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Rizzo wants to show there's gas left in the tank

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Pedro Rizzo is nearly 11 years younger than Randy Couture, the UFC heavyweight champion. And he's a year-and-a-half younger than Jeff Monson, against whom he'll defend the International Fighters Association heavyweight title Saturday on the Art of War 3 card at American Airlines Arena in Dallas.

But Rizzo is trying to shake a reputation that he's old and over the hill as a mixed martial artist, a tag which has followed him for at least four years.

"I started in this business so young, which is why people think I'm old now," the 33-year old Rizzo said.

"But I've got a lot of great fights left in me. I'm healthy now and that was really the biggest issue with me. My best is yet to come."

Rizzo was once one of the most feared strikers in MMA and has wins over some of the sport’s greatest heavyweights to prove it.

He's defeated Josh Barnett, Andrei Arlovski, Mark Coleman, Ricco Rodriguez and UFC Hall of Famer Dan Severn.

Rizzo, though, hasn't had an easy time of it since his back-to-back fights with Couture in 2001. He lost the first, at UFC 31, by unanimous decision, and then was stopped in the return fight six months later at UFC 34.

He's just 4-4 since, and 1-2 in his last three fights, which UFC president Dana White believes is a direct result of the beating he took from Couture.

"Randy just destroyed the guy and he hasn't been the same since," White said. "After their first fight, everybody hollered and screamed and wanted to see it again, so I put them together in the next fight and Randy just beat the (expletive) out of him. Rizzo was a tough, tough guy before that, but he's not been the same."

That may be pushing the point, given that he stopped Arlovski just five months after the second loss to Couture, but Rizzo concedes he learned a lot from the champ.

Rizzo, however, says it was a knee injury and a contract problem with the UFC that essentially led him to disappear from the MMA scene.

After a win over Rodriguez at UFC 45, Rizzo sat out 19 months, missing all of 2004, before returning to fight in the Pride Fighting Championship on June 26, 2005.

But Rizzo went 0-2 in those Pride fights, losing to Sergei Kharitonov and Roman Zentsov on strikes in back-to-back fights.

He was suffering from a left knee injury which he had repaired with arthroscopic surgery. That kept him out of MMA competition for more than a year and is responsible, he said, for his lack of visibility.

He returned to win the IFA title by defeating Justin Eilers in March, but knows a win over a respected veteran like Monson will really signal his return to the highest level.

"There are no excuses now," Rizzo said. "I am healthy and I've trained very well for this fight. I don't want to be judged by fights I took when I wasn't fully (healthy). But I took care of that and I think you'll see I look a lot different now. I'm like the old Pedro Rizzo."

He looks like the old Rizzo even though he's still a young Rizzo. At 33, he's around the same age as, or younger than, most of the world's best heavyweights.

He's anxious to prove he's one of them against Monson, a superb grappler who will try to get the fight to the ground.

Rizzo is a powerful striker, but said he's comfortable on the ground. He has a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and can handle himself in a grappling match, though that's not how he wants to fight Monson.

Monson is a former Abu Dhabi champion and would relish the thought that Rizzo might roll with him.

"I know Jeff Monson is a very good grappler and I'm not saying I could win a (ground fight) with him," Rizzo said. "But this is mixed martial arts and you have to be able to fight wherever it goes. I've worked a lot on the ground and if I have to do it, I'm OK there."

More than anything on Saturday, Rizzo hopes to use his performance against Monson as proof that he is back and prepared to fight at the highest level of the heavyweight division.

He's about a 7-5 underdog, but believes he'll change that perception with a strong performance against Monson.

"Because I was 19 when I started, I think people don't realize that and they think I'm old and done," Rizzo said. "But there is a lot of fight still in me. I have to prove it and not just talk about it, because that's the only way it means anything. So I just have to go out and show everybody I'm still here."