After eight years of sparring, Artem Lobov is still amazed by Conor McGregor

The Russian-born fighter has not travelled to New York, and is focusing on UFC Belfast

After eight years of sparring, Artem Lobov is still amazed by Conor McGregor

The Octagon that sits at the back of SBG cleared quickly when Artem Lobov warned the handful of people inside it that he was about to begin sparring.

With Conor McGregor leaving the day before, Lobov, Peter Queally, and Richie Smullen’s work takes precedent in the infamous Dublin gym. For 25 minutes, Smullen and ‘The Russian Hammer’ went at each other, with Queally on hand for timing and advice.

When Queally called ‘time’ at the end of the final round, Lobov embraced his training partner. Later, he stressed the importance of having sparring partners like Smullen and how vital they are for preparation.

Lobov, of course, has been McGregor’s chief sparring partner since his arrival in the hallowed halls of SBG eight years ago. You’ll often hear fighters sniggering at the notion of luck in terms of their fighting careers, but Lobov is a firm believer.

“People say that they don’t believe in luck, but I definitely do because I’ve seen it a million times in my life,” said Lobov, who moved to Ireland when he was 15 years of age.

“What are the chances of a kid moving from Russia to Argentina and then ending up in a tiny little country called Ireland? It’s a country that just happens to have a gym that produces some of the best fighters in the world, SBG. It also happens to have the best strength and conditioning gym in the world, the ISI.

“You can’t tell me that there’s no such thing as luck. I’ve seen it so many times in my life and I’m very grateful for it.”

Such is the level of familiarity between McGregor and Lobov that it’s usually ‘The Russian Hammer’ that is tasked with warming ‘The Notorious’ up just before he goes into the Octagon.

This time, however, due to his own fight with Teruto Ishihara in Belfast on November 19, Lobov won’t make the journey with McGregor to the historic UFC 205 card that takes place at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night

“It’s a little bit weird not being away with him,” admits Lobov. “There was a long discussion, we talked about it for a long time. The original plan was that I would go over to New York with him, but after talking to Conor and John I didn’t really see the point in making the journey.

“The reason why I wanted to fight in Belfast is to have that home advantage because I have been fighting away all the time. I wanted my opponent to come over here and feel that travel.

“If I had gone to New York I would have taken away the home advantage that I had in this because travelling can knock your cut out of sync. I might not be there in person but I’ll be there in spirit.”

Artem Lobov and Conor McGregor training together in March 2016. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Raymond Spencer

As always, Lobov has put in plenty of rounds with McGregor ahead of his bid to become the first man in the history of UFC to hold two belts simultaneously.

“I know that the work has been done. Conor and I have been sparring a lot for this camp. The kinds of opponents we are matched with made it perfect. The guy I’m fighting is a southpaw and the guy Conor is fighting is my height and he’s orthodox. It couldn’t have been better.”

An interesting element to his upcoming main card bout with Ishihara is that the Japanese fighter has an abundant fan base compared to Lobov’s previous UFC opponents.

Ishihara has also carved out a bit of cult following for himself by dedicating his two consecutive knockout wins to his “bitches”, an homage he delivered twice in endearing broken English.

Lobov had to do the majority of the selling in all of his previous UFC bouts, but he doesn’t feel like any fighter should rely on anyone but himself or herself to get the attention of the fan base.

“I don’t think you should rely on anyone else but yourself to sell a fight,” he said

“If you knock a guy out it’s going to go everywhere and that the bottom-line. That’s what I’m going for. I want to bring the knockouts back. I’m going to knock this guy out, get him on my highlight reel and continue on.”

Although Ishihara has won over a lot of people since his arrival in the UFC, Lobov still needs some convincing.

“No matter what this guy does, my bitches will never leave me,” Lobov told me without a hint of a grin on his face as the rest of the people within ear shot broke into hearty laughter.

“Let’s be honest, once you go with ‘The Russian Hammer’, you’re going nowhere. You can’t simply jump off the Siberian Express,” he continued. “You’ve got to stay on until the end.

“Look at the guy, he reminds me of a cockroach. Back in Russia I used to move a lot and when I was six years old I moved into an old apartment that was infested with cockroaches. There were three bags of cockroaches in the middle of the room when we first walked in.

“We tried everything to get rid of them…chemicals, fire…you name it. At night, when I was sleeping, the cockroaches would crawl all over me. Back then I used to be afraid of them and I hated them, but now I just hate them. I’m going to squash this guy like a cockroach.”

It’s clear that Lobov sees Ishihara as a bit of a novelty act. Like Lobov, the Team Alpha Male fighter has made a reputation for himself based on his heavy hitting ability. As far as Lobov is concerned, Ishihara will become a wrestler as soon as he feels his power.

“I’m going to turn him into a wrestler. When you start to panic, it’s a natural reaction to tackle your opponent. Look at boxing, you see guys tying each other up all the time when they’re under pressure. In MMA, when they feel that pressure in the striking exchanges, they shoot for takedowns.

“I expect him to come out all happy with his stupid smile and ‘bitches’ on his mind and all of that. After the first exchange he’ll take a step back, then after the second exchange, he’ll take another step back.

Artem Lobov celebrates after winning at Cage Warriors 70. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Gary Carr

“He’ll get agitated then and start trying to take my head off. When they miss and the pressure is still there and I’m still in his face, that’s when the doubt is going to creep in. That’s when the finishing shot will come. That’s when I’ll end the night for him.”

Unsurprisingly, Lobov believes that Alvarez will suffer a similar defeat when he meets McGregor.

The polarizing UFC featherweight champion has shown us a new look nearly every time he enters the Octagon. Last time out against Diaz, it was his use of leg kicks and the introduction of new scientific training that bolstered his cardio that were brought to light.

McGregor has continued working with the same strength and conditioning coach, Dr. Julian Dalby, which Lobov believes has brought all of the SBG fighters to the next level.

“We’ve always been tough, but we’ve gotten a lot more scientific lately,” said Lobov.

“MMA is science, as far as I’m concerned. When MMA started it was full of guys crossing over from different sports. All of these people were bringing in different training protocols. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t.

“That’s what science does – it shows you what works and what doesn’t. It gives you that clear evidence. That’s the only thing Conor and the rest of us are interested in using now – things that work and have been proven to work.

“With all of the guys we have, the ISI and Dr. Julian, we know we are going to be at optimum levels every time we compete.”

Considering McGregor ahead of his bout with Alvarez this weekend, Lobov nearly ran out of superlatives for his friend and teammate.

“Conor never stops amazing me. Honestly, I’m very fascinated with him as a fighter. I’ve learned so much from him and I never get tired of watching him fight, train and spar.

“He’s on a level that I have never seen before. I never get to see the things that he is doing being done by anybody else. Technically, physically, everything…he’s a one of a kind.”

Lobov has always claimed that McGregor was a huge factor in his own signing to UFC. The numbers of Irish have dwindled in the UFC ranks due to the retirement of Paddy Holohan and Cathal Pendred, not to mention the cuts that saw Paul Redmond and Norman Parke removed from the roster.

Neil Seery will make his final walk in Belfast too, and despite the recent signing of Charlie Ward, the rumours of UFC cutting down their output of events dramatically in 2017 could hinder more Irish charges from being deemed good enough for the UFC standard.

Lobov is confident that the cream will always rise to the top, and because of that, he expects to see a lot more Irish fighters being given an opportunity with the world’s flagship MMA promotion.

“We have fighters that are ready to get in there right now, look at Peter Queally. Guys like him are ready to go, they’re already UFC caliber guys but UFC just haven’t given them an opportunity. I think their chances will come and once they get those chances they will make their marks.”