The Fighting Life: The Education of Thiago Alves, Part 2
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With less than $100 in his pocket and zero understanding of the English language, the Muay Thai wrecking machine boarded a flight leaving his home country armed with a unique penchant for violence and a mind focused on success.
The decision to relocate to America wasn't an easy choice to make by any measure. But with his family in the midst of financial strife, Alves saw an MMA career in the United States as a golden opportunity to make his dream of fighting on the sport's biggest stage a reality.
It didn't take long for Alves to start collecting victories stateside. In less than two years, the Brazilian powerhouse won five his six showings, building a solid reputation as a dangerous striker along the way. Due to his ability to impress on the regional level, the call Alves had been waiting for finally arrived.
At just 22 years old, Alves was booked to fight Spencer Fisher at Ultimate Fight Night 2 in Las Vegas. While the American Top Team fighter would come up short in his Octagon debut, Alves rebounded to win three of his next four bouts, including two first-round victories by way of stoppage.
It would prove to be an impressive opening run for Alves as he competed five times in his first 13 months with the organization. His work inside the cage began to earn him recognition in his public life, and with success came distraction. Suddenly a world that seemed to be getting larger by the day began to move at a quicker pace than he was prepared to handle.
"I was a kid when I moved to Florida," Alves told Bleacher Report. "I had a girlfriend for about five years from the age of 14 to 19, but I had never really lived, partied or anything like that. I used to be a ballroom dancer and teach Muay Thai, that is how I made money when I lived in Brazil.
"I really didn't have time to do anything because I've been competing as an athlete and fighting my entire life. When I came here to America, I realized everything I knew about the world was about to change. It took me awhile to really understand that.
"I say it all the time that I became a man in America. I was a kid in Brazil but I became a man here in America. When you come from nothing and you start doing well and getting recognition...things change.
"Recognition and money was something I never had before and when I was presented with it, I didn't know what to do with it. I had to come to a place where I realized everything I had worked so hard to achieve, the reason I left my family in Brazil, was all in jeopardy because I wasn't responsible enough to handle the situation. I learned the hard way, but I'm very glad things happened the way they did."
After suffering his second defeat in the UFC at the hands of AKA-trained fighter Jon Fitch, Alves fought his way back into the win column by out-classing veteran John Alessio. The bout helped Alves regain his confidence and he looking to build off his victory over "The Natural" when he stepped into the Octagon to face Tony DeSouza at UFC 66.
Once again, the Florida-based fighter flexed his Muay Thai skills as he separated the Peruvian from his consciousness with a knee in the second round.
But the celebration wouldn't last long as Alves failed his post-fight drug test due to the use of a diuretic, which was used to assist in his weight cut for the bout. The infraction earned Alves an eight-month suspension and a fine was levied on his fight purse.
Since he considered it to be an honest mistake, and was starting to run like a freight train through the welterweight division, Alves took his time away from the cage in stride. While he was forced to the sidelines for a brief stretch, that didn't mean the other things in his life needed to slow down in the slightest.
"When I got suspended I just didn't know better," Alves said. "I'm a workhorse and I'm used to having coaches tell me what to do. That's how it has always been for me. I show up, work my ass off and follow the direction of my coaches. Today I know what it takes to be at the top but earlier in my career, that wasn't the case.
"When I got suspended for taking the diuretic, I had no idea that was something we couldn't take. I knew you couldn't take steroids or recreational drugs, but I had no idea about the diuretics. I barely spoke English at the time, you know? But I got popped for taking them and was suspended in December 2006 after my fight with Tony DeSouza.
"They fined me 20 percent of my purse and I had nine months off. During the time I was on suspension, I really went through a lot. I had just come off a strong but stressful relationship.
"I was 23 years old, had a little bit of money in an account, couldn't fight, and decided I was going to enjoy myself a little bit. I started going out and socializing more and adapting to the American way of life.
"Keep in mind that I'm single and living in South Florida. It's almost not fair. We are talking about Miami and it was overwhelming. Especially since I had a little bit of recognition, I was like a kid in a candy store having fun. I really didn't know what to do with myself and it was a crazy time.
