Where Igor Vovchanchyn hits you, the hair don’t grow back

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Mixed Martial Arts is a sport with a very short memory; often, a fighter is only as good as his last fight. As fans, we always want to see the next big thing, the next evolution of the mixed martial artist; in doing that, we sometimes forget about the fighters that laid the foundation for where we are today.

If MMA had a Hall of Fame that genuinely represented the great champions and competitors of the sport, Igor Vovchanchyn would have a bronze statue near the front entrance. Perhaps best remembered for engineering a nearly forty-fight win streak in a notoriously dangerous division, Vovchanchyn also solidified himself as the world’s best heavyweight in one of MMA’s first actual super-fights and reached the finals of the Pride 2000 Grand Prix.

He won countless one-night tournaments and competed at a frequency rarely seen in modern MMA, especially at the highest levels.

Early Days

Igor Vovchanchyn was fast, durable, and above all, he was powerful; he combined these skills to finish his opponents in 84% of his victories, including 76% by some form of knockout. His power was legendary and perhaps best summed up by another MMA pioneer, Renzo Gracie, who once stated: “Where Igor hits you, the hair don’t grow back….”

Though it is known that Igor Vovchanchyn competed in kickboxing before mixed martial arts, it isn’t easy to decipher which of his kickboxing matches took place as a professional and which took place at the amateur level*. Wherever the truth lies on that matter, his reputation from kickboxing was enough to attract the attention of a Ukrainian MMA promoter. From there Vovchanchyn would begin to lay the groundwork for his prolific career. His debut took place in a one-night tournament, in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on October 14, 1995. Vovchancyn did well enough, winning two bouts before suffering a submission loss in his third fight of the night.

Returning just one month later in yet another one-night tournament, Vovchanchyn won three contests in a single night, two against the same opponent, before suffering another submission loss. With five wins in his first seven fights, Igor Vovchanchanyn showed promise in his early days and brief glimpses of the fighter he would become. But it’s hard to say if anybody could have predicted just how much chaos he would cause once he reached his peak.

From January 1996 until May 2000, Igor did not lose a single fight. He managed to go unbeaten in thirty-eight consecutive fights (37-0, 1 No Contest), winning twenty-nine of the bouts by some form of knockout. He also mixed in the occasional submission as he rounded out his game. Many of Vovchanchyn’s wins took place in one-night tournaments, often with different rule sets, including bare-knuckle in a time before gloves were standard.

The majority of his early career took place in his native Ukraine. However, he did venture out, winning tournaments throughout the eastern bloc and notably winning several WVC tournaments in Brazil.

Pride Years

Debuting for Pride Fighting Championships at Pride 4 in 1998, Vovchanchyn would compete for the legendary Japanese promotion on twenty-five different occasions and reached a much wider audience than ever before. After a successful debut at Pride 4, a TKO win over UFC veteran Gary Goodridge, Vovchanchyn picked up two victories in 1999, including a critical win over fellow top heavyweight Carlos Barretto.

With the win over Baretto, Vovchanchyn put himself in line for what was the biggest fight of his career to date. Mark Kerr, one of MMA’s earliest polarizing figures, is probably best known as the subject of The Smashing Machine, a documentary that covered his struggle with drugs and success during an attempted comeback. But as a competitor, Kerr was a very dangerous heavyweight in 1999. He was a two-time UFC tournament winner, an NCAA Division 1 wrestling champion, and a legitimately skilled submission grappler. Skill aside, Kerr was a massively imposing figure compared to the short and stubby Vovchanchyn. But as is often the case, looks can be deceiving.   

When Igor Vovchanchyn and Mark Kerr squared off at Pride 7, they were considered the top two heavyweights in the world. For Vovchanchyn, Kerr represented an unprecedented challenge. At six-foot-three inches tall, weighing nearly two-hundred-sixty-five pounds, Kerr was a mountain of a man. His wrestling and grappling ability had served him well in MMA; he was undefeated in his eleven-fight career, his obvious weaknesses were few. Vovchanchyn, with a size and grappling disadvantage, attacked his much larger opponent right out of the gate. Vovchanchyn cracked Kerr early, but the fight was a back and forth affair as long as Kerr had gas. But as the fight wore on, Kerr’s massive frame began to stutter, his cardio failed, and Vovchanchyn was still there, just waiting to take advantage.

