On September 25th, 2000, top European MMA prospect Bernardo Sopai (8-1) was born in Fier, Albania.
Now 19, Sopai grew up in the country until the age of ten, when he and his parents moved to Greece in hopes of finding a better future. Two years ago, Sopai moved to Sweden to better his MMA career, though his parents are still currently residing in Greece.
When he was living in Greece, Sopai took to playing the local pastime of soccer and – over time – had begun to get really good at the game. After moving to Sweden, however, he knew the sport wasn’t as popular as it was and Greece and didn’t see a future for himself in the sport.
“The Lion King” turned to a new sporting endeavor, starting his MMA journey in mid-2016.
“I stopped with football, and one day a friend of mine came to me and said I should try mixed martial arts,” Sopai told MMA-Prospects. “In the beginning, my reaction was like, ‘Oh, c’mon, this is not fun. Maybe I’ll try it for one day.’
“For three months, my friend talked to me about this sport, and I just wasn’t interested. [But] one day, I had nothing to do and I sent him a message asking to train in the gym where he used to train. He picked me up, and we went to the gym.”
“The feeling was crazy – I will never forget my first training. I felt so happy. While sparring, I knew how to fight before but I just wasn’t technical, [I was] just a street fighter.”
Like many young fighters who begin formalized MMA training with a chip on their shoulders, Sopai quickly found himself engrossed in the grind of a well-oiled training center.
“I went to Allstars Training Center two years ago,” recalled Sopai. “The first day was sparring and before I moved to Sweden I was telling myself I will destroy these guys here and no one can challenge me in striking. I changed my mind very quickly,” Sopai laughed.
“I did good [in] sparring, but the guys were on another level. That made me live there and train with the best coaches and the best fighters and now I’m on another level!”
Allstars Training Center, a Swedish MMA gym, has produced a wide array of top-level talent, including UFC title challenger Alexander Gustafsson (18-7), promotional veterans Reza Madadi (14-6), and Daniel (7-4) and David (8-2) Teymur, emerging star Khamzat Chimaev (8-0), and many more.
“We have great wrestlers in my weight class, like [fellow BRAVE CF fighter] Bilal Tipsaev (1-1) and George Pilidis. I train with [undefeated BRAVE standout] Mochamed Machaev (9-0), [UFC and Bellator veteran] Sirwan Kakai (12-5), and many other guys who are really good fighters. My coaches are Andreas Michael and Selman Berisha,” said Sopai.
With a terrific training camp behind him, Sopai quickly began his MMA career in style, cruising to a 7-1 professional record with seven finishes (three submissions and four knockouts).
On the strength of such a record, Sopai was picked up by Bahraini MMA promotion BRAVE Combat Federation.
BRAVE CF, founded in 2016, is one of the largest promotions based out of the Middle East. The promotion has done an excellent job signing and building young talent, which has paid dividends for BRAVE in recent months.
So far this year, the promotion has graduated some of its top tier fighters to the UFC already, including the likes of Ilia Topuria (8-0), Guram Kutateladze (11-2), Amir Albazi (13-1), and the aforementioned Chimaev.
“The deal with BRAVE came from my manager, Majdi Shammas. I like fighting for BRAVE CF. I want more experience and more fights, and after that, I will fight for the UFC,” predicted Sopai.
Sopai took full advantage of his first BRAVE appearance.
Nearly two weeks ago, BRAVE CF 39 went down in Stockholm, Sweden, not far from Sopai’s adoptive home. Sopai competed in one of the event’s most anticipated fights, facing fellow prospect Tariq Ismail (6-1).
Sopai handed Ismail his first career loss by unanimous decision, improving his record to 8-1 and successfully debuting in BRAVE CF. It was a complete, well-rounded performance in which Sopai looked like a polished veteran, despite being only 19-years-old.
“I did good last fight,” said Sopai of his performance. “Tariq was a good opponent for me, but I was ready, and I knew I would win. I wanted to finish him, but the win is a win so it doesn’t matter.
“As I said, I liked my last performance, but I could’ve done better if I wasn’t injured during my training camp. I trained six weeks for this fight and three weeks while I was injured but still, I put on a good fight.”
Sopai, like Ismail, has suffered a loss in his career. The Albanian-born Swede believes his loss has taught him how fight – and train – so that it never happens again.
Sopai’s lone career loss happened two years ago against a touted Russian prospect, Alexey Shaposhnikov (7-2), who was his toughest test at the time.
“From that loss, I learned many things,” said Sopai. “First of all, I learned to train harder. I didn’t train hard for that fight – that’s why I lost, ultimately – but that will never happen again. That was my lesson, and now I train hard every single day.”
With a win in his BRAVE debut, the lessons learned from his loss to Shaposhnikov, and a terrific team behind him, Sopai is looking to the future. And at just 19, it’s a bright one.
“I still train now so I can come back faster. It doesn’t matter who I’m here to fight; this is what I love to do. Slowly and slowly, I will destroy everyone, and [in[2021 I will become the champion in BRAVE.”
“Tell them to hold my belt for me, because I’m coming to take it!”