Jairzinho Rozenstruik Plots His Path to Redemption at UFC 252

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterAugust 12, 2020

Jairzinho Rozenstruik
Jairzinho RozenstruikGregory Payan/Associated Press

The fight was over in 20 seconds. But his career? Far from it.

When last we left Jairzinho Rozenstruik, he had just sustained his first loss in an MMA cage.

Back in May, and with Bruce Buffer barely out of the way, the heavyweight knockout artist fell hard under a damaging—as in audibly damaging—barrage from Francis Ngannou on the main card of UFC 249.

Consider the fact that Rozenstruik rather ambitiously picked the fight with Ngannou and, well, the flash demolition came with a side of crow, adding insult to injury.

But if you thought Rozenstruik was destined to fall back to the pack, think again. The 32-year-old Surinamese American is still 10-1 in MMA, with all but one of those wins coming by knockout. People like that kind of stuff. And this is before you think about kickboxing, where Rozenstruik notched a record of 76-8-1 before heading for the cage.

Rozenstruik after being knocked out by Francis Ngannou.
Rozenstruik after being knocked out by Francis Ngannou.John Raoux/Associated Press

This Saturday at UFC 252, Rozenstruik will return to the cage seeking redemption when he faces ex-champ Junior dos Santos (21-7), a beloved but fading heavyweight fighting under the shadow of two consecutive knockout losses. Rozenstruik is a thin -140 favorite to notch the victory.

You have to think, despite his loss to Ngannou, a win would get him right back in the thick of things.

"I think calling out [Ngannou] was to challenge myself," Rozenstruik said in an exclusive interview. "I don't think it's a bad thing. I'm glad I got to share the Octagon with him, even if it didn't go my way. ... It's a fight. You know with both [Ngannou and Dos Santos] it's going to be a 50/50 fight. That's why you're doing it."

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So why wouldn't the loss send Rozenstruik reeling down the rankings? After all, he still sits a not-too-shabby sixth on the official UFC tally

A big reason is the thinness in—and the public's perpetually insatiable hunger for—the heavyweight division. I don't know who Cyril Gane is, but he's in the rankings, too. Another component is Rozenstruik's record, which was previously spotless, including four wins, all knockouts, under the UFC banner. Another is those tantalizing beatings of his, most recently that dramatic last-second finish of Alistair Overeem last December. Say what you want about Rozenstruik's performance up to that moment (he was losing, in other words), but when that Hail Mary right hand literally tore Overeem's face open, you know it made the right impression with all the right people.

Rozenstruik (right) hits Alistair Overeem
Rozenstruik (right) hits Alistair OvereemGregory Payan/Associated Press

And finally, there's Rozenstruik himself. The only UFC fighter to hail from the small South American nation of Suriname and is candid and affable in interviews.

Put it all together, and Saturday's glamorous pay-per-view slot with Dos Santos suddenly doesn't seem like such a stretch. It certainly sounds right to Rozenstruik.

Now he just needs to capitalize, and that means redeeming himself on the national stage.

"My dream is on hold," he said, "but it's still alive. The last fight just didn't go my way. It was a good opportunity, and now I'm back with another fight and I'm working hard to make a statement."

One might think there isn't much a fighter can learn from 20 seconds, but Rozenstruik said he and his coaches at Florida's vaunted American Top Team camp were able to glean plenty from the footage with Ngannou, who is one of a precious few on the UFC roster who might hit harder than Rozenstruik.

"The fight was short but I still learned," he said. "There were so many things I could have been doing better. I need to be more relaxed; don't attack right away. Make more room and more space. One of the things that we think about is just get in the fight. Don't look for the KO right away. Be patient and don't rush."

Preparing for a longer fight, rather than banking on a quick stoppage, also changed Rozenstruik's training camp.

"I've been fighting my whole life, with kickboxing and now with MMA," he said. "So it's all there. Everybody can KO someone, but not everyone can win a fight with a good gas tank, with pushing forward the right way. I have a bigger gas tank now."

Junior dos Santos
Junior dos SantosGregory Payan/Associated Press

At one point, Dos Santos had one of the most dangerous boxing games in MMA, and the veteran still has plenty between the ears. He's a slight underdog at Caesars Palace and certainly on a skid, but the 36-year-old's game remains potent. Rozenstruik is viewing Dos Santos as the big-name opportunity that he is. A win over the former champion arguably could be more impressive to a casual audience than a win over Ngannou, even though the latter is the substantially tougher proposition here in 2020.

"Junior dos Santos is still dangerous," he said. "He has a lot of thinking, a lot of skills. I know he knows the game. I'm a younger guy and I can learn a lot."

Rozenstruik pledged to be new and improved Saturday, but he also views it as a return to form and to action—and, with luck, one of many happy returns from there as he looks to compete to help repopulate the upper reaches of the heavyweight rankings.

"You have to fight to learn and to grow," Rozenstruik said. "I want to be busy. If I'm not fighting, I'm not growing."