BEYOND THE OCTAGON

With Misha Cirkunov


You walk into the octagon, and those lights they warm the blood up, and the smell…. it’s just like iron. It’s like you’re stepping into hell.
— Misha Cirkunov

Physical PAIN… fight or flight. Most will go through life trying their best to avoid the pain. While others, although not engaging in violence, find the experience of seeing someone else’s pain intriguing, at times even entertaining.

Looking through history, up until today, watching a man fight for his life as a source of entertainment is not uncommon. From gladiators in coliseums to movies and sporting events, being able to vicariously experience (to some degree) the pain of the individual through entertainment has fascinated many, and confused others. Today, this appeal finds itself in mixed martial arts fighting, or MMA, through one of the largest and most profitable organizations in the world, The UFC.

The intriguing aspect I found in this sport has been watching these athletes endure immense amounts of pain, training or fighting, yet still remain focused. Being able to see these pros unveil the multi disciplinary art of fighting is an art in itself and deserves a great amount of respect. Although this sport has it’s fans and it’s haters, understanding why someone would want to endure these pains has always piqued my interest.

4:45 in the first round of his UFC debut, the referee calls an end to the fight. Misha Cirkunov, the next Canadian light-Heavyweight hopeful, defeats Daniel Jolly by Technical Knock Out, and gives us a glimpse of what’s to come.


A few years ago, I met Misha Cirkunov a mixed martial art fighter who has just recently signed a contract with the UFC. Curious about his passion for fighting, I had an incredible opportunity to spend a day photographing and talking with him as to why he does what he does.


Misha gave a lot of insight into the smaller details of the sport, and why these athletes choose to fight despite the risks. There is definitely a certain kind of dedication and mindset that is required to become an elite fighter. Upon walking into his apartment at 10am, Misha had already consumed 5 liters of liquid — 4 liters of water and 1 liter of coffee. As I captured his morning ritual, Misha kept drinking, and explained that this was the most important part of his day.

“I drink so much so my muscles are lubricated for the day. less risk of injury, and better for my general health.”

What I didn’t realize was how strict his dietary plan had to be once signed by the UFC.

“I fought one guy, I swear he was on cocaine. A 100%. I remember I landed a big punch. Boom right in his head. I felt my knuckles hit his brain. That’s how hard I hit him. He got rocked! But right away he shook it off and was back and ready to fight. Normally he’d be out, unconscious. But because it was not UFC, they don’t get as well tested. So who knows what else he could’ve been on. I remember his eyes. There was no way he was natural. That’s why fighting at the UFC, yes it’s a higher stage, but it’s a bit of a relief because now I know everyone will submit their urine in front of someone so you can’t fake it and they get blood tests. So now I know it’s fair competition. It’s just about who wants it more.”

As the day went on and we went from workout to sparing, to rest, Misha unveiled where his passion for fighting came from.

“I’ve been training martial arts since I was nine. Judo, wrestling, but nothing serious. And I moved to Canada when I was 13. I had no friends, I didn’t know the language, then I got depressed, I had nothing to do, I just wanted to get out of Canada. One day I saw a sign for Judo practice at the North York YMCA. Right away my eyes lit up because it was something I use to do back home. I remember entering the gym and I could smell the smell of the sweat. And it’s the same smell of the sweat as back home, so all of a sudden, I’m doing the same art, the same smell, the same mats, and now every time I step on the mats, I feel like I’m at home.”
“One of the best natural highs is after you win, the surge of energy you get. Once you feel it once, it’s very addictive. And you always want it. The first time I won a professional fight, that feeling lasted an hour. The second time I won it only lasted 5–10 minutes. It’s one of those feelings that you crave for the rest of your life. It’s your money, it’s your passion, it’s your drive, it’s your everything. I don’t want to just get a 100% on the test, I want to get a 100% and a medal.”

When I asked Misha why he kept fighting considering the risks, he didn’t hesitate to tell me that he wouldn’t recommend this sport for anyone. However he did raise an important point about fighting that made me rethink why some are so attracted to this sport. It’s something they were brought up with and have a special respect for.


“It’s something I’ve been doing my whole life. I feel like I understand the sport really well, so I don’t see myself doing anything else. I understand how dangerous it is, and how mentally challenging it is. But it’s bigger than that. The natural high I get from it and the ability to achieve the goals I want is so much bigger than the risks. And being on the mats feels like home. It’s what I know, It’s what I love. My whole life, everything I’ve been doing has been towards this moment.

“Fighting is a very rough sport, it’s not for everybody. Once you really feel that scrap and you understand what you are getting into then you realize how nuts it really is.”

“Imagine seeing 10,000 people, all screaming, some drunk. Lights, music, everything! And you see the cage. My last two fights, I was the main event, last event of the night for the title. You walk into the Octagon, and it’s like a sauna. And because you’re the last one on the card, the floor is covered in blood, and they can’t clean it because the canvas absorbs it. So you walk in, and those lights they warm the blood up, and the smell…. it’s just like iron. It’s like you’re stepping into hell. And now you have to fight a guy who is just a beast, and looks like he just wants to knock you out. That feeling is ridiculous. To be a champion you have to be a little bit crazy.”


“It’s more than simply fighting and winning. Being successful in the sport made me more confident in life. It made me learn a new language, make friends. Everything.”

Misha has been singled out by numerous Canadian media outlets as being the next Canadian fighter to dominate the light-heavyweight division after being signed. And after spending the day with him and seeing him train as hard as he did, I wasn’t surprised to see Misha take his opponent down in the first round of his UFC debut by TKO.

Mixed martial arts fighting is often misinterpreted as ONLY being a blood sport where the premise is to defeat an opponent and collect your money. Spending a day photographing Misha Cirkunov opened my eyes to the passion for the sport. This story goes beyond blood and tears. It is a sport where fighters build a meaning for themselves, a legacy to leave for their family and develop confidence and respect through pushing the human body to its limits. Deep down, who wouldn’t want that?


“Fighting always evolves, you have to keep up. Just like an iPhone”
- Misha Cirkunov

Find the full series here

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