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That’s the most obvious question facing Gokhan Saki, who slugged it out for 15 years in the kickboxing ring against some of the world’s most decorated strikers. But now he make his UFC debut on Saturday at UFC Fight Night 117.
Saki, 33, built a reputation as a brick-tough competitor in K-1, and he once fought Overeem with a broken arm in the tournament final of the 2010 Grand Prix.
But it’s been two years since he’s stepped into the ring. The one time he stepped into an MMA cage, 13 years ago at an easily forgotten event in Liverpool, England, he was stopped in the first round.
Saki (0-1 MMA, 0-0 UFC) could return to kickboxing. So why give MMA another shot, much less in the biggest and toughest promotion in the world?
The easiest answer, of course, would be money. Kickboxing is no longer the powerhouse it was in the ’80s and ’90s. MMA is where the real money can be made. But to Saki, it’s a story about age and fulfillment.
“If you asked me 10 years ago why not MMA, it wasn’t the time,” Saki, who faces light heavyweight Henrique da Silva (12-3 MMA, 2-3 UFC) on the FXX-televised main card of Friday’s event at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, told MMAjunkie. “I was still hungry to beat people up in kickboxing. That time, there were still big challenges in kickboxing, which I didn’t have for two years. I decided to stop kickboxing because I wasn’t hungry any more to train and to fight, because there was nobody like in the old times with K-1. So I stopped for two-and-a-half years.”
Stripped of the Glory light-heavyweight title for inactivity, Saki said he tried to reboot his life by focusing on other activities. But eventually, the tug to fight became to great to ignore.
“One year ago, there was an empty place in my heart; like, I fought for 20 years and I won the title, and I stopped,” he said. “(It was) in my prime. It was not the right time to stop, because I was 30 years old, and I won the title, but didn’t defend it, and also because of a couple of issues with the organization.
“I stopped for two years, and I felt an emptiness (in my heart), and I came back on a bigger stage, the biggest martial arts organization in the world, the UFC, with a lot of challenge for me. I am hungry again, and it’s time to open a new book and finish my career in the right way.”
How long will this chapter last? Saki can only speculate. A run at the title might satisfy his desire to compete at the highest level. Or it could teach him that his desire isn’t enough to match the demands of learning an entirely new set of skills. Most fighters at Saki’s age are thinking more about the end of their careers than the beginning.
But Saki has always been a fighter with a terrifying amount of heart. And to him, training in MMA has renewed his passion for beating people up.
“In my mind, it’s like I’m 11 or 12 years old again, learning things very fast again,” he said. “I’m ready to fight for four or five years more.”
As long as Saki’s journey has been, many fans who tune in Friday will get their first look at his style. If he can promise one thing about his new foray, it’s that nothing has changed about the way he fights.
“I am a striker, and they try to be a striker,” he said. “I’m 100 percent sure I’m going to bring new things to MMA. My style is kickboxing, but my style is special. Why? I can fight everybody. I can fight Thai style. I can fight with a lot of footwork. I can fight big guys.
“So for every fight, I have a different game plan. I train 20 different systems. Because of that, my style became special. Explosive. Hard. This is what people want to see. I’m sure, they’re not used to this. They’re going to be in shock.”