LAS VEGAS — The odds of Jairzinho Rozenstruik becoming the UFC heavyweight champion are long, and it has nothing to do with the Surinamese star. It’s because the odds of any one fighter ascending to the top of the sport’s glamor division are so long.
But is there a scenario in which Rozenstruik, the loser of two of his last three bouts as he heads into the main event of UFC Vegas 28 on Saturday at Apex against Augusto Sakai, could someday be standing in the middle of the Octagon as Dana White wraps that gold belt around his waist?
It’s in the power he carries in those two fists.
It’s easy to overlook that given the way champion Francis Ngannou dispatched Rozenstruik in his final non-title bout. Rozenstruik stormed Ngannou at the bell to open their bout at UFC 249 on May 9, 2020. Rozenstruik was 10-0 with nine knockouts going into that bout and was coming off a dramatic, last-second knockout of Alistair Overeem.
Rozenstruik went at Ngannou swinging wildly, and was caught by a massive Ngannou shot. He went down and the fight was over in just 20 seconds.
When Ngannou was beaten by Cyril Gane in February, it left many believing he’d been overrated. Rozenstruik understands that, because he candidly admits he’s not sure why he performed the way he did in Gane’s runaway unanimous decision victory.
“It does change things,” Rozenstruik said about his mindset coming off a loss. “I want to see what happened. What happened in the last fight, I don’t understand. I’m working much harder to find openings to see. Last fight, that wasn’t my style. It was a strange fight.”
He looked like he had no life or spirit and didn’t cause Gane many problems. And it would be easy to dismiss him as a contender given that.
That said, it’s easy to forget now that Ngannou, who knocked out Stipe Miocic to win the heavyweight title, once was in the same position Rozenstruik finds himself today.
Ngannou lost a unanimous decision to Miocic at UFC 220 on Jan. 20, 2018, a desultory performance much like Rozenstruik’s against Gane. He followed that with a loss to Derrick Lewis at UFC 228 on July 7, 2018, in a bout that went from expected-to-be-sensational to one in which the crowd booed lustily throughout.
There wasn’t a crowd at Gane-Rozenstruik, so there wasn’t any booing, but there likely would have been had fans been at Apex that night.
But Rozenstruik wants to put that in the past. Specifically to the Gane performance, he feels he’s already learned from it and would be a dramatically different fighter in a theoretical rematch.
“He did his thing and was playing the cat-and-mouse game,” Rozenstruik said of Gane. “He succeeded then. I think in the next fight between me and him, I would be much better and it wouldn’t end this way.”
It sounds cocky with words typed on a screen, but it was Rozenstruik simply being honest. He didn’t perform to his standard and has spent a lot of time studying what happened.
And that brings us back to the point of Rozenstruik potentially becoming the champion. It would be easy to dismiss him if he were just a wild slugger. But he’s a powerful puncher with the understanding that at the highest level, it’s not just throwing punches to throw, but to set them up and create traps to be able to land.
He’s showing the awareness and the humility to recognize and work on his weaknesses and make his strength truly a strength.
He likely won’t win the title because most fighters don’t. In the history of the UFC, only 18 men have held the heavyweight title, and that includes interim belts.
There are a lot of fighters, very good ones, who haven’t won it.
Rozenstruik has that ability, though, to end a fight with one punch at any point in the match. And that, combined with his self-awareness, will keep him in the title picture until he walks away from the sport.
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