Kerr desperately shot for a takedown at the start of round two, but Vovchanchyn sprawled and reversed the position. Kerr eventually gained top control, but clearly exhausted, he could not maintain it. Vovchanchyn scrambled, caught Kerr in the turtle position, and ended the fight with knees to the head in the final moments of the round. For a moment, at least, Igor Vovchanchyn sat alone as the top heavyweight in the world.

The bout was eventually changed to a no-contest based on the ruling that the knees Vovchanchyn used to end the fight were illegal, but the image of the bout remained etched in the minds of those who watched.

Pride Grand Prix 2000

The year 2000 served as perhaps the final year of Igor Vovchanchyn’s career before seeing some decline. 2000 was also a big year for Pride Fighting Championships, as the promotion scheduled what was arguably then and still to this day the greatest tournament in MMA history.

Considering the talent involved—featuring such top fighters as Royce Gracie, Mark Kerr, Mark Coleman, Kazushi Sakuraba, Guy Mezger, Gary Goodridge, Kazuyuki Fujita, and Vovchanchyn, the winner was sure to have a claim as the best fighter in the world.

In the opening round, Igor Vovchanchyn was matched up with Alexander Otsuka, a professional wrestler with a 1-3 MMA record heading into the fight. Considering Vovchanchyn’s forty-plus fight career and strength of competition, it was not a stretch to say the fight was a massive mismatch. Vovchanchyn struck early and often, dominating the battle on the feet and using a sprawl and solid ground control to dominate the fight on the ground as well. Otsuka showed toughness, but nothing else as Vovchanchyn easily cruised into the tournament’s quarter-final round.

The remainder of the Grand Prix, a total of three rounds, would take place in a single night. Meaning the winner would be someone who could mix skill with attrition, something Igor Vovchanchyn had done many times during his career. As the winner of many one-night tournaments, this was nothing new. 

May 1, 2000, was the date of the Pride Grand Prix 2000 Finals. On this day, the MMA  world witnessed the longest fight in MMA history, a 90-minute affair between Royce Gracie and one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, Kazushi Sakuraba. Any hopes for a Mark Coleman vs. Mark Kerr semi-final or a Kerr vs. Vovchanchyn rematch were dashed when Kazuyuki Fujita upset Kerr via unanimous decision. Igor Vovchanchyn was faced with a rematch against Gary Goodridge. While the fight was longer, the results were the same as Vovchanchyn earned a second win over “Big Daddy” and an invitation into the semi-finals of the Pride Grand Prix.

The Grand Prix semi-finals were set, Igor Vovchanchyn vs. Kazushi Sakuraba and Mark Coleman vs. Kazuyuki Fujita. Coleman got a free pass as Fujita’s corner decided to throw in the towel just as the bout was scheduled to start. Vovchanchyn was not so lucky, though Sakuraba was only moments removed from a record-setting bout with Royce Gracie; this did not stop him from entering the ring to face him. Vovchanchyn enjoyed a size advantage, something that was rare throughout his career.  But Sakuraba proved a daunting challenge despite his fatigue and size disadvantage. He scored with takedowns and had some success on the ground. Still, eventually, the fatigue was too much, and Sakuraba bowed out after round one, allowing Vovchanchyn to advance into the finals. 

When Mark Coleman arrived on the MMA scene in 1996, he represented something unfamiliar to the MMA world. He looked more like a superhero than a professional fighter, a legitimate heavyweight with wrestling success at the collegiate and international level; he cut through tournaments at UFC 10 and 11 before defeating Dan Severn to become the first UFC heavyweight champion in the promotion’s history. But Coleman struggled throughout the remainder of the decade, posting just a 1-4 record from 1997 through 1999.

