Palhares still battles to escape past
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Tucked in the back of an up-market country club is the home of the famous Brazilian Top Team. Home to many fighters over the years, BTT has produced some of the biggest names in Brazilian MMA, including former UFC champ Murilo Bustamante, former WEC champ Paulo Filho, Pride veterans Mario Sperry and Ricardo Arona and American Top Team co-founder Ricardo Liborio.
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Though dominated by a huge blue and yellow matted area, the facility has the feel of old school boxing gym. Magazine clippings and signed photographs cover an entire wall, faded and peeling. A bench runs alongside the mat, shared by many. Spend an hour there and you'll see professionals resting between rounds, amateurs wrapping their hands before training and spectators quietly taking photographs. A steady stream of people come and go, and TV crews are a regular presence -- so much so that nobody so much as bats an eyelid if a camera is pointed in their direction.
In this hive of activity, middleweight Rousimar Palhares stands out. While his teammates wander on and off the mat to check their phone, grab some water or chat with new arrivals, he's training. He's the first person on the mat before the pro session begins, and he's the last to leave. He laughs and jokes while training, yet he never stops working.
"He's the kind of guy I have to pull out of the academy, because if I don't he'll spend the whole day here," said his coach, Murilo Bustamante. "He loves to train, basically."
It's not surprising Palhares loves life in the gym -- a career as a professional fighter might seem a struggle to some, but it's nothing compared to the life he once led.
In Brazil, it's not appropriate to refer to somebody as poor. Instead, they come from "humble backgrounds." You could go through the entire UFC roster, but you probably won't find anybody as humble as Palhares. Not so long ago, he was a poverty-stricken farm worker from the state of Minas Gerais, known for its large swathes of agricultural land. It was here he spent his early years.
"My family didn't have anything; very poor conditions, not even a house. The whole family worked on a farm for somebody else. Animals, corn, coffee, rice, beans -- it was a kind of complete farm," he said. "I started work at 8 or 9 years old. The owner made me a manager of my own farm at 14 because I learned everything from my father. By 14, I knew how to take care of a farm."
Brazil is a country of contrasts. There is a huge gulf between the haves and have-nots. The popular image of the Brazilian fighter is a man who fought his way out of the favela to escape a life of crime, but the reality is very different. Many professional athletes come from middle class backgrounds, as they're the only ones who can afford not to hold down a full-time job. It's not uncommon for MMA fighters of a certain age to have college degrees in law or finance.
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This is changing. There are an increasing number of Brazilian MMA promotions that are able to pay their fighters something close to a living, which enables fighters from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to follow their dreams of becoming fighters. Most importantly, it puts food on their table, something Palhares is no doubt grateful for.
Not long after he joined the ranks of the UFC, a story began to circulate that he had once been so poor his family had no choice but to eat pig feed. It's true, but it's not something he's keen to recollect. He'll talk about it, but the pain of the memories is strong. Tears well in this tough-as-teak fighter's eyes and his voice wavers as he describes that time of his life. "I don't like to talk about this, it hurts to remember the past. It was hard, hard times," he said.
Things are different now, although it was by no means an overnight success story. With almost no money in his pocket, Palhares had no choice but to sleep under a bridge when he first came to Rio. Though friends and family urged him on, he almost gave up on his dream of being a fighter many times. "I almost left and gave up many times, almost left MMA to go back home because it was too tough," he said. "The transition to live in Rio de Janeiro was very tough. In Rio we say you have to kill a lion a day to survive. And I felt this way every day. But God helped me to keep going, and I thank Him for that."
Palhares, one of 10 children, credits his father with giving him his incredible work ethic, though Robson Palhares' lessons weren't easy.
"My father was so tough, so hard. He said to me, 'You have to be tough, you have to work hard, and you have to be a man, because life is not easy.' I cried when I worked sometimes, but I never gave up. I knew I had to be a man," he said.
"If you want to be somebody in life you have to be ready for anything. At the time I didn't understand why it was so tough, but now everything makes sense for me and why my daddy made me work so hard."
From farmer to fighter
With his father's words for inspiration, he forged a career as a professional fighter. Against the odds, Palhares rose to become one of the most feared middleweights in Brazil. An incredibly powerful grappler known for his devastating leg locks, he joined Bustamante's squad in 2006 and quickly became one of their best fighters.
"When he arrived here I tested him and saw he was a good fighter," said Bustamante, who promoted Palhares to the rank of black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. "The way he moves, the way he thinks. He's a really intelligent fighter. He connects positions really well, changes them really fast -- I'm always surprised at his movement."
Palhares' grappling is very much his forte, and it's what he'll employ when he appears on UFC 134 in Rio de Janeiro later this month. It's the UFC's first event on South American soil since 1998, and Palhares is one of the country's best representatives of the national grappling art to appear on the card.
The change in opponents has made no difference to the preparations for the fight, according to Bustamante.
"Dan Miller is a good grappler; he won't avoid the fight on the ground," he said. "He's good standing but not a striker. It's around the same training that Rousimar was doing before; I'm very confident."
Though quick with a smile and a joke and unwaveringly polite to everyone, Palhares is a different animal once the round timer goes. He got in hot water in March 2010 for enthusiastically tearing Tomasz Drwal's knee to shreds and was suspended by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board for holding onto the submission after the referee stopped the fight.
You get a glimpse of this side of "Toquinho" during training. Deadly serious, he holds nothing back against his sparring partners. Facing a series of fresh men in a "shark tank" round, he bulldozes through them one by one. Big slams, crushing blows and lightning-fast submissions are dealt out in succession.
It's no mystery why Palhares fights with such fury. He fought to escape his past, and he fights to secure a future for his family. Married, he is yet to have any children, but he says he won't rest until he takes care of every single member of his family.
"My family, they don't pay rent no more," he said, proudly. "I bought a house for my mother, I gave my family a better life. I built everything in my life with hard work. You can guarantee I will do everything so my children don't have to be like me. I want a better life for them."
Hywel Teague is a contributing mixed martial arts writer for ESPN.com. He is a veteran reporter and edited the international MMA magazine Fighters Only for five years.
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