JIRI PROCHAZKA makes his long-awaited octagon return at Madison Square Garden – a venue he could have never imagined fighting in when he was scrapping with fellow footie hooligans.
The UFC's former light-heavyweight champion returns to action at 'The World's Most Famous Arena' early tomorrow morning following a 17-month injury-enforced hiatus.
Prochazka will look to reclaim the belt he vacated last November against former middleweight champion Alex Pereira in the main event of UFC 295.
The pride of the Czech Republic's headlining of MSG is the culmination of a remarkable transformation from tearaway child turned football hooligan.
Before fully dedicating himself to martial arts, Prochazka used to take part in sixty-man brawls against rival firms of his beloved FC Zbrojovak Brno.
Martial arts, as it has done for many a person, changed Prochazka's perspective on life and stopped him from engaging in thuggish brawls – something he's eternally grateful for.
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In an exclusive interview with SunSport, he recalled: "I'm another person [from who I used to be] and I'm happy for this journey.
"I'm very happy for this journey. Life is about learning and forgetting everything and practising to do it better, better, better.
"It's a way of mastery.
"But it's not just a way of mastery in the way of martial arts, but in every part of life. That's why I like it."
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Never in his wildest dreams could Prochazka have imagined fighting at one of the meccas of combat sports when he was having organised brawls with rival hooligans.
But a dedication to martial arts and the way of the samurai – a mentality he adopted after reading The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi – have put him on the brink of joining the likes of Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson as Garden headliners.
The former RIZIN light-heavyweight champion added: "When you said that and say these names, it means, to me, a lot – a lot.
"I'm grateful for that. I'm very grateful for that.
"I just want to show that I am that guy, that man, who deserves to fight there."
Prochazka drew strength from the teachings of Musashi and indeed the samurai code as he recovered from what Dana White described as one of the "worst" shoulder injuries UFC doctors had ever seen.
He said: "I took that [the shoulder injury] positively because everything in your life you have to take positively.
"I took that [the injury] like I have another chance to prove that I am the true champion.
"That I'm the master of the cage and of martial arts. And this is what I want to show the world this Saturday.
"I'm happy to be back in the process, in the fight business, back in training to study martial arts. And to get better.
"It's simply a few words and few rules which help you to simply be honest to yourself and to others, to your performance in every situation of life.
"So yeah, it was very helpful."
Reclaiming the title against dangerous knockout artist and former middleweight champion Pereira will be no easy feat.
Prochazka is all too aware of the dangers posed by the heavy-handed 'Poatan' but foresees nothing but dominance in his return to the top of the light-heavyweight mountain.
He said: "For me, it doesn't matter if the way to win the battle will be in the stand-up.
"If I see that, it will be in the stand-up.
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"If it will be on the ground, with wrestling, it doesn't matter, I will do that.
"That's something that I changed in my last fight, that I want to dominate in every part of the fight."
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