The day after the bandits came, Bellator featherweight champion Patricio "Pitbull" Freire (24-2) became a man. He was five years old.
"Someone spread a rumor my father had a collection of guns," his brother Patricky Freire said. "It wasn't true. But that's why they targeted him even though he was a police officer. They wanted to steal the guns they thought he had. It was a night of terror. I don't think I'll ever forget it."
The Freire family lived on the outskirts of Natal, Brazil, in a small two-bedroom house, isolated and alone. The city itself, one of the country's leading tourist destinations, was nearly a million strong. But the city was very far away.
Eight children packed a single bedroom—Patricio, Patricky and six cousins. His parents shared the other bedroom, one eye open after a jailbreak earlier that day. Bad men, including a serial rapist, were on the loose. Far from civilization, the Freires felt like targets. But they intended to be moving ones.
"When the bandits got into our property, my husband woke me up with a hand on my mouth and made a signal for me to be silent," family matriarch Marlusa Freire said. "Then he made another signal for me to bring the gun I had under my pillow."
While her husband Lucilio went to the kitchen, where men were attempting to break down a sturdy door, Marlusa went to check on the children. Gun in hand and a crack shot, she was ready for anything.
"When I was in the living room and saw the window in the boy's room was open, I didn't second-guess. We always kept it closed at night, so I knew they had opened it from the outside. I stood by the door, and as soon as one of them tried to make his way in, I shot him. I felt it was a do-or-die situation. I was protecting my family, and it was the right thing to do. I'd do it all over again."
Seven kids heard the shot from under the bed where they had been told to hide. But one wasn't so good at following directions.
"She shot him right between the eyes. I saw the whole thing," Patricio said. "My mother told my father about what happened, and he said she was mistaken, she was just imagining she had hit him. But in the morning, he went around the house and saw the bandit's body lying there.
"I remember like it was today. I told my father I wanted to go see it. He asked me, 'You really want to see it?' and I said, 'I do,' and he took me there. At that moment, I became a man. I saw the bandit with part of his head crumbled by the shot."
To this day, Patricio needs company to get through the night. He can't do it alone—not after knowing the things that go bump in the night aren't always products of the imagination. But the childhood trauma had one positive impact on his life, particularly for a professional fighter: He fears no man, at least while his eyes remain open.
"I can't sleep alone after this episode," he said. "But I have no fear of living beings."
Forging a Fighter
If you were attempting to forge a fighter who resembled the pioneers of this sport, the whirling dervishes who crafted an art through personal courage and a devotion to the joy of fighting, he'd look a lot like Patricio Freire, who fights Daniel Straus for the Bellator championship Friday on Spike TV.
Some of that is the product of a decade of coaching and the tutelage of the late kickboxer Bruno Gouvea, who passed away after a car accident in 2012. But like Michelangelo saw a statue, perfectly formed, in every block of marble, it didn't take much for a coach to realize what he had with the Pitbull brothers. Just a little work with the chisel and hammer revealed the fighters within, waiting for the lives they were born to.
It was fighting, after all, that led them to the gym in the first place. Every disagreement between the two brothers, separated by just 17 months, ended in fisticuffs, blood and a vow of revenge.
"We'd fight over everything," Patricky said. "If our father bought something for one of us and didn't buy it for the other one, it'd end up in a fight."
"During one of our fights, my mother got in between us, and I stopped," Patricio remembered. "But Patricky landed an uppercut in my body, and I fell on my knees. I felt the punch because I was not expecting it. He started celebrating, saying, 'I'm Popo! I'm Popo.' I thought that was cowardice, and it pissed me off that he was celebrating it."
For more than a year after that, the two brothers didn't speak a single word to each other. While the pain and anger faded, pride wouldn't allow either to bend.
"I remember we'd use our parents to say something indirectly to each other," Patricky said. "It was funny. Our parents never imposed on us to talk to each other; they let us take our time to figure it out...it just made our relationship stronger. We realized it was not worth it to sever our relationship because of fights we had at home."
Considering the impact that fighting had already had on the family's domestic lives, you can imagine how reticent Lucilio Freire was to encourage it with formal classes. But, after seeing a jiu-jitsu demonstration in town, Patricio insisted.
His father, after visiting a training session to see this jiu-jitsu firsthand, agreed—with a caveat. The boys would need to stop fighting at home and confine their physicality to the gym. For the most part, they lived up to their word—but not completely. The fighting continued almost into adulthood, where it took on another identity: sparring.
Chute Boxe and the Blood Feud
Both, of course, were prodigies of sorts. Already used to pounding on each other, it didn't take long before they were the region's standouts. When Pride fighter Murilo "Ninja" Rua came to Natal for a seminar, he left with a 17-year-old Patricio in tow, the legendary Chute Boxe their destination.
"My father compromised his finances, bought me the plane ticket and gave me money to go. I went there with my friend Sergio Junior," Patricio said. "Mine was a dream coming true."
