From Olympics to MMA: Robelis Despaigne, the new hulking UFC signee, shares journey and promise to claim the championship

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A combination of relief, surprise, and vindication triggered emotion from 6’7″ heavyweight Robelis Despaigne as he received news the UFC officially made him an offer during Sunday’s Fury FC 84 event in Houston.

“It’s finally happened,” Despaigne recently told MMA Junkie. “My dream finally happened.”

It was a spontaneous and unprecedented move by the UFC, specifically heavyweight division matchmaker Mick Maynard, but it came after a rare occurrence.

Despaigne notched a four-second knockout against Miles Banks – consciousness snatched in the blink of an eye. The win combined with Despaigne’s two previous clocked in at a whopping total of 19 seconds. The latest finish sent the MMA social media community into a frenzy.

“I knocked him out. They raised my hand and I was pulled for an interview,” Despaigne said. “When I came back, I spoke to my manager AJ Ariosa literally two minutes after the fight and he told me, ‘Hey, you’re signed to the UFC.’ Three minutes after that, they announced it in the cage. That’s how it happened.”

Despaigne admits, his rapid MMA success has outdone his expectations. Four finishes in four fights with three of them in a matter of seconds. But whether it was now or later, Despaigne felt destined for UFC notoriety. His martial arts roots run deeper than cage-fighting, after all.

“I’ve surprised myself getting those three wins so fast,” Despaigne said. “I train a lot and they do examine the opponents as much as possible. There you go. That’s what happens.”

Cuba’s Robelis Despaigne poses with his bronze medal on the podium for men’s taekwondo + 80 kg category of the London 2012 Olympic games, on August 11, 2012 at the ExCel centre in London. AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO PIZZOLI (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP) (Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images)

Despaigne, 35, grew up in Cuba and began taekwondo at age 9. Seven years later, he made the national team – which he was a part of for 15 years. During that stretch, Despaigne represented his country in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. He medaled bronze in the heavyweight class.

“It was amazing,” Despaigne said. “Since Cuba’s Angel Valodia Matos won the Olympics (in 2000), I looked up to him. Every person that is an amateur, that’s the biggest tournament you can go to. You’re representing your country. … Once I got to that, I had to leave with a medal. Of course, I wanted gold. But I had to leave with a medal for my country.”

Even during his taekwondo peak, Despaigne heard the rumblings. The influential voices got louder and louder, until Despaigne gave in to their demands.

“I was losing love for the sport in 2012. A lot was going on in Cuba where I wasn’t really happy about the sport,” Despaigne said. “I was loving love of it. My coach kept on telling me to do MMA. But all I had seen about the UFC and MMA was knockouts. I was like, ‘I don’t want to get knocked out.’ I was skeptical about it. But then I started watching the fight and was like, ‘I can actually do this. I’m going to go ahead and try this.’ Yeah, that’s what happened. That’s why I went into MMA.”

Robelis Despaigne (R) from Cuba and Kristopher Moitland (L) from Costa Rica face each other during the over 87 kgs of Taekwondo, at the XXII Central American and Caribbean Games, in Veracruz, Mexico, on November 18, 2014. The Games bring together nearly 8,000 athletes from 31 countries and run through November 30. AFP PHOTO/RONALDO SCHEMIDT (Photo credit should read RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

With a college degree in physical training, Despaigne could’ve entered the average, everyday working life when his taekwondo flame fizzled. But nope. It was time to give MMA a shot.

In 2019, Despaigne began MMA-specific training in Cuba. He added grappling to his routine. After pandemic delays, Despaigne moved to Orlando, Fla. in 2022. He still lives and trains there. Four fights later, he’s making international headlines.

“I’ve been training grappling and jiu-jitsu since 2019,” Despaigne said. “I absolutely love it. I actually wanted to get into grappling tournaments, but because I had MMA fights and some people had pulled out, I didn’t have enough time to go into tournaments. I feel absolutely confident with it. I have no problem going on the ground or any of that type of stuff. I train at Gracie Barra. I have no problem with it all.”

Image via Fury FC

Despaigne doesn’t have a UFC debut set quite yet, but he’s aiming for a specific date and location. UFC 299 is expected to take place March 9 in Miami and Despaigne would love to fight in the state he now calls home.

“My ambitions have been very high through everything I’ve done,” Despaigne said. “That’s not going to change now. I want to fight three or four times next year. That’s for sure. And I want to hopefully fight for the belt in one or two years. … I’m going to fight for the belt – and win it.”

This interview was conducted using a Spanish-language interpreter and quotes have been edited for grammar.

Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie

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