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Aleksandar ‘The Joker’ Ilic confident he’ll end Cezary Kesik’s undefeated run at KSW 51

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The pair of strikers meet in an important middleweight clash in Zagreb, Croatia on Saturday night.

Aleksandar Ilic

Instead of witnessing a heroic comeback, Atlas Arena fell deathly silent. All that could be heard was the graceful dancing of a pack of cards displaying one, identical image falling through the air like confetti and coming to rest on the white canvas. Pale faces with green hair protruding from their heads smirked at the unconscious body sprawled out under the spotlights. ‘The Joker’ had arrived in KSW.

When Aleksandar Ilic was initially booked to face Polish Olympian, Damian Janikowski, back in March, many assumed it was a fight designed to allow Janikowski to jump straight back into the win column after the first loss of his career. Those people couldn’t have been more wrong.

The bronze medalist looked to be well on the way to a dominant victory during the first two rounds, closing the distance at every opportunity and controlled the grappling exchanges. He even pulled off a couple stunning suplexes in the process, delivering Ilic some significant air miles. However, when the pair came out for the final frame, the Joker opened with a body kick, bringing Janikowski’s hands down, before firing a spectacular question-mark that connected flush on the chin. A finish that will live on Ilic’s highlight-reel forever, and one that made the European audience stand up and take notice.

“I think that my performance against Janikowski was really good,” Ilic told Bloody Elbow. “Maybe people didn’t realise it, but we had the perfect tactics to face him. My experience and good mindset were key to that victory. The kick which finished the fight was very carefully planned. We worked the setups during training and sparring sessions so I was able to execute the technique perfectly. The plan was to kick Damian’s body, because we saw he held his back hand low—which meant he wasn’t always protecting his head. I worked a couple of those setups and used my feints in order for the kick to land perfectly.”

“The suplexes were crazy! It was like being on a roller-coaster in a theme park,” joked Ilic. “I give Damian credit as they were nice moves. When I landed, I wasn’t hurt, because it wasn’t the first time that someone had suplexed me. Even after the heavy impact, I always knew totally where I was and what I was doing. I don’t think Damian expected that so he was surprised I was so calm. It was a great highlight from the fight though!”

Janikowski is one of the biggest stars in KSW. His strong wrestling base had many touting him as a middleweight to watch for the future. However, Ilic highlighted once again that the wrestler’s defense could be exploited on the feet. He sent a message that the Pole still needs to work on rounding out his entire game before taking a step up in the division. For his part, Ilic recognises the importance of the victory, which catapulted himself right towards the top of the KSW middleweight division.

“I know that Damian is a Polish hero and he is a big Olympic star,” Ilic admitted. “People like him very much. The statement I made in that fight was huge, as no one saw it coming. And not many even thought I had a chance of beating him. KSW were really nice and polite though and they had no hard feelings towards me. It was only business.”

“In that fight, I picked up an injury, as I broke my big toe,” continued Ilic. “I needed two months to recover, and after that I was trying to fight in London. However, KSW had other plans for me because they wanted to go to the Balkans so here I am.”

Ilic (12-2) first began training MMA at 21-years-old. He wasn’t a fighter who practiced combat sports growing up. Instead, he had a great love for basketball, and devoted a lot of his time to game. Despite his love of hoops, however, the Serbian fighter used to watch film of the UFC and PRIDE often. Mirko CroCop quickly became a hero of his. CroCop, like Ilic, is also from the Balkans, giving the younger athlete an instant connection to the former K-1 and PRIDE champion. After becoming a fan of mixed martial arts, he decided to give the sport a try and fell in love with training following his very first session. Ilic hasn’t looked back since.

Around the time he took up MMA, the ‘Joker’ character was skyrocketing in popularity, thanks mostly to the The Dark Knight film and Heath Ledger’s standout performance. However, long before that, the Joker was also Ilic’s favourite cartoon character—he even has a large tattoo of the villain on his back. After his second professional fight in Slovakia, one of the Sherdog staff members asked Ilic what his nickname was. He said he didn’t have one, but was told that ‘The Joker’ would suit him well, due to his unique tattoo. While it wasn’t something he was initially sure of, Ilic now says he’s glad he went with the choice. He believes it perfectly captures his persona in the cage, and also fits easily into the type of gimmick KSW likes to promote with their expert video packages and in-arena production.

The 30-year-old has his sophomore outing in KSW scheduled this weekend, at the promotion’s first ever event in Croatia. The card has a theme based around ‘Balkans vs. Rest of the World,’ so Ilic should crowd on his side when he takes on undefeated, Polish middleweight, Cezary Kesik (9-0). Out of their 21 combined wins, 15 have come via knockout—it won’t be a surprise if this is a battle mostly contested on the feet. It is a key bout in the KSW middleweight division, and the fact that neither man has ever been finished by strikes only adds further to the intrigue.

“I think that Kesik is a really good opponent and he’s a real prospect in Polish MMA,” explained Ilic. “He is undefeated, and I’m not sure if he’s ever even lost a round. We will both be prepared, but I have very good tactics. I am ready for a war and am sure that I will pick up another victory. Of course I am confident that I can strike with him. We will see who takes the first step back. The both of us will meet in the center of the cage and see what happens. This fight is not going to go the distance!”

Ilic isn’t allowing himself to shift focus toward any potential title shots that might go to the winner, but the truth is that with a victory on Saturday night (thus extending his winning streak to six) he could very well be the next contender. If that is the case, there may be another shower of playing cards in the middle of the cage and ‘The Joker’ will laughing once again.

KSW 51 can be purchased at around the world and kicks off at 6pm GMT. Fans in the US can buy the event on the same website at 1pmET/12c.