The life of a professional fighter is filled with uncertainty. Their successes and failures play out in the public eye for all to see.
When the cage door closes and the battle of wills begins, it becomes a matter of opportunity. One walks away victorious, the other defeated, the outcome sometimes determined by only the slightest of margins.
What happens under the bright lights is what the fans are left to debate, but rarely are they given a glimpse into what it takes to make the walk to the cage in the first place.
This is what the climb looks like—told in their words. This is “The Fighting Life.”
The ever-changing tides of life often makes opportunity a difficult thing to recognize. Circumstance dictates maturity, and without a readiness to make the most of the moment, the ability to capitalize on the chance provided greatly diminishes.
In the realm of professional fighting, timing means everything both in and out of the cage. Natural talent only provides the foundation for a career to begin. In most cases, it takes a fighter seizing the moment presented for traction to be found and process of progression to get under way.
Whether this comes in the heat of battle, when an opponent's mistake opens a split-second window to to unleash an attack, or it comes in the form of a phone call from the biggest promotion in mixed martial arts, the ability to recognize the situation at hand and make it count is what ultimately allows a dream once believed to be unachievable to become reality.
For Thiago Alves, emerging from poverty-stricken roots in Fortaleza, Brazil to become one of the best welterweight fighters on the planet, was made possible by his ability to capture opportunity when it has arisen. It has been a journey filled with success and setbacks alike, but the education provided throughout, and Alves' ability to rise above hardships, has taught the 29-year-old the importance of positivity and that hard work truly does pay off.
In some form or fashion, the American Top Team staple has been fighting his entire life. From his days competing in bare-knuckle bouts to put scraps in his pockets, to displaying a level of skill that has made him one of the most feared strikers in the world, Alves' quest to improve his quality of life has been successful.
While his ultimate dream of becoming a UFC champion is yet to be realized, his appreciation for what hard work and determination has made possible, are things Alves never fails be thankful for.
"When I was growing up, I was always a little chubby kid because I came from a family of bakers," Alves told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "I needed to get in shape because if I didn't, girls wouldn't pay any attention to me. I used to watch a lot of Bruce Lee and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies and saw a Thai Boxing gym right by house. I was 13 years old and decided to join in. I fell in love with combat sports.
“I was supposed to fight in an amateur tournament along with a few other local kids, but the kid I was supposed to fight pulled out two weeks from the fight. His gym wasn’t far from my house and I went in there to do some training, and his coach asked if I wanted to spar with his guys. I agreed and dropped the first kid in two minutes. Then he sent the second one and I dropped that kid quickly as well. That is when I realized fighting was something I could be good at. When I was 14 years old, I had my first amateur fight, and at 15, became a professional Muay Thai fighter.
"My first competition was against a 25-year-old, grown ass man, who had a bunch of fights already under his belt. My coach at the time had just come back from Holland, and the technical level we were training at was far superior. He trusted my ability and the work he had put into me, and we took the fight. It was a five-round fight, three minutes with one minute of rest in between. I beat him up for the first three rounds, but the last two rounds I got tired, and he ended up getting the best of me at the end. That was my first professional Muay Thai fight. Even though the last two rounds were rough, I still won and I knew right there I had what it took to be a good fighter.
“Over the next two years I continued to compete, and when I was 17 years old, I fought Gleison Tibau, who is one of my teammates now at American Top Team. There was no boxing commission or anything like that at the time, and Tibau already had like nine pro fights. He was at least 15-20 pounds bigger than me at the time. I was still growing up, but you’ve seen the way Tibau is built.
"We went to war, and it was Pride rules, where the first round is 10 minutes with a five-minute second round. During the first round, we scrapped for like nine minutes going back and forth from the ground to trading punches on our feet. When he would take me down, I had zero experience with jiu-jitsu. I would just muscle him off me and every time we stood up, I would hurt him.
"The final 30 seconds, his eye was cut open and his lip busted up, and I put my hand on his throat to throw a punch and he caught me with an armbar. I had no idea what to do, and the way he caught me, I was face down on the mat with him flipped over stomach down. I was looking at my coach asking what to do and he said I needed to tap. I did what he told me to do and I tapped out. That was my first loss in mixed martial arts, but I fell in love with MMA that night. I decided right there I wanted to get as good as I possibly could at mixed martial arts.
