The last couple of months have been perhaps one of the strangest periods in Ion Cutelaba’s life.
After being the protagonist in one of the most controversial stoppages in the history of this sport at UFC Norfolk in February, Cutelaba had a rematch booked with Magomed Ankaleav for UFC 249 on April 18. He then traveled from the Republic of Moldova back into the U.S., but the rematch was canceled. Now, he is spending his time in quarantine at his home in Chisinau. The eastern European country’s government has imposed 14 days of quarantine for all those who have come from abroad since the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I returned from Las Vegas last week,” said Cutelaba to Sherdog.com. “I trained there to get ready for my fight at UFC 249. Do you know what it means to reach your physical peak two times in a row in less than a month? Your body gets exhausted. Now, I don’t do much stuff. I eat and drink whatever I want. I don't know what words like ‘diet’ and ‘weight’ mean anymore. We fighters are not robots. I know that we look like that, but we are not. We are only humans. We need to rest sometimes.”
With more than 3,000 cases, the Republic of Moldova is among those European countries that have been less impacted by the deadly virus at the moment. Still, the national health system is struggling hard to keep pace. Cutelaba is making most out of the situation by spending some quality time with his family.
"Hospitals are full up here, people are worried, but I hope the situation will stabilize in time,” he said. “In the meanwhile, I’m watching television, I’m playing with my daughter and with my wife. I stayed a month in Las Vegas without them. It’s hard without your family, you know? I didn’t want to put at risk their health given the situation. You never know who you meet on the many flights you take.”
On Feb. 29, “The Hulk” locked horns with Ankalaev at UFC Fight Night 169. Their encounter came to a sudden stop after the Daghestani fighter hit Cutelaba with a left hook during an initial exchange. The Moldovan fighter started wobbling around the Octagon — seemingly rocked by the shot — while his opponent continued to attack with punches and kicks. Shortly after, referee Kevin MacDonald stopped the contest 38 seconds into the first round even though Cutelaba was answering to his opponent’s strikes.
“My strategy was quite simple: I get in, I kick his ass, I get out,” the 26-year-old fighter revealed. “Just a few seconds before the fight, I came up with this new ‘trick’ though, let’s call it like that. If I acted as I was badly hurt from his strikes, he would buy it and he would open himself to my punches. That’s how it went, I was just one punch away from putting him to sleep. But my strategy turned against me. The referee didn’t understand that mine was just an act. If you watch the replay, I answered every one of his shots. None of his punches managed to knock me down. You saw me many times in the Octagon, I need to be hit by lightning to be sent down. My strategy was excellent, but the referee didn’t understand it.”
A few days later, Cutelaba’s team appealed the decision, but the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation denied the appeal. Cutelaba didn’t take the commission’s verdict very well — to put it mildly — and he is considering not fighting in Virginia ever again.
“I wasn’t expecting something like this,” Cutelaba said. “Everyone saw with their own eyes that it was a mistake. There was a ruckus on social media. This stoppage will go down in the history books as the worst stoppage ever. But I get it. They can’t admit their own mistake. It’s politics. I’m considering not to compete ever again in Virginia if this will be their final decision. I don’t like it at all. We were fighting at the highest level. There was a lot at stake.”
UFC planned to book the rematch between Cutelaba and Akalaev for UFC 249. The Moldovan accepted the offer and jumped on the first airplane he could to make sure that he got into the U.S. before the closure of the international flights. According to Cutelaba, his opponent wasn’t so eager to leave his home country.
“As soon as I got home, the UFC offered me a rematch with him. The company understood there is a lot of hype for this match and many fans still want to see it happen, this time for real,” he said. “I managed to get into the U.S. before they closed the airports here in the Republic of Moldova by taking a flight just with a few hours left before the closure. I realized that I might have some difficulty in going there. In the U.S., they told me that my opponent couldn’t make it. He was late and he couldn’t leave his country. They don’t close an airport overnight, we knew this was going to happen. The governments informed the citizens. If the Russians wanted to travel to the U.S., they could have left earlier.”
Shortly after Ankalaev pulled out from UFC 249 due to travel restrictions, the UFC offered Cutelaba a bout at UFC Fight Night 173. “The Hulk" felt like being put in the stocks when a few days later they told him that he wasn’t going fight on April 25 either.
“UFC 249 would have gone into the history books as one of the best cards ever even after they completely changed the fights on it,” he added. “After Ankalaev pulled out, they couldn’t find me an opponent. Eventually, Ovince St. Preux stepped up, but there was another hindrance as he couldn’t make the weight. They offered me a catchweight at 249 pounds at UFC Fight Night 173. I accepted, of course. But the situation was changing day by day and hour by hour. One day they told me that everything was fine, the following day that the event was canceled.”
Before the Ankalaev fight, Cutelaba had won three of his last four bouts, earning finishes of Khalil Rountree Jr., Gadzhimurad Antigulov and Henrique da Silva in the opening stanza. The only loss in that stretch came to ex-title challenger Glover Teixeira, who submitted Cutelaba via rear-naked choke at UFC Fight Night 150. As for his future, the Moldovan sees a match on Fight Island happening.
“From what I got, the island exists and they are working on it right now,” he said. “They want to do some events there because the U.S. government won’t give visas for foreign UFC fighters any time soon. The UFC is working right now and building all the infrastructure that needs to be done. They asked me to fight in May, but I prefer to stay home right now. I’ll stay on the sideline for a couple of events because I don’t want to travel right now.”
Like many other fighters, “The Hulk” finds himself in a situation where he needs to cover the expenses he had for his flights around the world and his camp. Cutelaba hopes the UFC will pay him for his efforts.
“They haven’t paid me yet,” he concluded. “But I expect to be paid since I traveled to the U.S., I trained there and I was ready to fight. As far as I know, they haven’t paid anyone yet.”