Vinny Magalhaes is a world-class grappler. That much was obvious from his run through "The Ultimate Fighter" season 8 cast, where he submitted everyone he faced leading up to the final, including his former training partner at Team Quest, Krzysztof Soszynski.
Yet, while he was super-slick horizontally, he was shackled by his own subpar stand-up. It was a glaring deficiency, and one he simply couldn’t compensate for. We saw it when he was knocked out at the hands of Ryan Bader in the "TUF" finale that season, and again when Eliot Marshall didn’t compromise an inch at UFC 97. The Marshall fight was the shoulder-shrugging moment for the UFC. It served him his walking papers because his game wasn’t whole.
By now, the bulletin is an old one that’s been passed around and snickered over for years: This is MMA, not “The Singular Thing You’re Great At.” Disciplines have to come together in concert; otherwise, what shows up isn’t the medals earned in world submission grappling tournaments. What shows up instead are your world-class deficiencies. The UFC, after all, is made up of cold-blooded exploitists. When Magalhaes left the UFC, he had an overall professional MMA record that was sub-.500. Things needed to change.
So what did he do?
Well, he relocated to Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas, went on a 7-1 run in the more dimly lit theaters (finishing a couple of fights with something as audacious as strikes), captured the M-1 light heavyweight belt, had a son, donned a singlet, began training with Chael Sonnen and, by extension, picking up pointers on how to combine orneriness with the naked truth. All for the sake of sports and entertainment.
Now he’s back with the UFC, fighting at UFC 152 in Toronto against puncher Igor Pokrajac, just in time to see if any of it matters on the big stage.
“Even though there’s the whole thing of me getting back to the UFC, in my mind this is my UFC debut,” he told ESPN.com. “The first time when I was in the UFC was because I got on ["The Ultimate Fighter"], and I got on the show because of Dan Henderson. I had a big name push me to be on the show, and that’s why I got on. Of course, I ended up earning my spot and making the finals, but I didn’t use anything but my jiu-jitsu to get into the finals, so it’s like, I cannot even compare myself back then to what I am right now. I am taking this as my UFC debut.”
If MMA is biased, it’s that fights start on the feet. It’s a jiu-jitsu practitioner’s burden to overcome, and it’s been the bane of the 28-year-old Magalhaes’ career so far. If every fight started on the ground, Magalhaes might be household name right now.
As it stands, Magalhaes has had to figure out a solution. He’s not going to turn into Marvin Hagler on the feet, and as a realist, he’s not trying to. What he’s worked on in the past three years are things as ordinary as game plans, things as disciplined as execution, and things as advantageous as capable wrestling. He’s also fiddling with the manipulation of space, known as “Maai” in some circles, which can be boiled down to closing the gap between his comfort zone and eating big Bader overhands.
In short, he feels he’s diversified.
“I’ve gotten much better with my striking, I’ve gotten much better with my wrestling ... way, way better,” he says. “But, I know how to mix things up. That’s the difference. Before in my UFC fights, I just didn’t know how to close the distance, so I didn’t know how to put things together. And I know how to mix things up. I’m not a great striker, but I know how to throw a couple of punches to close the distance and get the fight where I want it.
“I’m also a much smarter fighter now, too. Before I would go into a fight with no strategy. I would just go there and hope the guy would take me down so I could get the fight where I want it.”
There’s little chance of Pokrajac looking for a takedown, so it’ll be up to Magalhaes to insist. During Pokrajac’s three-fight win streak, he has finished two with strikes (against Todd Brown, and later Soszynski). This will be a classic puncher-versus-grappler fight that will alert everyone as to whether Magalhaes has truly evolved.
“I don’t keep secrets,” Magalhaes says. “My goal is to take this fight to the ground, and if I have to, if I can’t take him down, I’m going to be ready to stand up with him.”
The truth comes out Sept. 22 in Toronto.
But this improved version of Magalhaes has also proved shrewder in staying in the public’s eye, even when not in the UFC.
Who can forget him putting his M-1 Global belt up for auction on eBay, saying later, "it's not worth even a dollar"? Magalhaes has learned a thing from the sultan of talk, Sonnen, whom he helped train for the Anderson Silva rematch. He’s been fairly vocal about situations (like what happened with him and M-1’s Evgeni Kogan) and fighters like Jon Jones (UFC 151), and via his Twitter feed and in the media.
His attitude is to dish it like he sees it.
“I’ll be honest with you: I think I’ve gotten that totally from Chael,” he says. “I’m not going to be making things up. I’m not going to be bashing somebody else’s country like Chael does just to be entertaining. But if I can be entertaining while speaking the truth, I’ll do it.”
And speaking of Sonnen, who is scheduled to fight Magalhaes’ training partner Forrest Griffin at UFC 155 in December, just where will his allegiances fall?
“I was talking to Chael, and I was like, I want to be out of both training camps for you guys,” he says. “I don’t want to help Chael, I don’t want to help Forrest. I like Forrest, and I’ve been training with Forrest for the last four years. He cornered me against Ryan Bader. So I don’t want to be involved.
“But then there’s the side where I became friends with Chael. I like the guy, I like his personality, so it’s a little odd. I’d feel like a traitor if I went there to train with Chael, because I’ve been training with Forrest for four years. So I’m keeping out of it. I like both of you guys. Whoever wins wins, I don’t care. I’m just keeping out of it.”
Not that it’s Magalhaes’ goal to be "training partner to the stars." It’s his turn to try to become one. A good showing against Pokrajac would get him back on his feet in the UFC.
And if that happens, maybe this time he’ll look a little more comfortable there.