Bart Palaszewski has 50 professional fights to his name, but, to hear him tell it, his journey has only just begun.
The 28-year-old Palaszewski has worked his way into the Top 10 in the featherweight division following a first-round knockout against Xtreme Couture Mixed Martial Arts representative Tyson Griffin in October and will look to build on his momentum when he meets Hatsu Hioki at UFC 144 “Edgar vs. Henderson” on Saturday at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan.
Palaszewski has been training with Team Curran since June 1999, when he was 16 years old.
“I’m still developing my game, as crazy as that sounds,” he says. “I’m just kind of getting into my own, 50 guys in.”
Earlier in his career, the Poland-born heavy hitter fought as many as seven to nine times a year, and he certainly does not miss those days.
“I think the only reason I was able to do it was because I was younger,” Palaszewski says. “My body can’t hold up to that anymore, I don’t think.”
Not only has his game evolved over the years, but he also feels stronger mentally.
“I’ve seen it all,” Palaszewski says. “I’m feeling great. I’m kind of growing up finally and taking it seriously. Mentally, I’m there. Before, I got bad jitters, questioning myself; I don’t have that anymore. I feel great when I’m out there. I’m not thinking about anything else but winning a fight.”
His mentor, Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Jeff Curran, has noticed a change in Palaszewski over the years.
“Bart’s a longtime veteran of the sport now, with 50 professional fights and God knows how many amateur fights,” he says. “Turning pro young while the sport’s still young, you have a lot of different roads to travel. Our heads go in different directions than a fighter who’s fresh out of the gate, been training since they were 10 years old to be an MMA fighter and now they’re 20, 21 years old and know exactly what they need to do to get to the big show. We’ve kind of gone through a lot of trial and error, and Bart’s been through that, same as me. It does take a little bit of time to adjust to everything that’s happening.”
Curran believes Palaszewski’s improved dedication to the sport, as well as the global rise of MMA, has contributed to his confidence and success. He points to his recent move to featherweight as proof.
“Bart used to ask me a long time ago if I thought he could fight at 145 [pounds], and I’d say, ‘No,’” Curran says. “He’d ask why, and I’d say, ‘Because, I just don’t think you’re ready to put in that kind of work to cut that weight and to live the dedicated lifestyle.’ Nor did I feel that the payout was comparable enough to justify giving up everything for three months and focusing on one thing. Now, he can afford to do that, and I think that’s why he feels like he’s finally coming into his own, because there’s a lot of different factors that can kind of be put aside now; the guessing work is out of it. He just knows what he needs to do.”
Regarded by some as the No. 2-ranked featherweight in the world, Hioki was believed to be on the fast track to a title shot before his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut against George Roop ended in a lackluster split decision victory in October.
“His last fight was definitely nothing special,” Palaszewski says. “He did what he needed to do to win, but, personally, I think Roop did most of the damage, and, in my eyes, Roop won that fight.”
Palaszewski has turned to this Hioki-Roop bout to size up an opponent who has lost only once in his past 15 appearances.
“I was always told you’re only as good as your last fight, so I’ve got to go with that. I don’t know how good of performances he has had before. I’ve seen some footage on him, but his last fight was the latest and greatest Hioki,” he says. “I’m definitely not taking him lightly or underestimating him in any way, but that’s the fight I’m basing my game plan off of.”
Palaszewski aims to spoil Hioki’s rise to the top of the division.
“He’s got all this hype behind him, so I just want to get a piece of that hype; I’m going to take it with me,” he says. “It’s in Japan, so there’s going be no excuses for jetlag. It’s not his first fight, so the jitters are out the window and everything else -- no excuses. We’re just going get out there and scrap, and the best man that night is going to win.”
Curran lost a unanimous decision to Hioki five-and-a-half years ago inside Pride Fighting Championships, but he still thinks his own experience can give Palaszewski an edge.
“It gives Bart a really good comparison,” he says. “Most fighters, myself and Bart and Hioki ... everyone is consistently getting better and we’ve been consistently better than most people over the years by a small amount or by a large amount. So, I think if we use that kind of formula and I kind of gauge how Bart does against other people or against myself in certain areas where Hioki’s strong, I think I can kind of predict how the fight’s going to go in my head, and it definitely doesn’t hurt having fought him.”
However, Palaszewski does not put too much stock in that 2006 bout, and neither he nor Curran views this latest encounter with Hioki with any kind of revenge in mind.
“It’s a win for the gym regardless of whether I’ve fought him,” Curran points out. “It was so long ago that we try not to hold those grudges. I mean, if he was an American fighter and was talking s---, it’d be a different story, but he’s a respectful guy; they respect each other.”
Also aiding Palaszewski’s cause was the fact that his training camp overlapped that of teammate Pat Curran, who will challenge Joe Warren for the Bellator Fighting Championships featherweight crown on March 9.
“They’ve been doing all their strength and conditioning together, and they’ve been doing all their MMA practices at night with me and doing all their sparring sessions at night, but they haven’t been sparring with each other these past few weeks,” Curran says. “Bart needs specific sparring; I need to get tall guys, tell them what their game plan is and prepare them. We brought in a boxer with a very similar punching style to Hioki, and Bart’s range is down; he’s hammering that guy. And for Pat, we’ve brought in shorter guys and wrestlers, so they are sparring during the same time and the energy’s there, but they’re not beating on each other.”
Palaszewski does not know if a decisive win will put him in line for a title shot, but admits it can only help him make his case: “It’s definitely going to skyrocket me into the mix.”
Although he will not turn down a chance to tackle reigning featherweight king Jose Aldo should it be presented to him, Palaszewski is not necessarily looking for such a matchup. With a win over Hioki, he may be a win or two short of challenging the Brazilian. Curran admits as much.
“Taking out Tyson Griffin the way he did and having a win over Anthony Pettis, having all the knockouts he did in the WEC, if he puts Hioki away impressively, he deserves a title shot,” Curran says. “Will they offer it? Will we accept? That’s another story. We’ve got to not look beyond Hioki and try to stay focused, and you kind of cross that bridge when you come to it.”