Going the distance: Procházka Czech-mates Reyes to line up title shot

No fighter from the Czech Republic has ever fought for a UFC belt. That may soon change after Jiří “Denisa” Procházka’s (28-3-1, 2-0 UFC) scintillating performance and second-round knockout against Dominick “The Devastator” Reyes (12-3, 6-3 UFC) on Saturday at UFC Vegas 25. 

Reyes, who dropped his previous two fights to then-champion Jon “Bones” Jones and current champion Jan Błachowicz, fought admirably against Procházka, firing leg kicks and counters early on in an attempt to mitigate the effectiveness of Procházka’s aggressive style and unorthodox movement. Reyes was able to briefly bring the fight to the mat as well, where some believed he may have had an advantage in this matchup. Ultimately, he was unable to keep the Czech native down, and Procházka asserted his pressure-heavy style thereafter, backing Reyes up to the fence and trading powerful shots with him before the horn signaled the end of round 1. 

The pace did not slow in the second round, with Procházka landing big punches, elbows, and some very nice front kicks, while Reyes continued to counter him on the feet. At one point, Reyes even stunned Denisa with a huge left hand, forcing him to shoot for a takedown which Reyes turned into a guillotine submission attempt. Procházka showed incredible composure here, recovering from the shot and slipping his head out of the choke. Once he got back to his feet, he landed a few more heavy shots, backing Reyes up to the fence again before knocking him out cold with an incredible spinning elbow.

Procházka’s high-pace style, combined with a phenomenal chin to absorb heavy punches and a warrior’s mentality to remain psychologically unfazed by them, makes him a problematic matchup for any fighter in the light heavyweight division. Perhaps more importantly, we know these skills are for real, because they’ve already been tested by good fighters. Both Reyes and Volkan “No Time” Oezdemir (whom Procházka beat in his UFC debut last year) are excellent fighters with heavy hands. But in both fights, Denisa was able to impose his style and get second-round finishes. So what is next for the UFC’s budding European star?

Looking at the top of the light heavyweight rankings, there is no clear-cut No. 1 contender outside of Glover Texeira (No. 1), who is scheduled to fight champion Jan Błachowicz at UFC 266 in early September. The likeliest candidates for the next shot would be Procházka (No. 5) and Aleksander “Rocket” Rakić (No. 2), who is on a two-fight winning streak. However, Procházka has also won his last two UFC bouts, against better competition, and is on a 12-fight, 5-year winning streak if you include his non-UFC fights. More importantly, Procházka’s knockouts look much more impressive than Rakić’s decision victories. While it is rare for a fighter to earn a title shot with just two UFC wins, it has happened before, and it should happen again here. According to the UFC Vegas 25 broadcast team, Dana White echoed this sentiment, having said that the winner of Procházka-Reyes would be next for a title shot prior to the fight. 

Light heavyweight landscape

That being said, Rakić is very much a threat to anyone with whom he shares the Octagon. If the UFC wants to make a new contender after Procházka, they would be wise to have Rakić fight Magomed Ankalaev (No. 7) in a title eliminator bout. Ankalaev is on a six-fight win streak with four finishes in that span. While Rakić would be a significant step up in competition for the Russian, it would be good to see whether Ankalaev, who has only lost once in his career (via submission in the last second of a fight he was winning on the scorecards), can pass such a test. While Rakić may not want to risk his current ranking against a dangerous opponent here, he hasn’t impressed enough to earn a title shot thus far, and a win over Ankalaev would likely change that.

The last few years have played out unfortunately for Reyes (No. 3), who nearly won the belt against Jones in 2020 before being knocked out by Błachowicz and Procházka in his next two fights. That being said, the UFC should recognize Reyes’s effort against Procházka — there aren’t many other fighters who could have withstood the amount of damage Reyes dished out. A matchup with Nikita “The Miner” Krylov (No. 9) could make sense. Both are coming off losses. Reyes should be able to win this fight, and it’s clear that it’s time for him to face a step down in competition to start building himself back up. Krylov is still a tough opponent who will not be easy to walk through, and his recent losses have come against the division’s best. For Krylov, a win over Reyes would put him back on the right path after dropping a close decision to Ankalaev this past February.

Elsewhere in the top 10, a bout between Thiago “Marreta” Santos (No. 4) and Oezdemir (No. 8) would be entertaining. Both are veteran fighters who are coming off of losses and no longer in title contention, and would likely stand and bang in the center of the octagon. 

That leaves Anthony “Lionheart” Smith (No. 6) and Johnny Walker (No. 10). Walker is coming off a first-round finish over Ryan “Superman” Spann (No. 11), and was scheduled to fight Jimmy “The Brute” Crute (No. 13) before pulling out due to injury. So why not put him up against Smith, the man who just beat Crute at UFC 261? The veteran Smith would be a good test for Walker, who is looking to finally break through against the division’s best. In Smith’s last four fights, he has lost convincingly against two elite opponents in Texeira and Rakić, but has also won convincingly against lesser competition in Devin Clark and Jimmy Crute. Johnny Walker falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Despite having over 50 pro fights, Smith is only 32. A win over Walker would put him on a three-fight win streak and help him get on the path to eventual title contention. 

By Ian Wind, Fight Night Picks contributor

Note: Rankings listed here are official as of 5/2/2021 and do not reflect the outcome of this weekend’s fight.

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