To begin his 20-minute session with reporters Wednesday, Jiri Prochazka made sure to express his gratitude for the opportunity to main event UFC 295 at Madison Square Garden this weekend, “especially after [a] long, tough year.”
Nearly 12 full months have passed since Prochazka, then the UFC light heavyweight champion, suffered what UFC president Dana White had described on the “Chattin Pony with Paddy The Baddy” podcast as “the worst shoulder injury the doctors have seen in UFC history.”
Hyperbole or not, the injury and rehab from it are in the past now. In his immediate future Saturday (10 p.m., ESPN+ pay-per-view) is a chance to reclaim the belt he vacated a year ago against Alex Pereira.
Though Jamahal Hill had won the vacant title in January, he suffered a ruptured Achilles and gave it up, paving the way for Prochazka and Pereira to vie for the vacant 205-pound crown.
“I just respect that everything has to go on,” Prochazka said of willingly vacating the title. “I realized that I’m not afraid that when I put the belt out to other guys that I will not win that again after my full recovery. That’s my belief, that I will take the belt again.”
Prochazka (29-3-1, 28 finishes), whose outlook on life is heavily influenced by 17th century Japanese philosopher Miyamoto Musashi’s “The Book of the Five Rings,” admitted his journey through adversity back to competition was challenging at times. But, he says, the way of the world.
“Life is about learning to push your limits, attack them, be better, and that’s [what it’s] all about.” he says. “And that, for me, was the big challenge, like every day. I really enjoyed that. Sometimes, it was really tough, but that’s life.”
Though neither man will enter as the UFC’s official champion, Prochazka carries the unofficial distinction of No. 1 light heavyweight. After all, no man has beaten him since he claimed the title from Glover Teixeira — Pereira’s now-retired coach — in what was widely regarded as the fight of the year in 2022.
Prochazka still keeps his belt from that fight in his room, and he would like to remind the world he is the best.
“I still see myself like a champion,” Prochazka said. “I need to remind all people that I really am.”
Like himself, Prochazka’s opponent Pereira (7-2, six finishes) is a former champion. The key difference: The Brazilian was a former two-division champion kickboxer before crossing over full time to MMA and signing with the UFC. He won the middleweight title last year at the Garden, defeating rival Israel Adesanya before losing it in their April rematch.
The hulking Pereira moved up 20 pounds to light heavyweight with a July victory over ex-champ Jan Blachowicz, setting up this fight in the wake of Hill’s Achilles injury. Saturday’s winner figures to face Hill next, health and timing permitting.
Prochazka seems to think Pereira offers a stiffer challenge than Hill would have.
“I think Pereira’s style in standup is much sharper than Jamahal Hill’s style,” Prochazka said. “That’s my opinion.”
Prochazka is not the type to call-out opponents. He’s just happy to face top fighters because their “performance pushes my performance.”
Pereira doesn’t engage much in that, either. But he’s known to step up his intensity when in the presence of potential future opponents, as was on display in the cage when Teixeira lost to Hill for the vacant title. Pereira, at the time still the middleweight champion, could be seen with eyes locked on Hill.
Prochazka experienced that as well, relaying an anecdote that made him think he just might have a future date with Pereira.
“When he saw him last July in Vegas, after our fight with Glover, I was there that week, for fight week,” Prochazka recalled. “I saw [Pereira], and he was still watching me like some enemy. After that, I said to myself, yeah, this was extraordinary, and maybe in the future he can be my opponent.”
Here are The Post’s picks to win Saturday during UFC 295 at Madison Square Garden.
Jiri Prochazka vs. Alex Pereira (light heavyweight title)
Former champion Prochazka, back from 17 months off and a nasty shoulder injury, brings chaos whenever he enters the cage. Pereira, ex-middleweight king and two-division kickboxing champ, will have the technical edge. Gonna be fun while it lasts, but technique will win the night and a second divisional crown for the Brazilian.
The pick: Pereira by TKO
Sergei Pavlovich vs. Tom Aspinall (interim heavyweight title)
How can Pavlovich, the heaviest puncher on the UFC roster be counted out? He can’t. But Aspinall is right when he says he’s different from other heavyweights. If he’s patient, his diverse skills should be able to outmaneuver the Russian and bring gold back to England.
The pick: Aspinall by submission
Mackenzie Dern vs. Jessica Andrade (strawweight)
Ex-champion Andrade has been finished three straight times since February, twice by submission. That doesn’t bode well against Dern, the top female grappler in the UFC. The powerful Andrade can’t afford to wind up defending from her back, but it might be inevitable.
The pick: Dern by submission