"You think you have the right people around you but if you're not grounded, you are going to mess up a little bit and go overboard. I paid for it. I was partying, having fun, and I thought I was superhuman. I was young and running through people inside the cage. I just wasn't seeing things clearly and it was a phase I had to adjust to."
As Alves prepared to return from suspension, he had his focus locked on making a run at the 170-pound title. Shortly before the failed drug test knocked him out of action, the UFC welterweight division had experienced a shake-up when rising star Georges St-Pierre dethroned long-standing divisional champion Matt Hughes at UFC 66.
The story would taken another drastic and unexpected turn as GSP was upset by former TUF winner Matt Serra in his next outing, as the New York-native pulled off the biggest upset in mixed martial arts history.
The chaos in the upper tier of the weight class created the perfect scenario for Alves to make his return. With nine months away from the Octagon and negativity surrounding his failed drug test, Alves came back with a vengeance.
Fueled by the belief he had everything to prove, the 24-year-old did his best to make up for lost time as notched four consecutive victories, bringing his win streak to six in a row.
While the run ultimately earned Alves a title shot against St-Pierre at Zuffa's historic UFC 100 event, several major issues arose a long the way. It was no secret Alves cut large amounts of weight leading into his fights.
Despite competing in the 170-pound weight class, Alves would enter the cage on fight night hovering around the 200-pound mark. His muscle-bound frame provided a solid power advantage over every opponent he faced.
And while the cut down to make the weight limit was far from a pleasant experience, things began to take a dark turn as Alves worked closer to a title shot.
"In my first fight back since being suspended I fought Kuniyoshi Hironaka. Being out that long made me very hungry and we went out there, handled business, and knocked him out. Then I fought Chris Lytle and won that fight by TKO. Next came Karo Parisyan and I knocked him out in the second round.
"After beating Karo, I fought Matt Hughes and that was the first time I had a weight issue. I rolled my ankle 10 days out and told Joe Silva I was going to pull out from the fight, but we ultimately decided to stay in and grind it out. I had to take a cortisone shot in my ankle and I knew it was going to make me hold water in my body.
"The ankle definitely played a part in coming in heavy but my diet back then was awful as well. I used to suffer so much back then all because I was cutting weight the wrong way.
"As I said before, I trust my coaches with everything because if I don't believe them, I can't perform. But the weight cut for the Matt Hughes fight was different. That was the first time I passed out in the sauna. Looking back at it and now that I'm with Mike Dolce and we do things the right way, I realize how crazy the way we used to cut weight was.
"My coach would start cooking me in the sauna on the Monday of fight week and it was a brutal process. But I didn't know any better. We used to eat whatever we wanted. Bro, I'm from Brazil and we stack our plates with rice, beans, pasta, chicken, and steak. The meals were all carbs and protein and you can't lose weight eating that way. But I thought that was the process. Just eat what you wanted and suffer during the weight cut.
"But when I met Mike Dolce, he opened my eyes to how unnecessary that was. I was going into these fights depleted, but I would fight my heart out, and I would still come away with the victory. I was winning so it never really caught my attention, but when I passed out before the Matt Hughes fight, I knew something wasn't right. I still won the fight but it was the entire experience was rough.
"My next fight against Josh Koscheck, everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong," Alves added. "I changed my diet but ended up getting exhausted as the fight went on and took more damage than any other fight before it.
"Plus two of my coaches, Marcus Aurelio and my striking coach Wally, had a falling out. I went into that fight without anybody. The team I had were all gone and it broke me. I didn't know who I could trust."
Following his unanimous-decision victory over Koscheck at UFC 90, the dream of earning a shot at UFC gold became a reality. Alves had finally earned his showdown with the welterweight king, and with the fight coming at UFC 100, the platform to become champion presented itself on an illuminated stage.
But while everything he ever wanted was now within reach, the turmoil amongst his coaching staff was creating further problems. Alves did his best to tune out the distractions but the pound-for-pound great proved to be too much for the young Brazilian to handle.
