Midway through last month, Augusto Sakai reached a milestone birthday, but because he was preparing to step into the Octagon opposite Jairzinho Rozenstruik this weekend in Las Vegas, the celebrations were a little more muted than they might have been otherwise.
“It’s just another year for me,” the Brazilian heavyweight said through a translator of turning 30, which he would have celebrated with family, friends and a lot of barbecue if he didn’t have plans lined up for this weekend.
“I really love barbecue,” he added, echoing a sentiment shared by many.
This weekend’s matchup with Rozenstruik not only marks the start of Sakai’s 2021 campaign, but it also feels like the start of a new chapter in his professional career, as well.
After joining the UFC roster following a second-round stoppage victory during the all-Brazilian iteration of Dana White’s Contender Series in the summer of 2018, Sakai rattled off four consecutive victories to climb into the Top 10 and establish himself as an intriguing new addition to the heavyweight mix.
Alternating between stoppage victories and narrow split decision triumphs, the athletic talent from Curitiba flashed power, grittiness, and plenty of untapped potential heading into a main event showdown with Alistair Overeem last September in Las Vegas.
He had success in the early rounds, landing good shots inside the clinch and along the fence against the Dutch kickboxer and working at a more consistent, effective clip than Overeem through the first two-and-a-half rounds. But as the third frame wound down and the fight hit the championship rounds, Overeem’s investment in attacking with body shots hastened the emptying of Sakai’s gas tank, and an ability to bring the fight to the canvas changed the dynamic of the contest.
Just as it seemed like Sakai would go up three rounds on the scorecards, the veteran contender put him on the deck and busted him up with hammerfists. After Sakai started well in the fourth and opened a gash on Overeem’s forehead, the Dutchman brought the fight back to the ground, attacking the cuts he’d previously created on the Brazilian’s face, turning up the pace and intensity as Sakai ventured into deep waters for the first time in his career.
The bout was stopped just 26 seconds into the final frame, Sakai’s six-fight winning streak evaporating under Overeem’s top pressure and punishing ground-and-pound.
“I got a lot of experience from that fight,” said Sakai, reflecting on his first UFC setback. “It was my first main event, first five-round fight. I learned that I really had to improve as a fighter to get where I want, so I trained a lot to get better on my strengths, but also to improve where I wasn't good enough.
“It was very important for me,” he added in regard to the fight with Overeem and the subsequent time he’s spent in the gym. “I knew I had to improve a lot and I'm a really better athlete now.”
That contest, though it didn’t go his way, felt in the moment like one of the signposts we’ll look back on a couple years down the line where we all should have known Sakai was capable of being a legitimate contender and championship threat in the heavyweight division.
Though he ultimately got stopped, there were plenty of positive moments for the Brazilian — pieces that you could see translating to greater success down the road — and the deficiencies that led to his defeat were all things that can be corrected through coaching, repetition, and gaining further experience against high-level competition.
In many ways, his fight with Overeem serves as a microcosm for Sakai’s UFC career to date.
“I'm very happy for being here and I'm living my dreams,” the Brazilian said of his three-year run on the UFC roster ahead of his return to work this weekend. “I have been able to build a lot inside the UFC, but I want much more and I'm hungry to get even further.”
Saturday’s pairing with Rozenstruik is a chance to show that he’s learned from the Overeem encounter and is ready to take the next step forward in his career.
Like Sakai, the combat sports veteran from Suriname enters their main event engagement off a disappointing result, having dropped a unanimous decision to Ciryl Gane back in December. Entrenched in the Top 10, yet facing similar questions about his standing as a contender, “Bigi Boy” will also be looking to make a statement and get things back on track.
But Sakai is confident he can take care of business this weekend.
“I really need to impose my game plan,” began the motorsports enthusiast who frequently spends time away from the gym driving motorcycles and stock cars, offering his keys to victory against Rozenstruik. “I'm better in the MMA game, more well rounded, and I know I will be able to find the openings in his game and get this win.”
Despite suffering his first setback inside the Octagon last time out, the even-keeled Brazilian is pleased with the overall shape of his UFC career thus far, understanding that a 500-mile race isn’t won on the first lap, and that you can only reach the top of the podium when everything is in place to produce a victory.
“I think I have improved in everything in my MMA game, but I really think I have got a better mind,” said Sakai, taking a wide-angle view of his first five fights under the UFC banner and where he’s at just a few short days ahead of his sixth appearance inside the Octagon. “I feel I'm more experienced and smarter now.”
Wisdom and experience are two crucial elements to success that can only be found by putting in work in the gym and venturing into the cage to test yourself against the best the division has to offer.
They’re gained through wins and losses, trial and error, and making sacrifices, like passing up on a barbecue feast on your 30th birthday because you’ve got more important dates circled on your calendar.
“It would be just perfect,” Sakai said with a smile when asked how sweet of a belated birthday present a victory over Rozenstruik on Saturday would be.
First comes victory, and then comes the churrascaria; sounds like a pretty nice little Saturday night.