Standing just 5’4″, KSW bantamweight champion Antun Račić (24-8-1) began his MMA career in 2009 wholly undersized. The Croatian wrestler, who to this day remains on the shorter side of the 135-pound division, was forced to make his bones at lightweight, and even welterweight, in his career’s nascent stage.
“I started early with MMA; my first fight was in 2009,” Račić told MMA-Prospects. “Everybody calls me ‘veteran’ in MMA. I fought also in Russia a lot of times. I fought in M-1 Global with the great fighters. I fought in the craziest divisions, like 70 kilos [154 lbs]. Also, my first fight was 77 kilos [170 lbs] — I’m a small guy, 165 centimeters [5’4″], I have 68, 69 kilos [149 lbs]. So, at the beginning of my career, I had to fight with bigger guys because then, at that time, the bantamweight division in Europe wasn’t so good and there weren’t so many events with bantamweight divisions, so I was forced to fight in bigger weight divisions.”
Despite his smaller stature, Račić’s accomplishments in the sport stand tall. None of his accolades bring more pride to Račić than his 2019 KSW bantamweight title win, the inaugural championship for the massive Polish promotion.
“That was everything for me,” Račić explained. “When I moved to UFD Gym and I saw that my skills were getting better and better fast in this gym, I started dreaming about that KSW belt. When I won my first fight in KSW, I was okay, same like every fight before. ‘Okay, I won the fight,’ but I didn’t think about the belt. When I won my second fight, I was thinking, ‘Okay, maybe in the future, I will get some chance for the title.’ After my third fight, I started to speak about it: ‘Hey, I want to fight for this KSW belt. I want to be the champion.’
“Then I saw my dream come true. When I started my career, I knew KSW. I watched it on the Internet, so it was amazing for me, especially when they said I would fight for the title in my home country of Croatia, in the capital of Zagreb. It was amazing. That was a full arena. I was really, really proud when I got the belt, especially when it was against a UFC fighter in Damian Stasiak (12-7),” reminisced Račić.
While imagining a fully packed arena might be difficult amid the current COVID-19 pandemic, that is exactly what greeted the Croatian then-title hopeful ahead of the biggest fight of his career. More than 10,000 of Račić’s countrymen crammed into the Arena Zagreb to watch their nation’s top bantamweight fight for his dream.
“It means a lot for us,” Račić said of Croatia’s MMA success, his own included. “We are a small country; we are four million people. We need to be proud of what we do in European MMA. Me and Roberto [Soldic] are champions in KSW. We have also ‘Cro Cop,’ one of the greatest fighters in the world in MMA. We need to be proud of this.
“But, this is what I see: we are not finished yet, especially with me and Roberto. We are still young. Roberto is also younger than me, and we have more to show to people. I’m proud that I am the best Croatian bantamweight fighter. I’m proud that I’m training with the best Croatian welterweight fighter, also, I think Roberto Soldic is the best Croatian MMA fighter now, so it’s amazing. We have a great team. Also, Ivan Dijakovic and his brother Tomi Dijakovic, the owners of UFD Gym in Dusseldorf, they’re also Croatian. We are proud of what we do,” said Račić.
And so 2019 was a career year for Račić, as he earned the inaugural KSW bantamweight title with his highest-profile win to date. Riding high on a six-fight winning streak and unbeaten in KSW, Račić looked poised for a breakout year.
Like many professional MMA fighters, however, Račić had a frustrating 2020.
“This year was really hard for me,” Račić told MMA-Prospects, “because at the end of last year, I get the bantamweight KSW belt; I became first-ever KSW bantamweight champion, and I expect this year [to] defend this belt maybe two times.”
The first of those planned title defenses was planned for the spring, several months after Račić’s title victory. Unfortunately, the Croatian star’s — and the global populations’ — world was about to be turned upside down.
“The first fight, I was supposed to fight before the summer, but then comes this pandemic. I was really, really, really well-prepared for that. I was here for my fight camp, doing everything for that fight, and then that fight gets canceled.”
Following the initial, widespread concerns spurred by the spread of COVID-19 across Europe and beyond, MMA promotions were forced to cancel, postpone, or otherwise reschedule events around the world.
“In the beginning, when my first fight was canceled, that was a real surprise for everybody because that was something new; everybody’s scared. I was like, ‘Okay. Maybe this is what it is. We need to do this. We need to cancel everything. Maybe this will be finished soon.’ But when I saw the pandemic was getting worse and worse, I was like, ‘Oh, man. When am I going to fight again?’
“Then, I go back home to Croatia. I spent some time there with my family and my friends, and after that, my manager Ivan Dijakovic called me, ‘Come back. You are going to fight after summer.'”
Račić, preparing for his first title defense, returned to Dusseldorf, Germany, and began training at UFD Gym. However, the fallout from the coronavirus’ continued spread would rear its ugly head once more.
“Then, I come back; I start my fight camp, and in the middle of fight camp, I get corona, you know? Ten days, I was out,” recalled Račić. “I had symptoms, but not really hard, but also not easy symptoms. Because of that, my fight moves to the end of the year.”
Račić explained that his bout with COVID-19 was one with moderate symptoms. He admits to having concerns about his health after coming down with the virus but believes that he is back and healthy as can be months later.
“Mentally, I was a little bit scared about how I’m going to be after my symptoms and everything. But I feel good. I don’t know what’s inside, but I feel good, I feel ready, and I do training like ever before, so I don’t see any problems,” said Račić.
