copyright - Marc Wickert - 1/5/2001
(previously published in FIGHT TIMES magazine)
Oleg Taktarov was born in 1967 in the USSR’s remote Siberian town of Arzamas-16, before his family moved to Gorky, an industrial centre and Russia’s third-largest city. Oleg’s father, a construction worker, wanted his son to become involved in sport, and so took him to a gymnasium at the nearby city of Sarov, with the intention of enrolling Oleg in ice hockey or weightlifting. But the twelve-year-old Taktarov had other ideas after observing athletes practising judo. At first it appeared his father would have his way because the Sarov judo division had a policy of not accepting people from outside their city, but the instructor was impressed by the bright and well-mannered Oleg, and took him under his wing. "I liked judo and stuck with it. Then I found that there were similarities between judo and sambo (Russian unarmed self-defence system), and as Sarov was the only sambo gymnasium specializing in leg locks, I decided to compete in both styles," says Taktarov.
Surprisingly, the intelligent and soft-spoken Oleg intended becoming a scientist. He hadn’t planned to make a career of grappling. But in the former Soviet Union it was mandatory for all male youths to serve a minimum of two years in the military. Prior to entering the army, Taktarov competed against two men - one, his training partner - for a place in the military’s sporting division. During the last bout, his adversary applied an ankle lock to Oleg. "He had a good lock on my ankle, and I heard the ligaments pop, but I couldn’t submit because the competition was too important to me. There were two other guys in my weight category and only one position in the army’s sport division, so I had to win. I threw him and he fell on his head and couldn’t continue," says Taktarov. Oleg went on to serve his time as a self-defence instructor, which included training an elite sector of the KGB in unarmed combat and counter-intelligence for three years. During this period Oleg suffered severe stomach pains and reported to his superior officer. The officer ignored Oleg’s plea for medical attention and ordered him back on duty. "He was the kind of guy who shouldn’t have been there," understates a cool Taktarov. The young soldier decided to go AWOL and travelled to a nearby hospital where a doctor successfully removed Oleg’s appendix, informing his patient that he would have died if he’d waited another fifteen minutes.
Oleg with Soviet Soldiers after winning two super fights in two days in Kazakhstan. Oleg was a celebrity there so the Government provided him with four guards.
After completing his national service, Oleg travelled with another martial artist to the republic of Latvia for a no-rules tournament. "My friend and I were at a car yard and he was going to buy a car. The Latvian special police didn’t like us because we were speaking Russian, and decided to throw us in gaol. But some of the organizers were looking for us, and luckily they found us, so we were released fifteen minutes before the competition started, which meant we had no time to warm up." Fortunately this did not stop Taktarov from becoming the tournament champion. Four times Oleg won the European and Asian jiu-jitsu Championships, and twice won the World Sambo Championships.
"At the age of twenty-six I was undefeated and had won everything I could at the time. So I travelled to the United States with the intention of becoming an actor, but I found that it wasn’t easy to get started in the movies, so I decided to fight because I had to think about an income and improving my English." Oleg also commenced working in theatres to improve his acting skills.
On November 12, 1993, the first Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) were held in Denver, Colorado, where fighters from all martial arts codes were invited to compete for a purse of US$50,000, in a no-holds-barred elimination tournament billed as being, "not for the faint-hearted". The show-down was held inside the eight-sided ring, known as The Octagon, that measures 32 feet across, and is surrounded by a five-foot-high chain fence.
In April, 1995, Oleg entered UFC 5 in Charlotte, North Carolina, billed as "The Russian Bear". "It (the title) sounds alright to me now, but before.....I was called this by the manager I had then, who was from Texas. He thought that Texas was the capital of the world," laughs Oleg. "He didn’t know any other places existed. He just knew that Russia had bears and vodka, and he couldn’t call me ‘The Russian Vodka’." When Oleg entered UFC 5 he was regarded by the organizers as "The X-Factor". His friend and Lion’s Den fighter, Guy Mezger, had spoken highly of Taktarov, but the Siberian-born Russian was an unknown quantity. Before the tournament, competitors were interviewed pulling macho faces and growling, whilst boasting how they were going to win the event and destroy their opponents. By contrast, Oleg coolly said he was from Gorky, Russia, and smiled an infectious smile at the cameras. Held in Charlotte, North Carolina, the competition claimed to have eight contenders representing eight different martial arts, but as Royce Gracie had previously stated, many of the UFC competitors were now abandoning their own arts to copy his grappling techniques. The fact that a fighter was listed as representing the art of Tae Kwon Do did not mean he would be using TKD striking techniques against his opponent.
In UFC 5, the program had Oleg Taktarov listed as representing the Russian discipline of Sambo. "At first I was kind of disappointed because in Russia they would have regarded me as a jiu-jitsu exponent because it was a new art I was practising back there, whereas many people were already doing judo and sambo in Russia. Here in America, people categorized me as a sambo artist because it was unique and unusual, and that’s what they liked. But I don’t mind now," says Taktarov.
