If you look closely at the last three matches of a particular fighter, Igor 'The Duke' Pokrajac, who faces original TUF finalist Stephen Bonnar in the co-main event of the TUF 12 Finale card this weekend, our attention gravitates to an interesting pattern.
Paying attention to the details of preliminary matches isn't always a frequent occurrence among fight fans. For the opening bouts of a UFC card, many seats in the arena are still waiting for their owners and those who are expecting to witness the 'dark matches' want to see the action right away.
But if you look closely at the last three matches of a particular fighter, Igor 'The Duke' Pokrajac, who faces original TUF finalist Stephen Bonnar in the co-main event of the TUF 12 Finale card this weekend, our attention gravitates to an interesting pattern.
The Croatian has fought three times in the Octagon thus far, losing his first two to Vladimir Matyushenko (UFC 103) and James Te Huna (UFC 110) before getting a much needed victory by submission over James 'The Sandman' Irvin in August the UFC on Versus 2 card.
Here’s the interesting part - when Bruce Buffer introduced him before the UFC 103 and 110 bouts, Pokrajac didn't raise his arms after the Voice of The Octagon's greeting. However, for the meeting against Irvin, the 31-year old wrestler/kickboxer from the Croatian Top Team displayed something a little different, as he not only raised his arms after the official introduction, but he brought back his old nickname and was visibly more pumped than in his prior Octagon commitments.
And while we never heard that not raising your arms after your introduction is a signal that you won't have them raised after the fight, Pokrajac explains that the whole situation was only a coincidence. But, bringing back his moniker, 'The Duke', was his first step to getting back into the win column.
"I'm always calm, but fired up for the fight,” he said. “In my last fight I was the real Igor, I was ‘The Duke.’ When I looked at some of my fights from a few years ago, I thought that I needed to get back to my old game, and one part of that game is pure aggression."
In a do or die situation for the Irvin fight, Pokrajac transitioned his pre-fight ritual to an airtight fight plan. Going forward with one-two hand combinations, the Zagreb native opted for a takedown and tried to work from the top position, but ate a few elbows that cut his head. With 1:10 on the clock Pokrajac was underneath Irvin, eating bombs, an attack which could have discouraged anyone. But not Pokrajac, who kept calm and turned the nightmare into a dream, getting back to his feet, landing a sequence of lefts and rights, and taking 'The Sandman' down before opening up with elbows and finishing him with a rear naked choke. Was that the pressure of bouncing back from his first two negative results in the UFC leading him to greater heights?
"I don't think of them as negative results," he says of his UFC losses. "I’d rather look at them as mistakes which I had to improve to be better in my next fight, and the result is here. Even in my last fight against Irvin, I had some holes, but in the last three months I covered them up with my boxing coach Babic Goran and my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach Dubravko Colic. Against Irvin I just went for it."
Reserved like his countryman Mirko Cro Cop, Pokrajac seemed to be the type of fighter who always flew under the radar. Prior to and after the fights we would hear and watch small portions of his personality and thoughts, but fans and the media still want to know more about the mystery man.
"I like to talk, but I like to fight more,” he said. “I felt great (about the first victory), I was back, that was good for me and I wanted to share that feeling with the fans. Since then, my camp stayed the same, Croatian Top Team, where I trained hard. I came to the United States in the beginning of November to train with Rafael Cordeiro, and in the last week of November I trained at Wanderlei Silva’s academy. And like I said, I learned from my losses and I am always improving myself."
Changing camps from Croatia to Australia for Te Huna and from Croatia to the USA for Irvin left us with an impression that the European country was never going to be enough for a full training camp, especially after Cro Cop's interviews where he said that training in Holland was better than training in Croatia in some aspects before his fight at UFC 110 in Australia. Pokrajac says that working with different camps is normal for a fighter's evolution, but that Croatia is still tops for him.
"I trained once in Holland for a week, but I think we have excellent conditions in Croatia to keep a high level of training," he says. "The Pride Grand Prix in 2006 that Mirko won, all of his training was done in Croatia and I did most of the sparring with him."
A blue belt in BJJ who is expecting his graduation to purple, Pokrajac now goes to face the always exciting Bonnar in a fight where few expect a ground fight and many foresee fists and kicks on the feet. A wrestler versed in kickboxing like Pokrajac is likely to entertain people in the same fashion that he did in his last fight, but as the co-main event of a UFC card, the responsibility is twice as big as last time.
"We definitely have a responsibility to bring the Fight of the Night,” he said. “Bonnar is a great fighter, I like his style and there is no stepping back in his game. But I have no pressure of any kind; I like the ground, I like standing, and it just depends on how the fight will go. I'm a fighter, I like to be that when the bell rings, and it's my job in the UFC to be a fighter. I'm training to win this fight and to finish, and I'd like to be in a contender’s position in the near future."