“After my fight with Tibau, I started training properly and did 12 more fights in Brazil. The first five were bare knuckles and there was barely any pay for them. They would bring you out there to fight and give you $100. You would get in there and scrap bare knuckles, which is pretty hardcore, but that is how it used to be back in the day."
As Alves continued to develop his skill set, it became apparent a change of scenery was needed in order for him to prepare to face a higher level of competition. In Brazil, mixed martial arts has been a thriving sport for decades, with the two most dominant teams being the Brazilian Top Team and the notorious striker squad Chute Boxe.
When the time arrived for "Pitbull" to compete on the biggest stages in Brazil, he found himself surrounded by fighters he had looked up to for years. Alves was admittedly intimidated at first, but once he let his hands go, everything fell into place and the talented young Muay Thai fighter found success in mixed martial arts. Little did he know at the time, but those performances would ultimately lead to his life being changed forever.
"My last fights in Brazil were for Bitetti Combat, and my first match came against Fabio Holanda, who was a BTT fighter. Back in the day, BTT and Chute Boxe were huge in Brazil, and Holanda had guys like Maurillo Bustamante and the Nogueira brothers in his corner. I saw those guys fighting on television and was a bit intimidated. But my coach made me focus on the task at hand and reminded me I wasn't fighting those guys...just Holanda.
"I beat him up and ended up winning the fight by unanimous decision. After the fight I was invited to join Chute Boxe but I also heard Top Team was bringing on fighters all over the world. Marcus Aurelio is from the same city I'm from in Brazil, and I contacted him to give him my profile. I had never really met him before, but he had heard some good things about me. He took my profile with him to America and showed it to Master Ricardo Liborio and Dan Lambert, who owns American Top Team.
"Before I went to America, I went to train at Chute Boxe for two weeks because they promised me a bunch of great things, but when I got there, things weren't how they said they were going to be. My family couldn't support me living in Curitiba. It is a different state than where I'm from, Fortaleza, and my family didn't have the money for me to be there training. I was there for 10 days when Marcus Aurelio called me to give me the great news that American Top Team picked me. I packed my bags and made up some story that my grandmother was sick and then I left for America. Thank God for that."
Once Alves' place at American Top Team was made official, he left Fortaleza behind and set off for America. With barely any money to his name and huge language barrier ahead of him, Alves knew adjusting to the American way of life was going to be a difficult process. Nevertheless, the opportunity to progress his fighting career and make better money doing so was something the 19-year-old couldn't pass up.
"It was really hard for me to adjust to American culture," Alves said. "We are from such a small place in Brazil, and we thought Fortaleza was the center of the world. I had never traveled much, only to the local places I fought in. I had never gone to Sao Paulo before and still to this day I've never been to Rio. When I got on the plane to come to America, it was only the second time in my life I had ever been on a plane. But moving to America was a great opportunity, and they were giving a salary to the fighters at ATT. It wasn't much, but it was enough for me to survive and send money back to my family in Brazil.
"At the time, our family situation wasn't very comfortable because my mother and father had a falling out. For five years, my dad pretty much went on his rampage and didn't want to deal with anything. My mom is my hero, and she made sure we stayed together. She had every opportunity to leave my father but she decided to stick with him, and I'm very thankful for her making that choice. Things have changed now and we all have a great relationship, but it was very hard at the time. Family is everything to me.
"Coming here to America was very challenging. Being away from my mother was tough, and I spoke no English. I knew two words—'thank you' and 'money'. Those are two solid words, but that was the extent of my English.
"I had $70 in my pocket before I left Brazil," Alves added. "All my friends got together to throw a going-away party and they came up with $20 for me. I have a lot of friends, dude, and combined they came up with like $21 and some change for me. It's all they had, and we were all very poor growing up. We weren't wealthy by any stretch, but I never really thought about it because we always had food on the table and were happy.
"When I got to America they had a house we could live in and a car to transport us back and forth to the gym. I also got $225 a week, and that was way more money than I ever had before. I thought I was a millionaire. The transfer rate for the American dollar to the money we used in Brazil was like three to one, and my $225 was like $700 in Brazilian money. I was able to send most of it back to my family and help them get out of a bad situation. I've been through some bad things in my life, but I've always been very thankful for the support I get from my family."
Stay tuned for the second installment of The Fighting Life: Thiago Alves coming tomorrow.
Duane Finley is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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