Oleg training on focus mits
In his first bout against 219 lb opponent, Ernest Verdecia, the ring-side commentators were concerned that the Russian sambo-fighter might not be able to absorb kicks and punches from the kempo karate practitioner who boasted a 68 wins - 4 losses record. However, there was no evidence of karate being used as Oleg took the fight straight to the ground, and showed an abundance of both bravery and unabating composure as he systematically coiled around Verdecia, like a poised constrictor, before choking out his opponent in 2 minutes 22 seconds. The crowd were amazed by Taktarov’s cool and methodical defeat of his opponent. "It’s a Russian tradition in fighting. You’re not supposed to show any emotions. It’s considered a weakness." 205 lb Oleg was later eliminated from the tournament by 260 lb Daniel Severn, a UFC veteran and holder of seventy national and international titles, who won the bout after the referee stopped the fight due Oleg’s bleeding from knee-strikes and punches to Taktarov’s face and head. The strong-willed Oleg had refused to submit and believed he could have continued, stating that Severn did not defeat him.
Later in Oleg’s career, he would again face Severn in the Ultimate Ultimate Fighting Championships, where eight previous UFC champions competited in a best-of-the-best show-down. This time there was no intervention from the referee, but after thirty minutes, neither fighter was victorious, and the match went into three minutes overtime. Eventually the judges awarded the bout to Severn.
Taktarov showed incredible courage again by backing up for UFC 6 only three months after his first battle with Severn. "Actually it didn’t seem that close between tournaments. A month after UFC 5, I went to North California and trained at Ken Shamrock’s place. For a month Ken and I fought together. The guys who later became good fighters, like Frank Shamrock or Guy Mezger, were not any competition for me at the time. The only guy I trained with was Ken, and we had battles behind closed doors. Nobody was allowed to watch them."
On July 14, 1995, Oleg returned to The Octagon and became UFC 6 Champion after defeating Tank Abbott in the final. David "Tank" Abbott entered the tournament at 265 lbs compared to Oleg’s 205 lbs. Abbott also boasted a bench-pressing career best of 625 lbs and was classified as a "pitfighter". Pitfighting is illegally-organized street fighting between two contenders who back themselves, usually with an entry fee of $500 each, where the winner takes all.
In Tank’s first bout, he KO’d John Matua in 21 seconds. His second bout stretched out to 1.51 over Paul Varelans, after the referee stopped the fight. The championship fight between Oleg and Abbott was another story. Some critics regard this battle as one of the greatest fights ever, with Oleg choking out Abbott seventeen minutes into the bout. "Willpower is most important to me. In my case, I’m not the biggest, or the strongest fighter, but I won my best fights because of willpower. Like the final with Tank Abbott, or my fight with Dan Severn, which the referee stopped. But I thought I would finish that fight - no matter what," says Taktarov.
Oleg returned to The Octagon, yet again, for UFC 7 in Buffalo on September 8, 1995. This time it was to face his old sparring partner, Ken Shamrock, in the Superfight. The bout went the distance and was declared a draw. Oleg believes UFC fighting has improved a lot since UFC 1. "In the first few UFC’s, the fighters didn’t know how to train properly. Everybody tried to win by just using their own styles, and it was wrong. It took a few years before they realized they had to become well-rounded fighters.
"Winning UFC 6 made me a US celebrity. Everybody recognized me on the street, and I didn’t enjoy this, because I’m a private person and I couldn’t speak English well at the time, and people would always ask me the same questions that sounded pretty dumb to me. I’m glad I lived in the quiet of northern California then. Now I’m ready, and I smile more. I do just what I’m supposed to do," laughs a jovial Oleg.
Taktarov has applied the same determination to his acting career. Having completed five years of theatre work, Oleg auditioned for a role in the movie 15 Minutes, which would star Robert De Niro and Frasier star, Kelsey Grammer. After the director observed Taktarov’s performance, the auditions were closed. "Robert De Niro was very helpful, but he didn’t insult me with his help. In one episode Robert was tied up in a chair and gagged. I said to myself, ‘Maybe I should act more annoyed for this part,’ and he just forced out the word ‘Right.’ It was so funny. "We have a good relationship and he was the one who came to my wedding three years ago. Nobody else showed up because they thought I was a nobody at the time. But Robert didn’t care about ‘nobody’ or ‘somebody’, he just thought I was a good guy and showed up. Then the other people found out that De Niro was there and wished they’d come along. But it was too late," says Taktarov.
Oleg and De Niro have since become good friends, but although De Niro received an Oscar for playing the part of Jake La Motta in the 1980 screen blockbuster Raging Bull, De Niro is not impressed by no-holds-barred fighting. "He doesn’t like fighting. He doesn’t like any violence. He watched the highlights of my fights, but the fighting doesn’t interest him," says Taktarov. Interestingly, in the 1983 movie King of Comedy, Robert De Niro played the part of an over-zealous comedian obsessed with fame. In 15 Minutes, Taktarov plays the part of an over-zealous filmmaker also obsessed with fame.
Oleg received great praise from the American critics for his role in 15 Minutes when it opened in the US in March. He also stars in the re-make of Rollerball, which is due for release later this year. Credits for Rollerball include French actor, Jean Reno, and rap star, LL Cool J.
