You have to be a little stubborn to be a professional fighter. Okay, very stubborn. So when word traveled through the grapevine to UFC featherweight Rony Jason that the only chance he had of winning his fight with American knockout artist Sam Sicilia was to use his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt and take the fight to the mat, he got a bit insulted.
“There were journalists saying I didn't have a shot against him in the standup,” said Jason through manager / translator Matheus Aquino. “It hurt us, and a person that says that never sees us training here at Team Nogueira or is someone who never got to take a punch in his life to disregard me and my team like that. I was called the underdog and the way it was said hurt us.”
You can probably figure out what happened next. Jason went back to the gym determined to put a dent in the critics’ predictions. And at Team Nogueira, there were plenty of willing participants for the Ceara native’s “Project KO.”
“Before the fight people said I had no chance in the standup, that my only way to victory would be to take it to the ground,” he said. “That didn't sit well with me and I ended up training more standup with boxing coach Edelson, Muay Thai coach Kob, and Jonas Bilharinho, the Pitbull brothers, and Matheus Mattos. Although I come from Jiu-Jitsu, I also train a lot of standup and thank God I'm having a good evolution on this part (of MMA). Today the athlete has to be complete and I'm searching to be the closest to perfection as possible. Perfection doesn't exist, but I'm always aiming for it.”
On that night in Rio de Janeiro, the result was as close to perfect as you can get, as Jason and Sicilia slugged out to the delight of the fans in attendance before Jason capped things off with a Knockout of the Night finish at 4:16 of the second round. It was the kind of ending former winners of The Ultimate Fighter hope to kick the next phase of their career off with, but that’s not always the case. Thankfully for Jason, winner of TUF Brazil 1, that burden is now off his shoulders, though he does continue to feel a responsibility to deliver not just for himself, but for his fellow TUF competitors.
“I always believed that I had the level to be in the UFC, and I put it in my mind that every time I go into a fight I have to represent well the guys who also signed for TUF,” he said. “I joke that it (the TUF title) is kind of an interim belt, a responsibility belt, and I always try to focus on what I want. I like to joke and everything, but when the responsibility arrives I stand up to it. Sam was a tough fight. He was a guy coming from lightweight and was a very difficult test. I'm happy to have won and to be slowly creating my place in the UFC.”
On Saturday, the 29-year-old Jason will attempt to entrench himself even deeper as a featherweight to be watched when he meets a TUF Smashes competitor from the UK, Mike Wilkinson.
“Mike Wilkinson is a stone in my way,” said Jason. “I try to see it as a next step to go further on my way to the belt. He starts slow but accelerates through the fight, he has heart, and he likes to fight. I'll try to break it from him and the fight will start as soon as the referee announces it. He stays calm at the start but I'll bring the fight from the get go and expect to surprise him there. The difficulty lies in this different way he fights. With more clinches, it makes you expend more energy, and with his heart, it grows each round and not many fighters do that.”
Just two fights into his UFC career, Jason has the confidence, but not cockiness, of a young man who has seen a lot and figured out even more in his first year in the UFC. Ask him if it’s been all he expected it to be, and he laughs.
“I think I expected less. Being a UFC fighter and winner of the first TUF in Brazil gave me much more than I expected. To this day I get astonished when someone asks me for a picture or autograph. I think it's a joke; I didn't imagine it would be so much.”
He’s handled it well though, which wasn’t exactly the case when he made his Octagon debut in the TUF Brazil final against Godofredo Pepey in June of 2012. But on the night of the fight, his coach reminded him why he was fighting and why he had bounced back from a rough 5-3 start to reel off five straight wins on the lead-up to TUF.
“I was able to relax more,” Jason said of his recent success. “Although fighting is very serious and it's my job, sometimes when you take it very seriously you end up forgetting why you started training. I started training because I loved the sport, although I think of it as a martial art, and back then (when he was 5-3) I started forgetting why I had began. I was kind of neurotic that I could never lose a practice, that I had to go with lucky underwear to the fight, and things like that. Now I got rid of that. There are guys that if they don't come out with their song they don't perform well, and that's not normal. You aren't hearing your song before every practice and you do it well. But it's funny, when they told me to take off the Jason mask before my TUF final fight I thought about not fighting. My coach Everaldo Penco told me that Jason was inside of me, not on the mask and I carry it to this day. When I was younger I used to want a lot from myself and the defeats were always more hurtful. We come to win, but winning or losing is a consequence of the fight; it doesn’t mean that whoever loses is worse than the guy who won. If my best is enough to win the fight it will work out; if not, congratulations to the other guy.”
Now unbeaten in his last eight bouts, Jason has the mental game down pat, his physical game is growing with each fight, and with a year in the UFC under his belt he has seen his life change significantly.
“The recognition of my job and myself improved a lot,” he said. “My financial situation and my training as well, so I perform better. Everything is changing for the best and I'm able now to help my family a little bit.”
All that’s left is winning, but Jason isn’t content with just that. He's stubborn that way.
“I’m a more focused guy, a guy who's going after the belt.”