Poised to kick off his fourth year on the UFC roster this weekend in Las Vegas, Rogerio Bontorin is eager to take the lessons he’s learned from his first three years competing inside the Octagon and synthesize them into strategies that help him chase down his dreams in the years to come.
“It's been a very important experience for me,” Bontorin said of his initial five appearances inside the UFC cage ahead of his clash with Brandon Royval on Saturday. “I think the biggest challenge is to keep working and evolving as an athlete.
“The elite fighters are always getting better and better, and we always need to be mentally prepared to keep evolving.”
Getting an early start to his 2022 campaign and doing so against a Top 5 opponent like Royval is a grand opportunity for the 29-year-old Brazilian, and a chance to put a year filled with frustrations and disappointments behind him.
After competing only once in 2020 due to a summer ankle injury, the Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt kicked off his 2021 schedule with a Top 10 pairing opposite Kai Kara-France at UFC 259.
For the majority of the first round, Bontorin controlled the action, taking the City Kickboxing representative’s back and searching for a fight-ending choke, only to get shaken off in the final 30 seconds of the opening stanza. As both men clambered to their feet, Kara-France connected, stunning Bontorin with the first of three consecutive right hands that eventually put him down and brought the fight to a sudden halt.
Eager to get the sour taste from his loss to Kara-France out of his mouth as quickly as possible, Bontorin raised his hand to fill in for Alex Perez in a bantamweight pairing with Matt Schnell two months later at UFC 262, but failed to make weight. He’d win the main card scrap by unanimous decision, only to see it overturned to a no contest after two supplements he was taking were found to contain a banned diuretic that was not listed on amongst the ingredients, prompting a three-month suspension.
Now, after a challenging year, he’s ready to return and start making positive strides in the competitive flyweight division.
“I think every fight is the most important fight of an MMA fighter’s career, so every win is so important, and last time it wasn't different,” began Bontorin, who carries a 16-3 record with two no contests into his clash with Royval. “I'm working very hard on my game, training a lot in all areas.
“I know my potential, but in order to get the consistency needed to be a real contender at 125 pounds I need to avoid making mistakes, and that's my focus right now.”
This weekend’s contest is a chance to take a major step towards accomplishing that goal right out of the gate, as Royval enters the matchup stationed at No. 5 in the flyweight rankings, two spots ahead of Bontorin, but arrives on a two-fight slide.
After beginning his rookie year in 2020 with submission wins over Tim Elliott and Kara-France, the 29-year-old Colorado native suffered a shoulder injury late in the first round of his fight with current champ Brandon Moreno, who took full advantage and pounded out a finish. When Royval returned to competition last August, he was swarmed and submitted by top contender Alexandre Pantoja, whose performance could potentially serve as a blueprint Bontorin looks to follow when he steps in with Royval on Saturday.
“I want to have a great 2022,” began Bontorin, eager to start working towards accomplishing that goal and establish himself as a legitimate title threat in the 125-pound weight class. “The key is winning this fight and continuing to get even better in order to fight against the Top 5 fighters.
“After winning against Brandon Royval, I want to get someone else in the Top 5 and fight for the belt by the end of the year,” he added, stating his ambitions clearly. “But I won't call anyone out; I'll take anyone UFC puts in front of me.”
While challenging for championship gold is the aim of every fighter that crosses the threshold into the Octagon, the path for the Brazilian to achieve that goal in the year ahead isn’t that difficult to see.
He’s already entrenched in the Top 10, with a chance to earn a victory over a Top 5 opponent this weekend. Should he be successful, a date with one of the few fighters positioned ahead of him in the hierarchy — fighters like Pantoja, Alex Perez, or perhaps even whomever comes out on the wrong side of the results in next weekend’s championship trilogy fight between Moreno and Deiveson Figueiredo at UFC 270 — towards the middle of the year would make sense.
With another victory there, Bontorin would be on the doorstep of making his championship dreams come true.
But the only way for him to start down that road is by handling his business this weekend against Royval.
“When Brandon makes a mistake, I'll capitalize on that,” he said when asked how he gets his hand raised this weekend. “I don't know how this fight will play out, but I'll be ready wherever it goes, in all areas.”