2000 represented a fresh start for Coleman and a chance to make a statement as he was invited to participate in the Pride Grand Prix. Though many considered him a fading fighter based on his recent performances, he managed to dominate his way to the finals with his dominant wrestling game and a bit of luck. The luck came in the form of bracket placement, as Coleman was matched up with Masaaki Satake in the first round, a kickboxer making his MMA debut. The second round saw Coleman face the tough but undersized Akira Shoji, and then his semi-final bout was essentially a bye. Coleman would have size on his side, as well as a general lack of tournament wear and tear, as he advanced into the finals. 

Mark Coleman vs. Igor Vovchanchyn marked the second time Vovchanchyn was matched up with a monstrous American wrestler. Coleman dictated the first round of the fight, taking Vovchanchyn down, controlling and striking from inside the guard, and nearly neutralizing his dangerous striking game. As round two began, Igor Vovchanchyn, the world’s top heavyweight fighter, appeared tired but ready and willing to continue the fight. Mark Coleman, never known for his cardio, seemed eerily fresh as two approached the center of the ring. Coleman pressured Vovchanchyn into the corner, Vovchanchyn attempted to circle out, but Coleman cut off the ring and scored with a double leg takedown.

Coleman landed multiple strikes from inside the guard before passing to the North/South position. From there, he landed a series of heavy knees that ended the fight. It was a massive win for Coleman that marked the completion of his career resurgence. As for Igor Vovchanchyn, the story was something much different.

For the first time in nearly five years, in almost forty fights, he saw his opponent’s hand raised. It signaled a new era in the heavyweight division and the beginning of a new path for the former king.

Final Years & Retirement

To say that Igor Vovchanchyn fell into some downward spiral post-Grand Prix would be inaccurate. He returned to action just a month after the Mark Coleman loss and started a four-fight win streak that would include a decisive victory in the long-awaited rematch with Mark Kerr. But a 2001 loss to Tra Telligman started a trend that saw Vovchachyn losing a series of fights to the sport’s newest crop of stars. However, he remained relevant, picking up victories over lesser fighters throughout much of the early decade.

An August 10, 2003 loss to Mirko CroCop marked the final time that Vovchanchyn competed against another top heavyweight contender. For much of Igor Vovchanchyn’s career, the only way to defeat him was with grappling. Though that statement was less true in later years, it still felt like a passing of the torch when CroCop defeated Vovchanchyn via high-kick. Vovchanchyn’s career was not over, but his days as its most feared striker were now firmly in the past.

He would compete just three more times as a heavyweight before cutting down to middleweight (205lbs), searching for a career resurgence of his own. In the first round of the 2005 Pride Middleweight Grand Prix, he earned the final victory of his career, a decision over Yuki Kondo, but came up short against Alistair Overeem in round two. Vovchanchyn would compete just once more, losing via decision to Kazuhiro Nakamura before calling it a career. He would later state that he regretted taking so many fights during these finals years and considered fatigue to be a factor in his series of losses.

Igor Vovchanchyn competed in mixed martial arts for just under a decade, but he competed in 67 fights. He competed during a time when to be the best, you had to beat the best and then continuously prove it over and again. He competed during a time when the sport’s biggest stars were largely unknown to the general public, during a time when the pay was low, and the fame was limited.

Perhaps it was the desire to be great that drove Igor Vovchanchyn, perhaps he wanted to prove that he was the best, or maybe he just really liked to fight. Regardless, considering today’s era of “money fights,” a fighter like Igor Vovchanchyn is hard to come by. He has been rumored to make a comeback on several occasions, even as recently as 2016, but for the most part, he has remained out of the public eye, and none of the comebacks have come to fruition. He was involved with the restaurant industry post-Pride and continues to live in his native Ukraine to his day.

*Based on limited data, it seems that the majority of Igor Vovchanchyn’s kickboxing bouts took place as an amateur. I cannot find any source where he references his record, but he does mention that by 1995 he was nearly a year removed from his last kickboxing bout. He does mention an amateur championship captured in Sweden in 1993, seemingly leaving very little time for a pro kickboxing career.  

Sources: 

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