However, the frustration caused by repeated fight cancelations, forced time away from training, and the mental and physical toll of COVID-19 and its effect on the world remain tangible.
“It’s hard, you know, because I was on the top of my shape [the] first time, then I was in the middle of my fight camp before I got corona — I was also in good shape [then]. This corona made little problems for me, but now I feel great. I feel ready. I feel motivated.”
Račić will need to harness that motivation ahead of December 18’s KSW 57, when he faces 22-year-old Brazilian Bruno Santos (9-1), who currently has won four-straight fights.
Initially, Račić says, he was preparing for one-time foe Sebastian Przybysz (7-2), MMA-Prospects’ second-ranked KSW bantamweight, who he defeated by unanimous decision in 2018. “Then, he got corona and needed to cancel the fight,” which prompted KSW’s call to the surging Santos.
“I was surprised when they said that I was fighting with the Brazilian guy, [but] he’s a young fighter, 22-years-old. He’s very good [from] what I see on YouTube and everything. He has good skills: standup, he likes to take down people and control them on the ground, and he finishes all his fights by decision. I can tell he has the same style as me, but I think I’m more aggressive and a stronger fighter than him. We will see on Saturday. What the fight gives me, I’m going to take. I’m ready for anything.”
A fighter who has actively competed on Europe’s biggest stages since 2009, Račić admits that he feels added pressure as the continent’s largest organization’s beltholder in the face of a young, hungry challenger with little to lose.
“I like this belt. I like to be the champion of KSW,” said Račić. “I’m hungry, the same like when I was winning this title. This time, it’s also a little bit strange. I fight with a young fighter who is coming into this MMA world, so it’s a little bit more pressure than when you fight with a UFC fighter and then you have a great challenge. Now, I have a little pressure because this guy doesn’t have anything to lose. I have [a lot] to lose. But I’m prepared. I’m motivated. I’m excited about this fight, and we will see.”
Ahead of the fight, Račić trained at his longtime gym, the red-hot UFD Gym.
“I’ve prepared here at UFD Gym with guys like my brother, my friend Roberto Soldic, also welterweight KSW champion; I’m training here with Abus Magomedov, finalist of PFL; I’m training with Dawid Zawada, UFC fighter. Also in my camp this time was one of the greatest fighters all the time in the UFC, Gleison Tibau. I had great sparring partners for this fight, so I expect a great fight from my side,” said Račić.
As for what kind of fight fans will see at KSW 57, Račić hesitated to predict that his and Santos’ wrestling and Brazilian jiu jitsu pedigrees — Račić boasts 13 submissions and Santos sports five on his record — would guarantee a grappling-heavy affair.
“Fights start in the standup. I’ve prepared for everything. I like to enjoy the fight, I like to do everything. Especially now, when I get more skills in the standup, I like to try that in a fight. Like you saw in my last two, three fights, I do a lot of standup also, but I also do my style: wrestling, taking people down. But I can’t tell what’s going to happen. Like I told you before, what the fight gives me, I’m going to take, 100%. I just want to win this fight and of course, I want to finish this fight.
“But, we will see. Santos also fought before, one month [ago] in Brazil, so he’s also in great shape. I expect a good fight and the better fighter will win, but I hope I will be that better fighter,” Račić concluded.
While Račić is “focused on Bruno Santos for now,” he confirmed that he does have a grudge match in mind for the future.
“There are some fighters who I want to beat. I also want to beat again this Damian Stasiak, but I want to finish him because he talked too much shit about me when he got his last win. I want to make this fight for myself, but there is also next year. KSW has a big plan to make a great, great show in Croatia.”
Likewise, he hopes that he will one day be able to inarguably stake his claim as not only Croatia’s, but Europe’s top bantamweight. However, there remains some red tape.
“I believe I am in the top of the bantamweight division in all of Europe. I also believe, one day, I can be in the top of the world in the bantamweight division. I learn every day, I grow up every day as a fighter, so in the future, 100% I am going to be a better fighter. Yes, I watch these fighters from Cage Warriors, from [Russian powerhouse Absolute Championship Akmat] ACA, but they are fighters who have contracts, same as me. I have a contract with KSW, and they have contracts with Cage Warriors and ACA, and it’s hard to make fights between us,” Račić summarized.
“But, maybe in the future, we’re going to step in the cage together. For a reason, they are champions there, for a reason I am champion here. In KSW, I think I have to win more fights than any other champion to get the title. I won four fights, and my fifth fight in KSW was for the title. Some guys come to a promotion and get a title fight in their first fight, so I really deserve it.”
At 30 years old and with over thirty professional fights under his belt, Račić is in the middle of his athletic prime. He seems satisfied with his tenure in KSW, so fans may be in for more of the same from the aptly-nicknamed “Killer.”
“I’m really good with KSW. They give me everything. They have respect [for] me, so they respect me like a fighter. I enjoy fighting there. Especially, I enjoy this show, what they make. I think they make the best show in the world. It’s amazing to be a part of a promotion like KSW. I am proud. I’m a champion there, and for me, it’s very good in KSW.
“We will see what it will be in the future. I will see with my manager. I need to see how many more fights I will fight there, but for now, I stay in KSW, and for me, KSW is amazing. It’s an amazing promotion, and I like to be there.”