet nation. Without a higher education, it becomes increasingly difficult to move up the career ladder in any field. Such diplomas carry importance, but they are no longer recognized outside of Russia, which openly supports separatists in war-torn Ukraine. Krylov admits he has a complicated relationship with his native country.
“I read in the press that because of some of my statements in Ukraine, my position was considered pro-Russian, and because of that, I may have problems returning to my homeland,” he said. “However, I’m not officially prohibited from entering there, and when I run out of free pages on my foreign passport, I plan to go to Kiev. I would very much like to visit my friends at the Hermes Sports Club, which trains tough guys like Yaroslav Amosov. I lived at the club at one time, and I still use many of the things I learned there.”
Krylov could have followed in countryman Alexey Oleynik’s footsteps and changed his citizenship long ago. However, he remains comfortable traveling the globe with a Ukrainian passport and “hates paperwork” associated with such changes. While tending to family business, Krylov attended various sporting events in an attempt to inspire young people. He believes in trusting in one’s abilities and working toward something you love. Among his role models: current UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic.
“I met Stipe when I checked out of a hotel in Chicago six years ago the day after my fight with Walt Harris,” he said. “I left the hotel, and suddenly, I see a huge guy in front of me. I’ve been a heavyweight, so I’m a big guy, but I felt like a child next to Stipe. The second thing that struck me about him was the simplicity with which he behaved. I know he’s faithful to his hometown and home gym. He has shown that you can train at home in a small town and be one of the best fighters in UFC history. Stipe has created a powerful team around him, and even if I can’t replicate his achievements, I’d be interested in doing something similar in my own land.”