Sidelined twice from his last two scheduled fights inside the Octagon, Alessio 'Legionarius' Sakara - who takes on fellow striker Jorge Rivera in a highly-anticipated slugfest at UFC 122 this Saturday in Oberhausen, Germany - lived a hell that started in May and will end up only when he steps into the Konig Pilsener Arena.
Hitting the Italian fighter the hardest was the blow he suffered in his personal life five months ago when he lost his beloved father. The death shook his mind to a point where he couldn't think of anything, but he is now at peace.
"My family always was important," said the devoted Sakara. "We know that death makes part of our lives, but we're not prepared for it. It all happened at a stage of my life where I needed to be focused and it didn't happen until long after my father's death. I'll fight for his memory."
Determined to pay homage to his father once his next match was confirmed, Sakara put all his efforts into his preparation for UFC 118 in August. The show that took place in Boston, Massachusetts would pit the European puncher against Rivera, but 'El Conquistador' broke his arm and was replaced by Gerald Harris. That bout would have been a good chance for Sakara to test himself against a wrestler with knockout power and, of course, dedicate the hoped for victory to his father. It was a huge responsibility, but in the end, a new setback arrived as an injury interrupted his plans.
"I fought for my family before, but now my father will be with me inside the Octagon," says Sakara. "I carry a lot of pressure every time I fight in UFC because of what I represent for my country, perhaps now I have a bit more responsibility."
The injury happened when Sakara was trying to sharpen all his tools before this pivotal fight, and to not let his tribute go in vain.
"I was training wrestling in Italy, after they warned me about the new foe. I tried to defend a takedown and dislocated my knee and ankle."
To some, Sakara’s insistence on wrestling training could be seen as a tool for him to avoid any ground game and deliver his powerful fists, as Sakara is known more as a puncher than a well-versed grappler. However since his 2007 arrival at the American Top Team gym, many things changed. Sakara's main weapon, his boxing, has new tricks, his cardio improved and he was awarded a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu black belt by 'Conan' Silveira. That is an unseen game for any opponent who goes to the ground with him.
"Everybody knows that I lived five years in Rio de Janeiro training BJJ with the Nogueira brothers, Ricardo De LaRiva and Paulo Caruso. When I got in Miami in 2007 I kept training. I still didn't show my BJJ, but my training partners know my game. 'The problem is, I love to knock people out, but who knows, this time maybe I can use my ground skills."
Ground skills? Well, I don't think that is what fans are expecting from both men inside the Octagon this weekend. Neither is known for their supremacy when the fight hits the floor; instead, each is capable of providing fireworks - principally with the fury of their hands.
"Everybody knows I like to stand and bang, so I prefer guys with the style of Rivera," he said. "I can dictate more of my preferred style, the striking. Rivera and I have several similarities; my intention is to apply my speed to overwhelm him. "
Weathering some ups and downs between 2005 and the beginning of 2008 thanks to some terrible defeats and a few victories, Sakara is now on a good three fight winning streak. That is a mark he never got to previously in the UFC and after reaching his most recent win, a TKO over James Irvin in March, the next step is to keep going and take the advantage of the best form of his UFC career.
"I really don't know if I'm in a better stage of my fighting career; I think when I complete 10 years of my career (within two years), you can ask me this again," Sakara says. "What I feel nowadays is an impressive confidence to let my game loose, and to try things I didn't imagine I'd do before. The plan is to have fun competing, and not bring any extra pressure to perform this or that way."
The tough list of accomplishments that Sakara has to achieve on German soil on Saturday follows this sequence: looking for his fourth victory in a row, he needs to knock Rivera out and pay homage to his father - keeping the pioneer and superstar status that ‘Legionarius’ possesses in his home country of Italy.
"Each time I go on TV shows, people get impressed with pace of our lives and fights. But the fighters' responsibilities are short if compared to the soccer players of the National Italian Team. I don't waste time when I keep myself training in Italy before I travel to Miami; my preparation here is a war. Everybody wants to knock me out (laughs) and they want to take a piece of the Legionarius. So because of that I can't blink."
Alessio Sakara – For Father and Country
"I fought for my family before, but now my father will be with me inside the Octagon. I carry a lot of pressure every time I fight in UFC because of what I represent for my country, perhaps now I have a bit more responsibility."