If you had your eyes on nearly every Pride FC event since April of 2002, you’ll see the same tough guy in Mirko Cro Cop’s corner – current UFC light heavyweight Igor Pokrajac.
And though Pokrajac never fought in the premier Japanese organization, the 31-year old Croatian now has the chance to make a name for himself on the sport’s biggest stage in the UFC, and after two hard-fought losses to Vladimir Matyushenko and James Te Huna, he will put everything on the line this Sunday against James ‘The Sandman’ Irvin.
So who is this mystery man? Read on to find out.
How did your history with traditional martial arts begin?
I started martial arts in 1999, training Greco-Roman wrestling, and I made the Croatian National team. In 2001 I joined Cro Cop Team and began training MMA for the next eight years. In 2009 I joined the Croatian Top Team.
Why did you decide to become a MMA fighter?
In 1995, I had my first contact with MMA watching a VHS tape of UFC 1. I was overwhelmed and excited by it and wanted to do it, but I didn't have the opportunity until 2001.
Soon after your MMA debut, you took part in a tournament in 2003. What can you tell us about fighting three times on the same night?
I was an outsider and an underdog not expected to win. It was only my second time fighting and I was facing very experienced opponents. But I had good conditioning, was prepared for the fights, and I had confidence in myself. I won all three matches by TKO.
A tournament is tough in that you have to learn to deal with injuries so you are able to continue to the next match. On the night I injured my ankle in the first fight and elbow in the second fight. I had to deal with it before the final.
From your debut to 2006, you kept yourself very active on the European scene, fighting 14 times. But even though you were a Cro Cop Team fighter and Mirko was a success in Japan, why did you never appear in Pride FC?
I wanted to fight and was ready to fight, but I didn't have the opportunity.
It seems that you got more publicity after your defeat to Pride and UFC veteran Assuerio Silva in 2006. That fight consisted of Silva refusing to trade blows with you while taking you down. A lot of people said that basically the only reason you lost was because he decided to strictly fight on the ground.
I knocked him down with a right cross and didn't use the opportunity to finish him. He outweighed me by 55 pounds at the time and had good control on the ground. My goal was to stand up with him.
You had a superb eight
fight winning streak before signing with the UFC. In your first UFC fight you
lost a decision to Vladimir Matyushenko. Did you feel the first-time UFC
My right ankle was injured three weeks before the fight. The last weeks of preparation I was only punching and could only punch in the fight too.
So that was the reason we didn’t see many of your haymaker leg kicks against Vladdy?
Yes, plus I just didn’t capitalize on the chance when I got him with left hook. Also, many of his jabs landed on my head because I didn’t move properly, thanks to the problem with my right ankle.
Did you make any new adjustments from that defeat to you meeting James Te Huna at UFC 110?
For that fight I had 12 weeks of preparation, 9 weeks in Croatia and 3 weeks in Australia. I trained in striking, wrestling, and grappling and did a lot of conditioning, including running and weights.
You were very well trained and without injuries for the Australian UFC, but lost via TKO at 3:26 of third stanza. What happened that night?
Referee (Steve) Percival came to me before the fight and explained the rules that we all know and told me that if I get in some position where he’d stop the fight, but I was okay, just give the thumbs up and he’d let the fight go... as soon I did that (at 3:24) in the fight he stopped it and gave the fight to Te Huna by TKO. For me that was a big lesson. I could smell Te Huna’s fear. I was waiting for them to stop the fight on the end of the second round (when he rocked Te Huna with 17 seconds to go) and then it would be a TKO (victory).
Two defeats in two UFC
fights; do you have any extra pressure before facing James Irvin?
I don't think of my losses as a problem or obstacle but rather a learning experience. Now everybody knows what happened against Te Huna and against Vladdy - this was timing, and that type of stuff won’t happen again. For me every fight is like that...I’ll be better than the last time.
For the fans that haven’t seen your fights yet, what should they expect from your fight with Irvin this weekend?
I gave two great fights. I don’t see anything different than that in my next fight, only a better one than last time. I’ll go after him and the final message is to come to the UFC in San Diego and have a blast with all of us.