LAS VEGAS – Aleksandar Rakic has been in the lab working on his game for more than one year since he’s last appeared in the octagon.
The break hasn’t been ideal for Rakic (14-2 MMA, 6-1 UFC), he said, but it’s allowed him significant time to hone his skill set for the biggest fight of his career, which comes Saturday when he takes on former champion Jan Blachowicz (28-9 MMA, 11-6 UFC) in the UFC on ESPN 36 main event.
“It’s a 14-month layoff for me, but I’ve been really working hard this last 14 months,” Rakic told MMA Junkie and other reporters at Wednesday’s media day. “Really. I’ve been improving all my skills and I got one year older, that means I’m one year smarter. Can’t wait. I’m so excited for the fight. Believe it or not, I’m enjoying the weight cut. It’s 14 months I didn’t fight.”
Rakic and Blachowicz were originally scheduled to fight in March, but then Blachowicz suffered a neck injury that left him temporarily paralyzed. He’s seemingly made a full recovery, though, and the five-round matchup with Rakic will now come to fruition at the UFC Apex. The card airs on ESPN2 and streams on ESPN+.
After losing the 205-pound strap to Glover Teixeira at UFC 267 in October, Blachowicz has made no secrets about his hunger to climb back up the mountain and regain the belt. Rakic said that won’t be happening at his expense.
“It’s really a weird injury, but he managed to heal very fast,” Rakic said. “I’m expecting the best version of Jan Blachowicz, because especially after his last performance because it was not good. He lost the belt and he’s going to come Saturday night to the octagon and he’s going to be motivated and focused and he wants the belt back. But there’s one problem, and that’s me.”
Rakic, 30, said he understand the stakes around this fight. With Teixeira set to put his title on the line against Jiri Prochazka next month at UFC 275, there’s a massive opportunity for Saturday’s headliners to make a statement for the next championship opportunity.
The importance of this moment isn’t lost on Rakic, who is No. 9 in the latest USA TODAY Sports/MMA Junkie light heavyweight rankings, he said, and he expects his performance against No. 2-ranked Blachowicz to be a glimpse into the future of the division.
“This is the biggest fight of my life fighting a former champ,” Rakic said. “I beat him on Saturday, the No. 1 contender – there’s no doubts that I’m going to fight for a title next. Absolutely, for me in my position, it feels like it’s a title eliminator fight. For him, I really don’t know. But I see it as a title eliminator fight.
“I’m going to put him away on Saturday, and then I’m going to fight for the title. And I’m going to stay in the top for a while, and I’m going to be the champion for a while.”
As far as who he envisions himself challenging for the title against, Rakic said he hopes Teixeira is able to defend the strap. The Brazilian is 42 years old and only has a finite number of fights left in his career. Rakic said he would be honored to be one of those opponents, but he said it’s no guarantee Prochazka won’t win the fight.
“I see this fight as a 50/50 chance,” Rakic said. “Because if Glover can withstand the pressure of Jiri early in the fight, if he can withstand the pressure in the first round or beginning in the second, then he’ll drag Jiri to deep waters and probably get the TKO or submission or take him a decision.”