TORONTO — Mark Bocek used to school the owners of the UFC at Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Now the lightweight from Woodbridge, Ont., is having his way with fellow 155-pounders in the cage.
A winner of four of his last five UFC fights, Bocek faces former WEC lightweight champion Ben (Smooth) Henderson at UFC 129 on Saturday night at Toronto’s Rogers Centre.
“I think a win here puts me top five (in the world),” said Bocek, who has expanded his mixed martial arts game in recent years and is reaping the rewards.
A decade ago, he helped introduce UFC president Dana White and co-owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta to Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
They took up the sport around the time they bought the UFC in 2001. Bocek just happened to be in Las Vegas at the time, training with their instructor John Lewis. Bocek was brought along to help out with the lessons.
“He used to come in and smack us around, submit us every 13 seconds,” White recalled in a 2008 interview with The Canadian Press.
Bocek was a purple belt back then. Today the 29-year-old is a BJJ black belt (and black belt in kempo karate) — not to mention 6-1 on Canadian soil.
While he has always been more show than tell, Bocek’s confidence is beginning to show. After tying up Dustin Hazelett — a talented black belt of his own — like a pretzel in December at UFC 124 in Montreal, Bocek uncharacteristically spoke out in the cage.
“I’ve been quiet for a long time,” he said.
“I’ve got the best jiu-jitsu in the lightweight division. Let me fight George Sotiropoulos in Toronto, I’ll prove it again to everybody.”
Sotiropoulos fell out of the picture when he lost to Dennis Siver in February at UFC 127. Instead, Bocek got Henderson, who is coming off a loss to Anthony Pettis in the WEC’s last card before being absorbed by the UFC.
Bocek (9-3) has no regrets about speaking out — or pressing his claim.
“It’s what people want to see,” he said matter of factly. “People like hyped fights and it excites them. The more they talk about you, the more they want to see you fight.
“It’s not really my personality but it’s part of the sport. It is what it is.”
Bocek’s fight with Hazelett could not have gone much better. He tripped the lanky American 15 seconds in, then countered Hazelett’s rubber guard before passing guard and improving position until he got into the mount position.
Seeing an opening, he moved up Hazelett and wrapped his legs around his head, rolling him over and locking in a triangle choke. Bocek administered a few elbows to the head for good measure and then tightened the choke until Hazelett had to tap.
“I’ve done it many times in training. First time that way in a fight,” said Bocek, who credits his training with rubber guard devotees at American Top Team in Florida for his ease in handling Hazelett.
It helps that Bocek has honed his takedown game, allowing him to take opponents down into his world.
And he is more confident in his striking.
“I’m feeling really good in all the elements right now. I’m ready to go wherever it goes. I’m pretty complete now so I look forward to showing what I have in this next fight. I think this next fight is going to really show what I’m capable of.”
He will need everything in his toolbox against Henderson (12-2), whose only other loss before Pettis came four years ago. A former NAIA all-American wrestler, Henderson is an energetic fighter with a black belt in taekwondo and brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
He is also durable. In his last outing in December at WEC 53, he survived a highlight-reel kick to the head that saw Pettis launch himself off the fence to start the move.
“Aside from that kick, it was a pretty close fight,” Bocek said. “You could maybe make the argument that Pettis didn’t really dominate the champion. So he’s still there, he’s no joke.”
The Henderson fight will be Bocek’s ninth in the UFC. He has won five of those, with losses to Frankie Edgar (the current champion) at UFC 73, Mac Danzig at UFC 83 and Jim Miller at UFC 111 in March 2010.
Edgar won by TKO and Danzig by submission. Miller got a decision that clearly still rankles.
Asked if he thought he should have got the win, Bocek doesn’t miss a beat.
“Absolutely. It hurt, it hurt. I trained really hard for that one. But I’m not a judge so what are you going to do?”
The lesson, he says, is “try not to leave it in the hands of the judges.”
“It’s in the past, nothing I can do about it, can’t control it. Just focusing on Henderson now.”
While acknowledging that having a crowd of 55,000 behind him will be “awesome,” Bocek knows he will still be on his own Saturday despite his proximity to home.
“When you get in the cage, it’s just Ben, there’s nobody else. And I’ve got to get through him,” he said. “In my mind, 55,000 will be the same as zero at that moment and it’ll just be another fight.”
NOTES — The DVD version of UFC 127 is set for release on May 3. “UFC: Ultimate Royce Gracie” will come out May 10.