LAS VEGAS -- We knew that Diego Brandao had punching power.
He demonstrated that all season on "The Ultimate Fighter" Season 14, and it’s one of the reasons why the Greg Jackson fighter was a heavy favorite coming into his fight with Dennis Bermudez for the featherweight contract. He obliterated Jesse Newell to get in the house in 45 seconds. Then he greeted Steven Siler with an acrobatic flying knee, before landing a left hook to finish him in 33 seconds. He knocked out Brian Caraway in the first round, too.
Throughout these brief, punishing glimpses, it never felt like an even playing field -- it felt more like one man’s mission. Though he had fought and lost plenty in his young career (14-7), the Brandao that was rolled out in the featherweight field on TUF 14 was head and shoulders above the rest. And he only used his hands. His Brazilian jiu-jitsu that was touted beforehand remained a minefield that was never trespassed upon.
On Saturday night, it was clear that the 24-year-old wanted to continue his streak of knockouts against Bermudez at the finale. He flung the big right to that end when he got space, but in one over-zealous moment ate a straight right hand that crashed into his jaw. It was a track-stopping collision that made his legs go limp. He crumpled.
And only then did we see the full scope of “Ceara’s” potential.
In what might be the best single round of MMA action in TUF history, Brandao’s slick ground game surfaced and he turned the tables. He caught Bermudez with a beautiful armbar that was forced out of necessity. The submission was a single motion. It was almost instantaneous. From the guard. While recovering.
It was over that quickly.
To hear him tell it afterwards, the whole thing was just a live piece of destiny emanating from his faith.
“The mission’s over, you know?” he said in the postfight news conference. “The mission’s over. I’ve been in the war for three years in the United States. I don’t see my family. I try to speak English, and it’s so hard ... I tried to work so hard.”
Brandao picked up two end of the night bonuses (fight of the night and submission of the night) for a total of $80,000. He wants to reunite with his family and do charity work in his native Brazil. He’s a very likeable, very humble fighter. It’s easy to pull for a guy in those circumstances.
But on the final show on SpikeTV, which had the auspicious beginnings of now fabled Stephan Bonnar/Forrest Griffin fight that aired in 2005, he might be the first believably dangerous fighter to come out of the series in years. He is skilled wherever the fight takes place, and has a fire burning in him to bring his family to the United States. To top it off, he proved he has a granite chin -- an extension of heart. Not many people could have taken that shot from Bermudez and survived.
“In my gym I trained so hard for this fight,” he said. “I know Dennis; I think he’s coming from [a] wrestling technique, but he started boxing, and I said OK, let’s go box. And he caught me ... I waited for the moment to pull the armbar because I’m a black belt in jiu-jitsu. When I go down, I feel confident. This I’ve been training for 14 years ... when he punched, I locked, and [swept]. And [it was] over.”
This mission is over as well. But his is a promised future that’s only beginning.