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North Haven boys’ soccer alum Yuri Panferov now competes on the Mixed Martial Arts circuit with a goal of rising to the professional level. (Photo courtesy of Yuri Panferov )
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Yuri Panferov was entering his sophomore year when his family moved to North Haven from Russia, where he had grown up playing soccer while practicing a variety of martial arts. When a few of his new classmates at North Haven High School asked him to go out for boys’ soccer team, Yuri said yes and then joined the Indians.
Following his senior season, Yuri decided to return to his background in martial arts. When he came to the United States, Yuri’s family happened to move into a home that was across the street from the Ultimate Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) & Jiu-jitsu Training Center.
“I wanted to start training again and stay in shape, so I walked in one day and checked it out, and it worked out perfectly,” says Yuri, who graduated from North Haven in 2015. “I’m walking distance to the best gym in Connecticut. There’s no other gym in the state that comes close.”
As he began training, Yuri caught the eye of gym owner and trainer Andrew Calandrelli, a former professional MMA fighter who retired in 2012. Calandrelli has been working with Yuri ever since, training with him for six to eight hours a day six days a week.
“Yuri has God-given talent and athleticism,” Calandrelli says. “What he brings to the cage is a very complete game in all areas—boxing, kickboxing, jiu-jitsu, and wrestling. He’s definitely one of the most talented athletes I’ve ever trained.”
Yuri, whose fighting nickname is the Russian Polar Bear, credits Calandrelli for expanding his training to include other disciplines such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, and kickboxing. These are all areas that Yuri now competes in. Yuri is currently the All of New England Golden Gloves boxing champion in the heavyweight division. He is also the 2019 New York State heavyweight boxing champion.
“Andrew introduced me to things I didn’t think I could compete in. I walked in with no experience, and he brought me to this level,” Yuri says. “My coach saw me and said we can make this a career. I didn’t think I’d be fighting at all until we went to the Golden Gloves. He told me I’d win the whole thing, and I didn’t believe it. But then it happened.”
Yuri has won multiple titles in both Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA at 205 pounds. He is a seven-time International Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Federation champion and is also ranked 14th of out 1,624 athletes in the world by ibjjf.com. On top of that, Yuri is an eight-time North American Grappling Association expert champion.
Yuri notes that he isn’t the first athlete from his gym who Calandrelli has trained in a wide variety of skills. With up to 50 athletes in the gym, many of them concentrate on one discipline, although Marisa Messer-Belenchia began a similar training regimen a few years before Yuri joined. Yuri now assists Messer-Belenchia in teaching classes for 4- to 13 year-olds in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and basic kickboxing.
“Andrew is probably one of the best coaches in the country, because he combines all the aspects into one and builds people from scratch. Marisa and I are both in there six days a week, and it helps us push each other. She paved the way for me to compete in these sports, because she was the first one to do it. Her career is a blueprint for mine in a different weight class,” says Yuri. “I love teaching. After I retire, I’d love to open my own school and pass my knowledge to others.”
While Yuri trains and competes in several different disciplines, his career goals are focused on MMA. Yuri is currently the No. 2-ranked light heavyweight in New England and the Northeast by tapology.com, as well as the No. 2-ranked light heavyweight in the world by sherdog.com. Yuri is also the Reality Fighting light heavyweight champion, the Gladius Fights light heavyweight champion, and the Ground Force Fights light heavyweight champion.
As an amateur fighter, Yuri has had five fights during the past three years, including two at Mohegan Sun Arena. He has a record of 5-0 in those fights, winning two of them by knockout and three via submission.
Although amateurs cannot be paid to fight, they can make some money back through ticket sales. At his most recent fight in June, Yuri sold 105 tickets to friends, family, and fans from North Haven.
“When they called my name, the crowd went crazy, and the arena started shaking. It was the best feeling on the planet, and the adrenaline going through your veins is incredible,” Yuri says. “I enjoy the different aspects of MMA—striking, grappling, wrestling—all in the same fight. You have to perform in all parts of your game. You don’t know where the fight is going to end up.”
By the end of this year, Yuri is looking to sign a contract to become a professional fighter with a goal of making a run for the 205-pound Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) belt within the next five years. After signing a contract, MMA fighters are booked into fights at different arenas. As they advance through the ranks, the fights get bigger and can be televised while the fighters secure sponsorships.
“As an amateur, I’ve had a pretty good career, but I’m looking to take this on as a pro and climb up the ladder,” says Yuri. “The first couple fights are most likely local, then if you sign with a big promotion, they’ll fly you out, usually to Vegas or Madison Square Garden.”
In addition to being supported by his coaches and fellow fighters, Yuri also gets plenty of support from his family. Yuri’s younger brother Mikhail, who also played soccer at North Haven, helps Yuri with his training and promotes his career through photography, videography, and social media.
“My parents support me, even though my mom gets scared once in a while. They didn’t believe it at first, but they saw the potential and that I could make this a career. My brother helps me out a lot. That’s been the best part. It’s brought us closer, and he’s my No. 1 fan,” Yuri says. “I didn’t see any of this coming at all. We moved so we could go to school here, but I guess I had a different path for myself.”
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