Chute Boxe looms large in Brazilian MMA legend. Rudimar Fedrigo, the head trainer, gave no quarter. Neither did any of the fighters under his charge. Jose Landi-Jons called the gym home, as did Wanderlei Silva and Ninja's brother, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua.
Fighters from Chute Boxe didn't necessarily share a style, but they shared an ethos. Aggression was a way of life, both in the ring and in the training room. Sparring sessions there are often more brutal than the fights themselves, with position in the gym earned only by merit and never by reputation alone.
When you see Patricio fight, you see the Chute Boxe style but a version updated for the modern sport—a mix of pure fury and strategic brilliance. But none of the credit for his success is due to the gym's influence. His dream died there in less than a month, after a knee from fellow featherweight Jadyson Costa sent Freire's world reeling.
"We were there doing technique training, and when it was his turn, instead of doing the technique, he came at me with a sequence of attacks, clinched me and kneed me on my mouth," Patricio said. "I fell back without understanding what was going on. Andre Dida got between us, and the following day, I was already back in Natal."
Freire stewed for the entire 2,100-mile trip back home, dreaming of his chance to set matters straight.
"I came back frustrated, angry and wanting revenge," Patricio said. "My father made a hell of an effort for me to be able to go and live in another state. It was frustrating, but I knew I'd find a way to face that guy in a fight."
A few years later, in 2007, he got his wish. A promoter in Natal made the fight happen after Patricio agreed to fight for free in order to pay for Costa's plane ticket to the event. Patricky, too, was willing to forgo a pay check to fight Costa's brother, Maykon.
"I was cheering him on and warming up at the same time because my fight would be right after," Patricio said. "Patricky beat the hell out of Jadyson's brother, and people went crazy. Then it came my time.
"I submitted him in the first round. And while I had him on the rear-naked choke, I said in his ear, 'Sleep, motherf--ker, sleep.' After it was done, I felt vindicated. Like my honor had just been cleaned."
The Champ Is Here
In 2010, Patricio joined Bellator Fighting Championships, leaving Brazil for the first time for a fight at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. One year later, his brother joined him.
The two decided, because Patricky was two inches taller, that he would fight at 155 pounds, which left Patricio to rule the roost at featherweight. His success was not just immediate—it was emphatic. Eight of his 12 wins have come by way of knockout or submission. His two losses, by contrast, were both split decisions.
"I hope to be remembered one day as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, fighter in MMA history," Patricio said. "I want people to say the name Patricio when they talk about MMA and that God allows it to happen. I want to fight the biggest names, I want to face [UFC champion Jose] Aldo and all the other guys people say are better than me at the weight class. To have real proof of who is the best. We'll only know who's truly the best after we all fight.
"I wish MMA was like boxing with fighters from different organizations being able to fight each other. It would be more interesting for the sport, the sport would grow more, everyone would be able to fight everyone. I wish I was able to promote my fights and go after those people deem the greatest. They're not just in the UFC and not just in Bellator. They're everywhere, and I'd like if there was a way to fight them all."
While the sport's current climate doesn't allow for fighters to mix easily, not even for what Patricio calls the "Mayweather vs. Pacquiao" of MMA, Freire has done his part to make a dream match possible. In five years, he's established himself as arguably the best fighter outside the UFC Octagon and one of the most aggressive and combative personalities beyond the confines of the cage as well.
Patricky, meanwhile, has struggled some as an undersized lightweight, winning just seven of his 12 Bellator fights and falling short of championship glory. He's content, it seems, to let his little brother command the spotlight.
"Although Patricky is the older one, Patricio is the one who behaves like an older brother," Matheus Aquino, part of the brothers' management team and a longtime family friend, said. "He's always worried about Patricky, and he's basically the one who takes front stage on things. Patricky is more reserved.
"Patricky is calm, way too calm for Patricio's tastes, and that irritates him and initiates arguments. Patricio has a very short fuse. Add that to the fact they're brothers, and sometimes a conversation between them easily goes from a normal conversation to a swearing contest."
While a bout with Aldo remains on the back burner and a fight with Straus takes center stage this week, another fight looms large. MMA has had several sets of prominent brothers, including the Ruas, the Nogueiras and the Emelianenkos. It has not, however, had a family feud in the cage.
But Patricky, with the clock ticking on his career as his 30th birthday approaches, thinks every day about making the cut down to featherweight. There, he believes, his height, strength and explosiveness would pay dividends. He might, if he devoted himself fully, emerge as champion—even if that means going through the current belt holder, who just happens to be his brother.
"To face Patricio in the cage would be normal," Patricky said. "We've fought a lot of times, and we used to spar a lot at the gym. We already fought so many times for free. I'd fight him without any problem if we were well paid for it."
Something still lingers between the two brothers, an energy that never fully dissipated in their youth. They no longer spar together. The sessions, they say, were too likely to careen out of control—a friendly contest quickly spiraling into a full-fledged fight. Perhaps it was meant to be this way.
"I think about fighting my brother being as natural as giving him a hug. We were basically born facing each other, so it would be something interesting," Patricio said. "We'd put on the best fight we ever had. We know each other too well."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.