"I used to have these goals I chased," Alves said. "I said that when I was 25 years old, I was going to be married. Thank God that didn't happen because looking back now, I couldn't imagine being married at 25.
"Another one of my goals was to fight for the title at 25 and I accomplished that. The fight against Georges St-Pierre didn't go the way I wanted it to, but that was my fault. I wasn't ready and went in with the wrong game plan.
"Even though I came in unprepared, I fought my heart out against GSP. It was a hard loss to deal with because it broke my heart, but the one positive I took from my fight with Georges was that I knew I could fight with the best in the world.
"After that fight, I was so lost because all of my coaches were gone. That is when I started looking for new coaches to train me, and it took a long time to find people I could trust. Honestly, it took all the way up until my fight last year before I felt 100 percent comfortable with the people around me.
"The preparation leading up to a fight means everything. You have to have the right people around you and at this level; the smallest details make a huge difference.
"Making weight for that fight was horrible, too," Alves added. "I passed out in an elevator in the MGM with a bunch of people around me. I woke with my coach looking at me, face-to-face, with my legs in the air. He told me I passed out, and it happened again the day before weigh-ins.
"I started throwing up and it was all because the punishment I put my body through. Physically it was difficult to go through that process time and time again, but it started to take a mental toll as well."
Coming off the loss to St-Pierre at UFC 100, Alves wanted to return to the cage in the quickest possible fashion. The UFC offered him a chance at redemption in a rematch with perennial contender Jon Fitch at UFC 107, but a knee injury prevented the bout from happening.
Fortunately for Alves, the rehabilitation process was successful and the bout was rescheduled for UFC 111 in New Jersey.
As the bout with Fitch drew closer, the former No. 1 contender was hoping the worst of his luck was behind him. Alves wanted nothing more than to get back into the win column, but the opportunity to do so would stall once again.
This time around, it wasn't just a fight that was cancelled, rather his entire career would be in jeopardy as a pre-fight MRI revealed a brain condition (Arteriovenous malformation) which required immediate attention.
Suddenly, Alves went from being motivated to make another title run, to facing the idea the sport he loved could be taken from him forever.
"It was three days before the Fitch fight and I ended up having to do an MRI because my previous CAT scans weren't right for New Jersey," Alves said. "They made me do another one and found a malformation in my brain. I had to get a procedure to have a vein shrunk in my brain because it was pushing against an artery and the condition could have caused bleeding on my brain. They didn't know what had caused it at the time, but it ended up being something I was born with.
"When I came to America in 2005, I had an MRI with me and If they didn't have those images, they wouldn't have been able to get in touch with the company that did the original and they wouldn't have been able to explain it was something I was born with.
"I had the procedure done anyway and it was horrible time in my life. I was fired up to redeem myself and kick some ass, then all of sudden it looks like I'll never fight again. It was such a shock, man. I went that morning to do the medicals with the UFC then went back to my hotel getting ready to work out, and my manager calls me to say I'm not going to fight. I couldn't believe it.
"Then from Wednesday night to Thursday morning, I wake up to see Dana White on TMZ saying they found something on my brain and I may never fight again. He said they weren't sure what it was but if it ended up being bad, my career was over.
"When I heard that, my world just crumbled. I became very emotional and sad. I had a meeting with the doctors and the boxing commission on Friday night and that is when they explained the entire situation to me. I was relieved when they told me I was going to be fine and that I could fight again."
After receiving a clean bill of health, Alves finally made his return against Fitch at UFC 117. Despite a year having passed since he last stepped foot inside the Octagon, his status as one of the sport's best welterweights remained intact.
UFC President Dana White raised the stakes when he officially deemed the bout between Alves and Fitch to be a title eliminator, and the winner would go on to become St-Pierre's next opponent.
But while opportunity knocked once again, Alves's string of misfortune continued when he not only failed to make weight, but put on a lackluster performance against Fitch in Oakland.
