With the Friends reunion special prompting a bunch of think pieces about the six New Yorkers that congregated at Central Perk over the last couple weeks, the Season Three episode entitled “The One with the Ultimate Fighting Champion” has taken up prominent position in my head for obvious reasons.
In addition to giving audiences an introduction to ring announcer Bruce Buffer, referee “Big John” McCarthy, and early UFC superstar Tank Abbott, the episode, which centers around Monica’s boyfriend Pete Becker’s quest to become “The Ultimate Fighting Champion,” delivers an unexpected, but poignant glimpse into the psyche and mindset required to excel inside the Octagon.
While the entire premise is played for laughs, his quest to reach the summit of the sport is something shared by every man and woman that steps into the Octagon, including this weekend’s headliner, Jairzinho Rozenstruik, who steps in opposite Augusto Sakai in the main event of Saturday’s fight card at the UFC APEX.
After getting obliterated by Abbott in his first fight, Monica congratulates her boyfriend for daring to step into the Octagon, suggesting it’s an accomplishment he’ll always be able to treasure now that he’s crossed “fight in the UFC” off his personal bucket list.
“Look back?” Pete asks incredulously after Monica suggests his time in the Octagon has come to an end. “Well let me ask you a question: am I the Ultimate Fighting Champion?”
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When Monica says “No,” Pete explains his plans to reach his goal.
“Well I’m not going to stop until I’m the Ultimate Fighting Champion,” he begins, explaining that his path to business success with Moss 865 began with “Moss 1 that burnt down my dad’s garage.
“Look, I’m going to get better; I promise you,” he assures his concerned girlfriend.
Later in the episode, following another savage defeat and with Pete in a full upper body cast and cervical collar, Monica again urges him to walk away, only to once again be stonewalled by her stubborn, driven boyfriend.
“I’m fine; I’d fight tonight if they let me,” he jokes, echoing an extremely familiar sentiment before marking off his “Zone of Terror” and adding that he can’t give up until he is the Ultimate Fighter and children argue who will win a fight, him or Superman.
While the heavyweight from Suriname isn’t necessarily looking for kids to debate his chances against “The Man of Steel,” he, like Pete, is on a quest to reach to the top of the sport, and he arrives in Las Vegas this weekend with designs on getting back into the win column following an uncharacteristically tepid performance against Ciryl Gane earlier this year.
“When you go into something, you want to be the best in everything you do, so you work hard and you’re putting in everything you have,” said Rozenstruik, pushing back on my suggestion that sometimes you have to take a step back before you can take a bigger step forward.
“I’m in the race to be ‘The Baddest man on the Planet,’ and there is no bigger race than this. I’ve been training, learning, understanding the game, adapting a lot of things to my game, and sometimes it’s too much information. You’re fighting, you’re learning and it’s hard — it’s not easy; there is so much information, so you have to grab what you can grab, go in there, perform, and come back and learn again.
“I don’t want that step back, but it is what it is, so you’ve got to deal with it,” he added, resigned to the reality of the situation. “That’s life and not everything in life goes perfectly, including fighting.”
After a blistering rookie campaign that saw him earn four stoppage victories in 11 months to push his overall record to 10-0, Rozenstruik split a pair of assignments in 2020, losing to current champ Francis Ngannou in May before rebounding with a second-round finish of former titleholder Junior Dos Santos in August that put him right back in the thick of the title chase.
February’s main event turn opposite Gane was highly anticipated and expected to be an explosive striking battle, but that wasn’t the case at all, especially for Rozenstruik, as the 33-year-old heavyweight landed just 42 significant strikes over the course of the five-round affair; the same number he registered in less than nine minutes against Dos Santos six months earlier.
“I couldn’t get loose in the fight, which was because of nerves,” admitted Rozenstruik. “It’s not how I’m used to fighting — I waited too long, I didn’t play the game I used to play, and got stuck in my head.
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“The way I look at it now is that I’ve got another opportunity to make things right and I’m looking forward to that,” he continued. “I’m feeling good, I had a good camp, and so it’s time to go in there and put on the performance I used to do all the time.”
Despite acknowledging that he wasn’t himself against Gane, the combat sports veteran isn’t shouldering any lingering nerves or hesitation as he readies to return to action this weekend.
He’s left the disappointment of that fight in the past, and shifted his focus to the present, with designs on a standout performance on Saturday setting him up for something even greater in the future.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself,” he said when asked about distancing himself from his previous contest and the frustrations of such an uncharacteristic showing. “I’ve been doing combat sports for many years, so the best thing I could do was go back to the gym, train, and make sure I’m good in my head.
“(This time around), I’m mentally focused, I know what I have to do, how I want to do it, and I feel really confident that this one is going to be mine. Nothing is going to come between me and a victory.”
Saturday night at the UFC APEX, Sakai will be standing in the way of Rozenstruik’s plans, he himself looking to rebound from a disappointing effort last time out. After similarly earning victories in each of his first four trips into the Octagon, the 30-year-old Brazilian suffered a fifth-round stoppage loss against Alistair Overeem in September.
Brandishing a 15-2-1 record overall, Sakai has established himself as a legitimate Top 10 talent and a tough out for anyone seeking to climb the divisional ladder at his expense, though Rozenstruik is confident he’ll handle his business efficiently on Saturday night.
“Augusto Sakai is a really big boy and I think he wants to come forward,” he said, offering an assessment of his opponent and forecast for how things will play out. “Myself, I do that all the time, so I’m going to go in there and put on my best performance.
“I’m going to be able to dance with him and if he makes any errors, the fight will be over.”
Once it’s done, and regardless of the outcome, Rozenstruik will make his way back to the gym, eager to keep learning and improving, so that one day he can reach the goal he shares with fictional fighter Pete Becker and innumerable real-life contemporaries: to become the Ultimate Fighting Champion.