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For Tyson Pedro, defeat to Ilir Latifi was a ‘blessing in disguise’

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MMA: UFC 209-Pedro vs Craig
Tyson Pedro returns against Saparbek Safarov at UFC 221.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Whittaker’s exit from UFC 221 highlighted that the promotion needs more drawing power in Australia, but Tyson Pedro hopes to remedy that over the coming year.

After the young Australian began his Octagon career by dispatching Khalil Rountree and Paul Craig in the first round, the UFC underlined the confidence it has in Pedro when he was matched with top-ranked light heavyweight Ilir Latifi last September. Despite drawing a number of superlatives from commentator Joe Rogan throughout the 15-minute contest, Pedro left UFC 215 with his first professional loss, suffering a unanimous decision defeat to the Swede.

“Everything happens for a reason, and I feel like it wasn’t a bad loss for me, to be honest,” Pedro told MMA Fighting ahead of his return fight with Saparbek Safarov at UFC 221.

“It was a great learning experience. I was on a really rapid rise; I was in the top 15 before I even realized I was in the UFC. There were a lot of valuable lessons that came from that.”

Pedro knew the writing was on the wall when he found himself wondering where his wife was seated in the Rogers Center as he stood in the center of the Octagon waiting for the opening bell.

“I was content with the fact that I was fighting a top-10 guy. Eight months before that I was fighting a guy on AFC in Australia at some pub show. In my head it was like, ‘It doesn’t even matter if I win or lose because look where I’m at.’ I shouldn’t have been like that. I should have been in kill mode,” he explained.

“Usually I’m dancing on my way out to the cage, but once I’m inside there it’s game time. Instead of that, I was pacing back and forth in my corner thinking, ‘I wonder where my wife is sitting’ — I should have known then that I was in for a tough night at the office.

“Honestly, it was a blessing in disguise. If anything I’m thankful for that loss.”

This time around it’s Pedro who is heavily favored ahead of his meeting with Safarov, a 31-year-old Russian who makes his second visit to the Octagon following a debut loss to Gian Villante at UFC Fight Night 102.

After stumbling across some viral footage of Safarov at a weigh-in back in 2011, Pedro made sure he kept his eyes on his opponent’s hands when they went nose-to-nose for the first time at UFC 221 media day, two days before their clash.

“I don’t really put a lot of emphasis on the face offs, but with this guy I saw some videos on YouTube of him getting into a slap fight with someone at a previous weigh-in. Today, the VP went to shake my hand when we were facing off and I didn’t even see it because I was just staring at this guy’s hands,” he said.

“All I was thinking about was, ‘If this guy slaps me, I’m going to have to start swinging on him!’ I kind of left the VP hanging a bit, so it was a bit of an awkward weigh-in [laughs].”

Although his first test against ranked UFC opposition didn’t go his way, Pedro is nearly certain that a win in Perth will result in another top-10 task given the lack of depth in the division at the moment.

“There aren’t many places to go at light heavyweight,” said Pedro. “After I win, I imagine it’s going to be another top-10 opponent, it’s nearly 100 percent. There aren’t a lot of other people that the UFC can chuck at me,” he said.

“I’m looking forward to it; I can’t wait. I’m looking forward to whatever they bring to the table. I think 2018 is going to be a big year for me.

“I guess it’s a gift and a curse being in this division,” Pedro added. “I like the fact that there are going to be some very hard fights quite quickly when you’re in this bracket. I like to throw myself right in the deep end with this kind of thing.”

Although the withdrawal of middleweight champion Whittaker has had a big impact in terms of the global reach of UFC 221, Pedro claimed that some national publications have done a U-turn on the sport after previous MMA events have been heavily criticized in the press. He hopes the changing perceptions of the sport will effect the event positively.

“I just don’t get the feeling that it will do well on a global scale. People aren’t going to pay a lot of money to see this, and that’s just me being real. I really hope we get more shows out here after this,” Pedro said.

“The biggest thing for me this time is the fact that the Australian media has gotten behind the event. On the flip-side of Rob being forced to pull out, the media outlets are pushing this card a lot over here for a change. It used to be a no UFC zone in the paper, but now it seems like people are starting to realize it’s not the barbaric thing they used to think it was.

“It feels like they know that MMA is a sport now and they’re ready to take it seriously.”

Having more star power in Australia would certainly help the UFC’s efforts to promote in the country. Pedro hopes to be able to match Whittaker as an attraction based on his performances in 2018.

“My goal is to be right up there with Rob. By 2019, I think I can achieve that,” Pedro said. “My Dad was one of the first people to bring King of the Cage and MMA in general to Australia. Now that I’m in the UFC, I want to bring as many Australians to the sport as I can, and that’s exactly what I plan on doing.”