The Shady Legacy of Mikhail Ilyukhin

By: Lev Pisarsky
May 3, 2021

As some may guess based on my name, I was born in Russia, a country with an incredibly rich, successful MMA tradition. It includes legends regarded among the greatest ever, Fedor Emelianenko and Khabib Nurmagomedov, several other outstanding young champions who have that potential, such as Petr Yan and Vadim Nemkov, and three highly successful domestic promotions in M-1 Global, Absolute Championship Akhmat and Fight Nights Global.

And who was the first Russian MMA star that preceded all of this? There were actually two: Oleg Taktarov debuted in the UFC in April of 1995 and won UFC 6 in mid-July, while Mikhail Ilyukhin triumphed at the inaugural IAFC tournament held in Moscow on July 1, 1995, winning five times in a single night. Unfortunately, not every pioneer is a paragon of virtue. Taktarov is by all accounts a wonderful person and a true martial artist who displayed some of the most amazing, inspirational heart in MMA history in his battles. On the other hand you have Ilyukhin, one of the sport's all-time dirtiest fighters and outright cheaters, and not for lack of competition. Let's take a closer look at this curious character.

Ilyukhin was a relatively short but very powerfully built grappler, generously listed at 5-foot-9 and weighing between 210 and 215 pounds in his prime, with very little of that being fat. His background was listed as sambo, but a lot of his success came down to plain old wrestling, taking opponents down with double-legs in an era when no one except grapplers had any takedown defense. From there, he would use his sambo to submit them, oftentimes going for risky ankle locks and kneebars that would give up position. Winning five fights in a single night seems insane today, and is certainly a worthy achievement, but Ilyukhin's opponents that night had very little fighting ability. Ilyukhin would take them down and submit them immediately, having an enormous advantage in physical strength as well as skill. His first four opponents lasted less than three minutes total, a truly incredible statistic. His opponent in the finals was a little more slippery and might have had some very rudimentary ground skills, as he survived an entire three minutes and 54 seconds.

The second IAFC event was held in November of 1995. The format was the same, but this one was much tougher, attracting not only better domestic talent, but quality fighters from Ukraine and even Brazil, like 6-foot-8 future Pride Fighting Championships competitor Ricardo Morais. Ilyukhin knew that winning wouldn't be as easy, which is when two infamous examples of his cheating occurred. After easily submitting his first two opponents in under three minutes total, he faced a 22-year-old Ukrainian who was listed at 200 pounds, but looked much scrawnier. His name was Igor Vovchanchyn.

Now, Vovchanchyn was still far from the legend he would become a few years later. He was smaller and weaker and hadn't yet developed his grappling skills, or properly adapted his kickboxing base into MMA. In fact, Vovchanchyn’s first MMA fight had come only a month before. However, Ilyukhin found his opponent, green as he was, to be difficult to overcome. While Ilyukhin quickly took him down, Vovchanchyn already had a few wrestling and ground fundamentals, and simply refused to give up. At one point, when Ilyukhin went for an Achilles lock, his favorite submission, Vovchanchyn correctly tried to keep his ankle straight, and pounded away on the Russian from the top. Ilyukhin eventually regained top control, but with no time limit, and over six minutes having elapsed already, he desperately wanted to end the match. So he chose a shortcut.

This early MMA event had few rules. Fighters could pound away on the back of the head of an opponent, deliver any kind of elbow they wanted, soccer-kick or head stomp, knee downed opponents, grab the cage, or break someone’s fingers (small joint manipulation). One exception was that no eye-gouging of any kind was permitted. Ilyukhin decided to ignore that, wedging his chin into Vovchanchyn's eye-socket and pushing it in with all his might. As absurdly tough as the Ukrainian was, he had no choice but to tap. Calling the action live, the Russian commentators were confused about what happened, believing that Ilyukhin had applied a unique choke they didn't understand, or that Vovchanchyn had given up for no apparent reason. Back then, very few people understood grappling, analysts included. And Ilyukhin himself blatantly lied in the post-fight interview, answering that yes, it was a choke.

