Jairzinho Rozenstruik raced out of the gates in his UFC rookie season, collecting four wins in 11 months — all by way of stoppage — to propel himself into the Top 10 and establish himself as a dangerous new name in the heavyweight division.
But over the last two years, making the leap to being a bona fide contender has proven challenging for the affable 34-year-old knockout artist from Suriname.
“I still think we’ve got a lot of mountains to climb, but we’re going in the right direction,” said Rozenstruik, who squares off with Alexander Volkov in the main event of Saturday’s return to action at the UFC APEX. “It doesn’t go as fast as we wanted, but it’s going.”
There are many that watch mixed martial arts and cover mixed martial arts that think an athletes’ career should be all rise — that the best reach the summit without taking any backwards steps, and that when someone suffers a setback or two, it’s a marker that signifies the greatest heights that individual will reach.
Except in the vast majority of cases, that has never actually been the case.
All but two of the current UFC titleholders have lost inside the Octagon, some of them multiple times, in non-title matchups. In each case, they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, made adjustments, and continued pushing forward as many times as it took in order to finally reach the summit.
Because while reaching the UFC and having consistent success is tough and breaking into the Top 15 is a challenge, the greatest struggle for any competitor is bridging that gap between being very good and being elite, and the only way to do it is by learning from your mistakes.
And that’s precisely what Rozenstruik aims to keep doing.
“We definitely want to go from good to great, and closing that gap means a lot, especially when you’ve been in training camp for a fight and you have to think about the things you’ve done wrong,” said the ranked heavyweight, who enters Saturday’s clash with Volkov off a unanimous decision loss to Curtis Blaydes at UFC 266 last September.
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“I thought I was an eight in grappling, but then you get this setback, and you realize you’re a six or a five-and-a-half, you know? You train, you practice — every style is different, and you’ve got to adjust. For me, everything in wrestling is basic, except for the guys who can wrestle.”
He chased his words with a chuckle, clearly joking, but also showing that despite a two-year stretch with more losses than victories, his focus, drive, and desire to get better has not been diminished.
For Rozenstruik, everything is about the journey, and enjoying each step along the way, even if that means going backwards every once in a while.
“Fighting in the UFC or the bigger platforms in combat sports, the ups and downs tell us the things we have to learn along the way, the things we have to add to our style,” said the former professional kickboxer. “Nobody likes to have setbacks, but sometimes it’s just the thing to push you forward and to see what can make you better.
“If I didn’t make those mistakes, I would probably have the same style; I would be just a striker. But now, we can do takedowns, stuff takedowns, be on the ground, get out of submissions; any position.
“The journey has been awesome and I’m looking forward to more.”
The one piece Rozenstruik doesn’t like, however, is when he’s forced to stay on the sidelines for too long.
Saturday’s bout with Volkov marks the longest “Bigi Boy” has gone between appearances since arriving in the UFC — a layoff of eight months and change brought on by a proposed February bout with Marcin Tybura getting pushed back to early April before it was cancelled the day before the contest when the Polish veteran was forced to withdraw with an undisclosed illness.
While some don’t mind a little down time between appearances in order to let their body heal and work on skill development, Rozenstruik would much rather keep things moving and rest after he’s got two or three appearances in the books each year.
Jairzinho Rozenstruik | Top Finishes
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Jairzinho Rozenstruik | Top Finishes
“Not really,” he said with a chuckle when asked if the time away came with any positives. “Being busy is better than staying still and working on skills; you’re not able to try anything new and challenge yourself. It’s always good to go from one camp into another one, and if you do this two, three times, then you can take a rest, and then you go again.
“The way I’m thinking and the way I feel, they layoff makes you kind of slow down, to be chill. This time, it wasn’t the case because I had a fight and it was pushed back, so you can take a week off, but then you’re right back at it.
“Being busy and working your body, giving it some recovery, and then go right back at it in like two weeks is best.”
That said, the Top 10 heavyweight recognizes that the delay delivered him an even greater opportunity this weekend.
“It’s always difficult to be ready and then you do not get to let it out,” he said of his 11th-hour cancellation in April. “On the other hand, everything happens for a reason, so I’ve been positive and thinking forward. Fighting Volkov now is a bigger name, it’s the main event, and so I see it as a positive thing.
“Going in there with Volkov means a lot and will bring me right up where I need to be to start climbing the ladder again because there are a lot of new opponents, new guys, big challenges.”
Like Rozenstruik, the Russian veteran arrives looking to get back into the win column and has struggled to clear the final hurdle that would establish him as a serious championship threat in the heavyweight division.
They each lost to former interim champ Ciryl Gane last year, rebounded with a win, and stumbled again the next time out, Rozenstruik falling to Blaydes, and Volkov running afoul of Tom Aspinall earlier this year in London.
Now stationed next to each other in the heavyweight rankings — Volkov at No. 7, Rozenstruik at No. 8 — the big man from Paramaribo has designs on toppling the even bigger man from Moscow this weekend by implementing lessons learned from his most recent setback.
“For me, for the next fight, I will be a couple of steps ahead, instead of the opposite,” he said, explaining that he felt he was on his heels too much against Blaydes, allowing the wrestler to dictate the terms of engagement and leaving him forced to respond. “I have to be faster than him.
“He’s a big guy — a big tree — so we’re going to start chopping from the bottom and see what opportunity appears.”