LAS VEGAS — Jan Blachowicz knew he needed to change things in his approach after he lost the UFC’s light heavyweight title to Glover Teixeira last year. The joy was gone from the game for Blachowicz and he knew that at 39 years old, he’d have to find it quickly.
Blachowicz on Saturday looked like the guy who had won five in a row and nine of 10 before losing his title at UFC 267 to Teixeira on Oct. 30.
He stopped Aleksandar Rakic in the third, but it’s a win that will live with an asterisk. Blachowicz threw a kick and a left hand at Rakic. As Rakic was moving away, his right knee collapsed and he went down.
Referee Mark Smith immediately stopped the bout at 1:11 of the third round at Apex and gave Blachowicz an absolutely critical win. He dreams of regaining the title and is now positioned to face the winner of the Teixeira-Jiri Prochazka bout, which is June 11 in Singapore.
A UFC spokeswoman said Rakic would undergo an MRI on Monday to check for MCL and LCL damage.
It was a disappointing ending to what was shaping up as a fantastic bout. The first round, in particular, was a spirited and back-and-forth affair that showcased the skills of both men.
“Of course [it is disappointing to win via an injury],” Blachowicz said. “I’m a fighter and a warrior and it’s better when you win by KO or a clean submission. My body was tougher tonight. I was ready for three, four, five hard rounds.”
Blachowicz was kicking hard at Rakic’s legs, trying to chop them down and take his power away from him. Rakic is one of the UFC’s best strikers and he moves forward slowly. Given the quality of Rakic’s chin, he can eat punches that allow him to set up his own.
So Blachowicz’s strategy to attack the legs was sound. And while it’s impossible to say whether the kicks led directly to Rakic’s injury — “That’s a question for him,” Blachowicz said — it certainly didn’t hurt.
More than anything, though, Blachowicz got the fire back in his game that, for some reason, wasn’t there at UFC 267 when he lost his title to Teixeira. There were a couple of dozen Polish fans in the building and they were making a lot of noise cheering on Blachowicz.
He gave them plenty to cheer about, as well. He caught Rakic with a combination with just over two minutes left in the first round, and followed up with a big hook a minute later.
Rakic, though, wasn’t a punching bag and was scoring on his own. He hit Blachowicz in the left eye early in the first that opened a cut around it. It didn’t really impede Blachowicz too much.
Both guys had the pedal to the floor and were going hard, clearly not eager to go five rounds. And that was a good test for Blachowicz, whose work with a sports psychologist clearly paid off.
He looked energized walking to the Octagon and he fought as if another shot at the world title was riding on his performance. Against an elite opponent who had been walking through many of his previous opponents, Blachowicz not only gave as good as he got, but his body language suggested there was no place else he’d rather be.
And as he showed in his 9-1 streak before the Teixeira fight, a focused and prepared Blachowicz is as dangerous as anyone.
“I’m milking this answer, but this fight gave me the answer that I wanted,” Blachowicz said. “I feel the way I felt before Glover, when I fought against Israel [Adesanya] and Dominick Reyes. I’m just happy. I go there inside the Octagon with a job to do and put on a great fight, but also to have fun. And I had it. I enjoyed it.”
He’ll likely enjoy what’s next, particularly if the 42-year-old champion can defeat the highly regarded Prochazka in Singapore next month. Before the fight, Teixeira tweeted that he’d give Blachowicz a rematch if they’d both won.
Those were the words that Blachowicz most wanted to hear.
“I hope the UFC gives me another title shot,” he said. “I was No. 1. Rakic was No. 3. For me, it’s a no brainer. I’m the No. 1 contender now.”
He certainly fought like it on Saturday.