Oleg on 15 Minute set with Kelsey Grammer & Oleg's wife, Masha.
And what does the future hold for Oleg Taktarov? "I’d like to do a movie with Anthony Hopkins." But his successful acting career will not stop his returning to the ring. "In fact, I was going to fight last fall in Pride, because I have some unfinished business to attend to. I don’t think I’ll be returning to UFC because they’re not as popular now. Pride is the number one show in the world right now." Held in Japan, Pride has been able to lure many of the world’s big-name fighters including Kazushi Sakuraba, Renzo Garcie, Wanderlei Da Silva and Ken Shamrock. These days Oleg is no longer "The X-Factor" and has fans all over the world. "I’ve got a good following in Europe, and I just did a seminar in Switzerland with people from nine different countries attending.
" What are the chances of our seeing Oleg Taktarov Down Under? "I hope there will be a good chance. I have come very close to working on a number of TV series in Australia. And I’ve been invited to New Zealand and Australia for seminars, but I think sometimes people might believe I’m too big or unreachable..... If I can feel that they are honest..... you can read between the lines usually. Honesty is very important to me." Oleg Taktarov is a very warm and intelligent person. His fighting and movie careers already speak for themselves. Let’s hope we do see Oleg Down Under.
Oleg at Tropicana Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas (1998). "Over The Line", Boxing Main Event which Oleg won by K.O. in Round 2.
Ready to Kick More Goals in the Octagon
© Marc Wickert –
When people hear the name Oleg Taktarov, they tend to think of the former Ultimate Fighting Champion who last fought in the Octagon at UFC’s The Ultimate Ultimate in 1995. Or they think of the powerfully built, likeable bad guy who all but stole the show in John Herzfeld’s Hollywood shocksation 15 Minutes.
Born on August 26, 1997, Oleg shared his birthplace with the Soviet nuclear weapons program in Siberia’s town of Arzamas – 16. The four-time European and Asian Jiu-Jitsu champion, and two-time world Sambo champion also spent three years in the Russian army, toughening his mettle. Perhaps it was this travelling along the hard road that helped Taktarov compete at his first UFC despite suffering a knee dislocation one week prior to his debut.
Years after Oleg retired from the Octagon, MMA fans showed their loyalty to the Siberian-born fighter by voting him into the top ten Viewers’ Choice category at UFC 45: Revolution, in November 2003 – something that thrilled Oleg. "I was surprised, because my last official fight was in 1998, so it was touching to know that people still remembered me for what I did so much earlier in my career," says Taktarov.
However the ex-KGB unarmed-combat and anti-terrorism instructor has not achieved any of his success through mere good fortune, but has used the same undying determination that made him UFC champ to succeed as an actor. Besides 15 Minutes, Oleg had roles in such movies as National Treasure, Bad Boys II and Rollerball (2002). And he featured in many Russian films including Red Serpent and Call Me Genie, and is scheduled to play in 2006’s Sdyig.
Now the hard-working Taktarov is poised to make a comeback in the world of MMA with an exciting new fight game. "I’m only 38 and I play soccer four times a week. That’s my hobby. And I still train regularly in boxing and grappling to keep myself tuned. Conditionwise, I am in good shape. I have a championship in Switzerland on February 4 and 5, 2006, called Oleg Taktarov’s Trophy…You can check it out by visiting www.sambo.ch."
The Californian-based fighter says he has continued to grow as a mixed martial artist and adds that he would compete again in the Octagon, under the right circumstances. "If I were approached with an interesting offer, I think I would train myself to get ready for the fight. I’m rested, and for the first time in my life, I don’t have any injuries. It would be a new Oleg Taktarov that fans would be seeing. And I’m also definitely better, technically."
Although most observers regard Taktarov as being one of the pioneers of today’s MMA competition, Oleg says he didn’t see himself that way at the time. "I didn’t feel I was a pioneer, because it was just kind of new for the United States. I had been competing in Russia for four years prior to this, in similar competitions, and most of them had no rules. But they had a time limit so that the fight remained active, and that was the only difference."
Oleg, are we going to see more fighters the calibre of Andrei Arlovski coming out of Russia?
"So far in mixed martial arts, the guy who is absolute champion…whether you take it pound for pound or not…the absolute champion is Fedor Emelianenko. He’s a Sambo player and he’s fighting right now in Russia - at a Sambo competition today in Moscow.
"When Andrei Arlovski came to the United States, I watched how fast he improved his fight game. I think he will continue to improve so long as he stays interested."
And you’re still working on your acting career?
"Yes. This is my main job. For the last two movies I just did little roles. The most recent one was Miami Vice directed by Michael Mann, and it was shot in the Dominican Republic. Most importantly, I must have the right script, and hopefully I will be doing something martial-arts related.
"When I take on a new role I’m targeting the whole world, but it’s sometimes easier to make the films in Russia because it’s cheaper to do them there. They can be made just in English, or made in one language and dubbed in another. "
Oleg, is there anything you’d like to add?
"Just that I am lucky to have such diehard fans and I wish them all the best for the future with what they choose to do with their lives."
For more on Oleg Taktarov: www.olegt.com