The turn of events put Alves under the heat of White's scorn as the UFC head honcho declared he would force the bulky welterweight to move up into 185-pound waters should Alves ever fail to make weight again. Understanding the urgency of the situation, Alves's team contacted nutritional guru Mike Dolce to step in and see if he could get the issue under control.
"When it was time to finally fight Fitch again, I failed to make weight by half a pound," Alves said. "It might have been possible to get in the sauna for another hour and sweat out that half pound, but mentally and physically, I was done. I didn't want to put my body through any more punishment.
"That definitely caused a lot of problems and if I could go back and do it over, I would have tried to get in the sauna again. But I was so traumatized by previous experiences and I just couldn't put myself through it.
"That messed up my head as well. Dana White wasn't happy with me for missing weight and that is when Malki Kawa (First Round Management) decided to contact Mike Dolce to help me out."
While change is never easy to adjust to, Dolce coming into Alves' life had an immediate impact on the young fighter. Where cutting weight was once a torturous experience, "The Dolce Diet" not only served to reinvigorate Alves, but changed his entire lifestyle in a positive fashion and he returned in the best shape of his life.
"When Mike came into the picture, that is when I realized I was doing everything wrong," Alves said. "I'm honestly surprised something worse didn't happen to me physically back then. I was depleting myself so much, and then going through a combat situation the next day. It could have been very dangerous.
"It opened my eyes to how much room for improvement there was for me. I was 27 years old with so much to learn and it made me excited for the future.
"I came back in my next fight against John Howard and got the job done. I fought well and made weight very easily. Cutting weight is never any fun but compared to the suffering I had been through in the past, working with Dolce made the weight cut seem like it was nothing.
"My next fight against Rick Story I came in over-confident. I thought since I was doing everything the right way, the fight was going to be easy. I had dug deep in my training and forgot how badly I needed to do that when it counted in the fight.
"I was doing all the wrong things. I was backing up, and when have you ever seen me back up in a fight? When I finally started to come on, it was too late. I made a bunch of mistakes that will never happen again.
"After the Story fight, I made the change to have Dolce also take over my strength and conditioning. He was originally only handling my nutrition, but I had him take over every aspect of my well-being following the fight with Story.
"My previous coach had me on a program that was pushing my build to better suit a grappler. I'm more of an explosive guy and that's not my style. Dolce recognized that, but Mike is the type where he is such a positive person, he isn't going to bring negativity into a situation.
"But after the Story fight, he took over that aspect of my preparation as well and it showed in my next outing against Papi Abedi.
"Coming into that fight, I knew it was do-or-die. He was very disrespectful in the weeks before the fight, especially for a guy who had never fought in the UFC at a high level. I was very excited to rip his head off."
Submitting Abedi at UFC 138 was a strong step in the right direction and everything finally appeared to be falling into place for Alves. With Dolce making sure his body was in peak physical shape and the chaotic situation involving his coaching staff finally repaired, Alves believed his next great run had arrived.
He would draw the always-gritty Martin Kampmann for his next assignment at UFC on FX 2. "The Hitman" had recently rebounded from a rough patch in his career, and with a victory over Story in his previous outing, Kampmann was looking to get some solid momentum rolling.
When the two welterweights locked up in Sydney, Australia, Alves set the tempo and imposed his will from the opening bell. The 29-year-old appeared to be on his way to earning a unanimous-decision victory, but a technical mistake in the final minute of the bout cost him the fight.
With time ticking down, Alves decided to take the action to the canvas, where Xtreme Couture fighter caught a fight-ending guillotine choke. Despite dominating the majority of the fight, the error committed was critical.
Despite the loss, Alves was determined to take whatever positives he could from the match-up, but a post-fight incident with one of his coaches brought old ghosts to the forefront once again.
"Kampmann is a great fighter and we had an excellent training camp," Alves said. "Making weight was no problem and it was the easiest I had ever done. I had a great game plan and beat him up for 14 minutes of the fight. But I made a mistake in the final minute that cost me.
"I accept it for what it is and take it as a learning experience. My jiu-jitsu coach was screaming for me to take him down when we hit the final minute and I paid for it.
