It’s been a long time since Vladimir Matyushenko’s last UFC headlining gig back in September of 2001 - nearly nine years, 16 fights, and a short layoff ago.
Even more telling is that in the time since his UFC 33 light heavyweight title bout against Tito Ortiz and this Sunday’s VERSUS main event in San Diego against Jon Jones, Matyushenko has watched a fledgling sport go mainstream, complete with all the perks and craziness that goes along with it.
“Deep inside my mind, yes, I believed it was going to get big, but it was kind of hard to believe when MMA was banned from this and that, and that was one of the reasons why I was thinking about quitting for a while,” said Matyushenko, a veteran of nearly 13 years in the fight game. “But right now, it’s blowing my mind away. I don’t think anybody knew it, I don’t think (UFC President) Dana White even knew it was gonna get this big.”
That night in Las Vegas against Ortiz, Matyushenko – a late replacement for the injured Vitor Belfort – went five rounds with the champion in the UFC’s return to Pay-Per-View cable TV, and while the fight and the result (a unanimous decision loss) wasn’t to his liking, ‘The Janitor’ was far from done with life on the big stage, even though it’s taken him a while to get back here.
Better late than never, right?
“Definitely,” he smiled. “It’s a good time to stick around.”
But Matyushenko hasn’t just been making up the numbers over the last nine years. Winner of 14 of his last 16 bouts, with the only defeats coming at the hands of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (in a rematch – Matyushenko won their first meeting) and Andrei Arlovski, the native of Retchisa, Belarus has quietly remained within striking distance of the top light heavies, and after returning to the UFC in 2009 after a six year hiatus and winning bouts over Igor Pokrajac and Eliot Marshall, he’s in a perfect position heading into Sunday’s bout with Jones.
“It’s definitely gonna bring me much closer to a title fight,” said Matyushenko of his future should he beat Jones. “There are also a few fights I could do before, Nogueira, maybe Tito. The division is really tough to get through and you have to be a true champion right now. Whereas before, it was kinda easier and it was not as much fun with the media and the public’s perception, but right now, it’s fun to fight, but God, it’s pretty tough.”
The 39-year old Matyushenko chuckles, perhaps wondering how a single father of a 19-year old son who just joined the Air Force still gets out of bed every morning to battle it out with 20-somethings in the gym, and then enters an eight-sided cage to fight some of the best athletes in the world every few months.
“There are other things - my family, my fans, and everything else - going on, but deep in my mind, I’m always preparing for the fight,” he said. “Yeah, there are easier ways to make money, but when you make a commitment you have to stick with it, no matter what you do. If you go halfway here and halfway there, you’re never gonna be successful.”
Yet despite being five months away from the big 4-0, Matyushenko may be one of those rare fighters who is getting better with time. Sure, his bread and butter is still his wrestling attack, but especially in the Pokrajac fight, Matyushenko’s striking has gotten more precise and punishing, with some of his flush blows audible at Octagonside in their bout last September.
“I’ve definitely been working on the striking, but I had been working on it before too,” he said. “Now I’ve had the chance to show it. I understand that it’s a fine line between just winning the fight and also making it exciting and I don’t want to lose the fight by taking unnecessary risks, but I also want to please my fans and make it exciting.”
He will have ample opportunity to get into a fan-friendly scrap Sunday as he takes on the dynamic Jones, a young, athletic and talented fighter who is seen by many as the future of the light heavyweight division. Ask Matyushenko for his scouting report on Jonny Bones, and he smiles.
“Just what you said - he’s a young, athletic, talented kid,” he said, “but I have to fight somebody, so why not him? I know it’s a tough fight, but fights are supposed to be tough. It’s a tough business.”
And Matyushenko is the perfect example of a tough guy in a tough business. You don’t take on a cast of characters like Ortiz, Nogueira, Arlovski, Pedro Rizzo, Jason Lambert, Tim Boetsch, Yuki Kondo, and Vernon White without a steel will and a desire to walk through fire for a victory. So if you expect him to get rattled by a laundry list of interviews or the idea of fighting a flashy kid with youth on his side, he won’t. He’s been there, done that, and all that matters to him is being prepared for the fight. After that, it’s just him and Jones in the Octagon for 15 minutes or less.
“I’m prepared to be the best, and obviously my goal is to control the fight and control him and I will try the best I can,” he said. “I have good sparring partners who are similar to Jon Jones in many aspects. I have good guys on the ground, I have good guys in kickboxing, and everything’s gone pretty well.”
But what about all the interviews?
“I think I’m getting better since my last one with Tito,” he laughs, but that statement can apply to his fighting career as well, and that’s been a bit of a surprise – both to fight fans and to Matyushenko himself.
“If I look back ten years ago, I thought I’d be retired right now,” he said, “but I’m still doing it and I’ve kinda surprised myself that I’m still doing pretty well.”