UFC 303: No one believes more than Jiří Procházka

If you want to see what it looks like to truly believe, go back and watch Jiří Procházka’s face during his fight with Aleksandr Rakic at UFC 300.

Watch closely as he walks to the center of the cage, circling with his hands low and his topknot high. Keep watching as he swings and misses, as he takes leg kicks and eats a right cross. He keeps coming forward that whole first round and very little of that plan seems to be working for him. By the time he returns to his corner he will have lost the first round on every scorecard. He’ll have landed just 16 strikes to Rakic’s 38.

He will also still wear the exact same expression that he started with, no hint of a change, not even the faintest glimmer of worry wrinkling its way above his prodigious beard. For all eight minutes and 17 seconds of the fight, he fought like it never even occurred to him that he could lose.

Looking back now, he sees his approach in that first round as perhaps a little bit “unprofessional.”

“I let Aleksandr hit me too much,” Procházka told Yahoo Sports this week. “I let him leave his damage, trying to make him work. But sometimes I'm working like that because I need to target my opponent really well. And sometimes I don't care about these small damages because I believe when I find the target and when I catch him, that's my game then.”

He was right, of course. In the second round he finally found Rakic with his right hand. The storm of punches that followed would earn Procházka a TKO victory, which set the stage for Saturday night’s light heavyweight title rematch against champ Alex Pereira at UFC 303 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

But you don’t need to be an MMA expert to know that this outcome was not preordained. Getting clipped that many times in the first round as you hunt for the perfect shot? That’s a strategy that can easily backfire. Yet everything about Procházka in that fight exuded total faith. Not hope, mind you. That’s what a lot of fighters have, thinly disguised as belief. As much as they might tell themselves their plans will work and victory will be theirs, you can see that faint hint of concern that maybe it won’t.

You don’t see any of that with Procházka. Not ever. Not even in fights that he does lose, like his first meeting with Pereira last year. Right up until it’s over, this is clearly a man who believes. It’s the kind of thing you can’t fake, at least not long. All of which makes you wonder, where does that come from?

A lot has been made of Procházka's whole samurai deal and not always in a complementary fashion. Rakic, for instance, spent a portion of the lead up to their fight poking fun at the fact that a guy born in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1992 would walk around like he thought he was in feudal Japan with a katana at his waist.

But this was not a new thing for Procházka. During the years he spent fighting in Japan’s Rizin organization, his pre-fight focus techniques often caught others off-guard. As Rizin matchmaker Shingo Kashiwagi told ESPN in 2022, “I think Jiri was more Japanese than many of us over here in Japan.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 13: Jiri Prochazka of the Czech Republic enters the Octagon in a light heavyweight fight during the UFC 300 event at T-Mobile Arena on April 13, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jiří Procházka (30-4-1, 26 KOs) will get a chance to avenge his only loss in the UFC on Saturday at UFC 303 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

What Rakic and others failed to realize, Procházka said, is that his whole samurai thing isn’t necessarily meant to be taken literally. It’s not even meant for anyone else to notice or feel any sort of way about.

“These are principles I use in my fighting style, but also in my life,” Procházka told Yahoo Sports this week. “When I started to live this way, I saw the meaning in fighting. I started to see the meaning in the daily things. Why do that? Why do this? How I can be better? How I can make improvements in my life and how I want to live? And then I start to realize this is my, not destiny, but this is my way.”

When you think about it, it’s really not so different from a person deciding to live by an ancient religious text or the writings of philosophers who’ve been dead for hundreds of years. If you decide to adopt the worldview laid out by Marcus Aurelius, no one accuses you of cosplaying as a Roman emperor.

As Procházka is quick to point out, everybody needs something. A source of true inspiration, whatever time and place it comes from, can be a powerful thing. And as famed MMA coach Greg Jackson said about all the ways fighters self-mythologize, “Most of what we tell ourselves about who we are and where we come from is bulls*** anyway, so you might as well tell yourself the bulls*** that’s going to help.”

Procházka's belief has gotten him this far. It helped him pull off an improbable submission win over Glover Teixeira to claim the UFC light heavyweight title in 2022, only to then relinquish it after being sidelined by a shoulder injury. It also helped him beat Rakic to rebound from that loss to Pereira.

But if there’s one downside to having such unshakeable faith in yourself, it could be that it makes it harder to fully appreciate the dangers that are right in front of you. In that first fight with Pereira, maybe Procházka played too much into his opponent’s hands. While analyzing the fight for the UFC’s “Countdown” show ahead of this rematch, Pereira noted that Procházka's success in the first round made him predictably aggressive in the second frame, opening up the opportunity for counters.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 11: Jiri Prochazka of the Czech Republic punches Alex Pereira of Brazil in the UFC light heavyweight championship fight during the UFC 295 event at Madison Square Garden on November 11, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Alex Pereira ended Jiří Procházka's quest to regain the UFC light heavyweight title with a second-round TKO at UFC 295 in November. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

“I think he spent a little more gas there than I did,” Pereira said. “When it went to the second round, he saw that it would be a very tough fight. … In the second round, I knew he’d be more aggressive because he pushed harder than me. In that last moment there when he was hunting, I think he panicked a bit and wanted to try to finish the fight there.”

That was all the opening Pereira needed. A straight right hand counter and the follow up left hook wobbled Procházka, and the follow up elbows while defending the takedown dropped him for the finish. In the end, maybe it was the overeager attack, with perhaps too little concern for what might be coming back at him, that proved to be Procházka's undoing.

This time Procházka very much knows what he’s up against, he said. He also understands what it took to get here in the first place. If the second fight with Pereira doesn’t turn out differently, he also has to know he’ll have a hard time convincing the UFC to give him a third.

“I sacrificed everything in the past 10, 15 years to achieve this, to be the best,” Procházka said. “Right now, I’m able to show that. … We are meeting again, but for me this is a new fight. I’m a new person. Alex is a new person. And Saturday I will show that I’m able to be a champion.”