"That fight taught me to trust my gut more for sure, because I just reacted to the sound of his voice rather than keeping it standing where I had been winning the fight. What happens inside the cage is ultimately up to me and I accept the responsibility for that loss.
"Things got a bit heated after the fight between me and my jiu-jitsu coach. He made a comment I really didn't appreciate. We were riding in the car back to the hotel and he said something from the backseat that made me realize he was a douchebag.
"We were all down because I was coming off this great camp, was kicking Martin's ass for most of the fight, and then got caught in a guillotine with something like 48 seconds left.
"He said something hurtful, but I was so numb from the loss that I really didn't catch it. Dolce was driving and he tapped me on the leg because he couldn't believe what he had just heard.
"Once it registered, I confronted him about it. He said he didn't mean to be disrespectful, but kicking one of your athletes while they are down is unacceptable. That changed our relationship and I decided to not have him as my coach any more. I put Ricardo Liborio back in charge of my jiu-jitsu from there on out.
"That fight taught me to trust myself more, and we are very excited about the future," Alves added. "The fight didn't go our way, but I didn't see it as a complete loss. Besides the unfortunate comment that hurt me more than anything that happened in the fight, there was a lot to be proud of.
"With everything I know now and so many opportunities ahead of us, we are excited to get back in there. I have my confidence back, my coaching staff is on point, and I'm ready to make another run at the title. I lost that fire for a while, but it's back now more than ever before."
Overcoming hardship and adversity has made Alves into the fighter he is today. From his days as a street-wise kid throwing down in bare-knuckle fights, to buzz-sawing his way through some of the UFC's best welterweights, every step of the journey, good or bad, has meant something to Alves.
He may have taken some aspects of the experience for granted during his younger years, but with what he believes be the defining chapter of his career still ahead, Alves once again has his sights set on achieving the ultimate goal.
The welterweight division has always been one of the most competitive weight classes under the UFC banner. Throughout his career, Alves has been amongst a collection of fighters who have kept the bar high and ushered out fighters who could no longer meet the divisional standard.
While his 30th birthday is hovering around the corner, the former Muay Thai fighter turned mixed martial artist, is confident the best is yet to come.
While a series of injuries and the surgeries that followed put Alves on the sidelines for the majority of 2012, the American Top Team staple is motivated to reclaim his spot as one of the division's best.
During his time away, Alves has watched a new batch of contenders emerge, and he's eager to get his hands on all of them.
Alves has his mind set on a return to the cage in late summer and has every intention to make the most of every moment inside the Octagon.
"The welterweight division has always been one of the most competitive in the UFC," Alves said. "Nowadays, there are only a handful that aren't extremely competitive, but the welterweight division is absolutely the most competitive in the organization. I see all these guys doing well and guys coming up, and I get so excited because I want to fight all of them.
"I want to beat them all. I know it may sound aggressive with me saying it that way but that is just how I think. We are at war. I have my team, my people at ATT, and we are at war against everybody.
"I have a lot of respect for all the guys fighting out there but I can't wait to get my hands on them. It's time to unleash "The Pitbull" because he's been sleeping for a while and it's time to release him.
"A new and improved version of the wrecking machine is coming back this summer. I'm very excited to get back to work and to show what I'm capable of.
"I know there is a lot of attention being paid to this card coming up next month at UFC 158, but there isn't anything happening for real until I come back. Once I'm back, then we can decide what is going on.
"I'm looking forward to 2014 and I'm getting that belt. I want to thank everyone who has supported and been with me through the good and the bad. My sponsors at Blue Grace and Jaco have been there for me while I've been out of action. If you are sidelined and can't fight, thank God you have sponsors there to take care of you.
"Then, of course, there is Dolce, Kami my wrestling coach, Master Ricardo Liborio and Mr. Dan Lambert have all played such a huge part in helping me get through this long layoff.
"I have great people with me and it's just a matter of time," he added. "I have to get back to work and right now I'm refueling to become a better animal. Once I come back fans are going to see a different Pitbull. It will be a 2.0 Wrecking Machine with no fear and nothing to lose."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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