Eye-gouging an opponent to win and lying about it is bad enough. But Ilyukhin wasn't done yet. After the match against Vochanchyn, which at six and a half minutes had been the longest of the event thus far, he was worried about his energy for the last two fights, especially since a showdown with the aforementioned Brazilian monster Morais loomed in the finals.

His semifinal opponent was Akhmed Sagidguseinov, not only a fellow sambo practitioner, but a training partner of Ilyukhin's. What followed is in my opinion perhaps the most hilariously fixed, fake fight in MMA history. It makes Mark Coleman vs. Nobuhiko Takada seem legitimate and serious by comparison. Just take a gander at this farce.

Sagidguseinov instantly flopped onto his back the moment Ilyukhin grabbed hold of him, and from there, calmly lay flat, almost relaxing, while Ilyukhin applied a loose ankle lock, at which point he immediately tapped. The entire fight lasted five seconds, which would be one of the fastest submissions ever if it were legitimate. It was so bad that even the English play-by-play guy who appeared to know little about fighting — yes, this event had both a Russian and an English commentary team, which was ahead of its time — could sense something was very wrong.

Ilyukhin's efforts were not rewarded. In the finals, he did indeed face Morais. After the Russian took him down early, Morais scored a nifty sweep that one still sees used today, after which he battered Ilyukhin with elbows and punches to the back of the head before securing a rear-naked choke at almost 10 minutes in. It's a classic of old-school MMA and I advise every reader to check it out, as it can be seen at the end of the video embedded above.

Murky circumstances also surround Ilyukhin's most famous fight, a 1999 victory over Randy Couture in Rings. In this case, however, it's only partially his fault. After being dominated by Couture the whole fight, beaten up on the feet and out-wrestled, Ilyukhin found himself on his back, holding onto a kimura from his half-guard. Couture wasn't particularly bothered by it. Since they were close to the ropes, the referee decided to restart them in the middle of the ring. Ilyukhin did so, only this time he put Couture in his closed full guard before taking the kimura: a different, more dangerous position. The referee either failed to notice or chose to allow it, Ilyukhin immediately cranked the hold at the restart and Couture tapped. Couture and his corner, including Dan Henderson, protested, but to no avail.

Even Ilyukhin's last professional fight, against Jordanas Poskaitas, was a foul-plagued circus. The fun starts around the eight-minute mark. In Rings, one was not allowed to hit a downed opponent in the head, regardless of the fighters’ relative positions. When Poskaitas threw a punch from his back at Ilyukhin, an illegal blow, the Russian went berserk. After gesticulating to the referee, he immediately threw two punches to the head of the still-downed Lithuanian, and when the referee pulled him back, he shoved the official as hard as he could and continued trying to attack his downed opponent, including another punch to the head and an attempted stomp. The crowd was in a fervor at this point and a flood of men arrive to the ring to control Ilyukhin. Eventually, several officials wrestled and restrained him to the ring apron.

Amazingly, the fight was not stopped at that point. They resumed fighting and at the beginning of Round 2, Ilyukhin successfully applied a standing ankle lock and Poskaitas tapped. Naturally, Ilyukhin refused to let go of the hold even after the referee physically struggled with him. It's only after the referee pushed him down that the hold was released. Rousimar Palhares would have been proud.

Thus ended the career of Mikhail Ilyukhin. I remember well my excitement a few years ago when I started first round out about this accomplished pioneer of Russian MMA, and my disappointment the more I learned. On an amusing note, the first and third videos above come from Ilyukhin's own YouTube channel. According to his most recent video from 2016, he is now a coach, including of children. For all I know, he has mellowed in his middle age or turned over a new leaf. Regardless, I hope he doesn't teach his young pupils the tactics from his fights mentioned above.

Fighter Profiles

GRRRR!!!More on Mobile