With the help of a flashlight on a mobile phone, Yaroslav Amosov climbs out of the darkness through the broken stairs and into the light.
Below is a basement, above are the remains of a bombed-out building. Amosov carefully holds a package in his hands.
The Ukrainian removes the plastic bag, unfolds a towel and with a smile wipes the dust off the Bellator welterweight title belt.
Much of the building was destroyed by Russian shelling after the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, but Amosov’s championship belt surprisingly remained intact.
It is a moment of happiness and hope amid the ruined outskirts of a battle-scarred city.
“Before my mother went to a safe place, she hid the belt in her house, which was apparently bombed and destroyed along with everything else,” said 29-year-old Amosov.
“When we liberated my town, I was a part of it, and about a day later I said, ‘Hey, you know what, I’m going to go back to the ruins of my old house and see if I can find the belt.’
“I was very excited. It was very symbolic of a time in another life, I think, and I was happy to find it. Now it has become part of my story.”
On Saturday against Logan Storley at Bellator 291 in Dublin, Amosov successfully defended his title for the first time since helping his country fight off the Russian invasion.
With the war ongoing, leaving Ukraine was a difficult decision for Amosov, but the reasoning behind his return to the cage goes beyond competition.
“With enough pressure from my family and friends, I started to understand what they were saying. Basically, back to MMA, back to fighting and spreading the word. Tell people what’s going on [в Україні]. That’s the reason I came back.”
This is his war story.
Amosov was born in Irpin, a city on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
He describes Irpin as a once beautiful city, full of happiness and life.
It was here that Amosov and his family were last February, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to launch a full-scale offensive against Ukraine.
As a result of the attack on Irpin, significant destruction was caused: hundreds of residents died, and thousands were driven from their homes.
“At first you are in a state of shock. You don’t understand what is happening,” said Amosov.
“The most important thing for us was to get our families to safety. Me and my friends, my parents, our wives, our old people, our children, dogs – anyone.
“The flow of people, the traffic, it was terrible, as you can imagine. Everyone is trying to get to a safe place. We finished packing, got everyone into the cars, and then hit the road. I drove 36 hours straight to get them to safety.”
With his family safely away from the front lines, Amosov regained some clarity and made a potentially life-changing decision: he would travel back to Irpin to defend his city.
He didn’t know if he would see his family again.
The Russian invasion began on the morning of February 24, 2022. By evening, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyi, ordered the general mobilization of all men aged 18 to 60, prohibiting them from leaving the country.
Amosov, like many of his compatriots, was thrown into combat operations without military experience.
“[Моя підготовка] took place in the trenches. We studied there – in combat operations. The war was a preparation,” said Amosov.
At first, he was mostly involved in helping thousands of civilians who were driven from their homes by Russian bombings.
“I think sometimes people have a very movie-like association of what soldiers do, and they just run around and shoot all day,” he said.
“That’s not what we did. A large part of our work involved rescuing and helping people with whatever they needed help with, whether it was lifting them out of rubble, moving things, or anything else. You try to do whatever you need to do to make people better.
“It took more than a month and a half until we finally got our full military uniform and started taking part in some actions.”
Amosov had never fired a rifle in his life when it was presented to him by the Ukrainian military.
He says that he always refused friends’ invitations to shooting ranges or hunting.
“Actually, I’ve always avoided handling weapons. In the beginning, I didn’t even know if I was shooting correctly,” he said.
“I had to ask the people around me and my friends if I was using the gun properly.”
By the end of March, Amosov helped Ukrainian troops recapture Irpin from Russian occupation.
But it came at an incredible emotional cost.
As of February 13, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reports that 7,199 civilians have died in Ukraine as a result of Russia’s invasion, and another 11,756 have been injured.
Russia has been accused of tens of thousands of war crimes, including mass killings of civilians, torture and rape. Russia denies that its military was involved in such actions, claiming that evidence was forged and accounts fabricated.
Amosov told about what he saw on the spot in Irpin.
“When we liberated my hometown, there was a town next to it, and we kind of went there to tell the people that the Russian army had been pushed back and they were now safe. And we saw a street called Death Street,” he said.
“You saw only bodies to the left and right. Ordinary people, grandmothers, children, wives, husbands, and they were there for weeks. Russian soldiers did not allow their loved ones to collect the remains and bury them. They just lay there rotting.
“We went in and told them that we are Ukrainian troops, that they are now freed. They cry, and we give them bread and water. They are excited to just eat.”
Amosov continued: “It makes you wonder what kind of person would do this? What kind of soldier would obey such orders? What kind of person would give such orders to kill innocent innocent civilians in their own country?
“Many times we went there and buried families, and you didn’t even know who they were. You simply put their name and date of death on a plaque, hoping that someone would later identify it and figure it out. It’s just a mess, an absolute mess.”
Amosov has come to terms with these experiences so far.
After the Ukrainian military regained control of Irpin, Amosov participated in episodic MMA training.
For the next several months, Amosov trained as a hobby, not intending to return to professional competition until family and friends convinced him otherwise.
As his training intensified, he moved to a larger MMA gym in Germany and his return to competition was soon confirmed. In November, it was announced that he would face Interim Welterweight Champion Storley.
But it’s hard to focus on the upcoming match and forget about the bigger fight at home.
“Some of my friends who came to visit me had the same feeling – they were airplanes. When a plane flies by, we have such a bad feeling, because it’s bad news in Ukraine. Something is coming. There will be bombing. That’s why it’s hard to hear planes,” said Amosov.
“And then not to see the military on the streets and not to walk with weapons and in the ruins. And then the curfew – we had a curfew in Ukraine – yes, yes, it took a bit of adaptation.”
Amosov continued: “I think that the most important thing is that you start to reevaluate what is important in life, what is important and what is not.
“To be honest with you, I really don’t know how it affected me. It still affects me, it hasn’t taken root.’
Amosov says his friends and family helped him adjust to life outside the war, but he received no professional help.
Amosov got his first experience of MMA at the age of 16, when he enrolled in a combat sambo gym, a form of martial arts popular in Eastern Europe.
After switching to MMA, he won 19 fights before signing with American promoter Bellator in 2018, where he became the welterweight champion and extended his unbeaten record to 27.
Amosov’s streak is currently the longest unbeaten streak in a major MMA promotion.
His convincing win over the 30-year-old Storley was his second over the American, following a split decision win in 2020.
Amosov says that the experience of defending the country changed his motivation to fight. He lost friends and study partners during the war.
“Every time I face difficulties or feel tired from training, I can’t help but think about my friends and my family who are now in Ukraine,” he said.
“In the trenches, defending their country, and how much harder it is for them. It puts things into perspective and I want to thank them for that, but yes, it changed my motivation.
“I want to win. I want to return the belt home to Ukraine. I think it means a lot more now than ever. It means everything to my country, which I love.”
Despite the win over Storley and the Bellator welterweight unification, the ongoing war remains front and center on Amosov’s mind.
“War leaves its mark, and it certainly left its mark on me. And it’s not over, it’s still going on and people are still dying,” he said.
“They attack [цивільних], fly and drop bombs, killing innocent people left and right. What is the explanation for this?
“[Тепер] this battle is over, I’m going to return to Ukraine.”