Even though his flight to Austin, Texas didn’t leave until Tuesday morning, Thiago Alves had his bags packed and sitting by the door all weekend. That’s what happens when you’ve been waiting to step into the Octagon since the middle of September and Sunday evening can’t get here fast enough.
The last five months have been a rollercoaster for Alves, who finally returns to action this weekend opposite UFC newcomer Curtis Millender.
He opted to withdraw from his bout with Mike Perry in Pittsburgh after Hurricane Irma left him and his family sleeping at the gym and grounded all the planes trying to leave the area for well over a week. After spending eight hours at the airport on the Tuesday of fight week, eager to find a way to the Steel City to face the welterweight upstart, Alves walked into his home and discovered his English bulldog, Tank, had passed away in the chaos of the storm.
“It broke my heart,” said the Brazilian veteran. “That wasn’t the deciding factor, but I was trying to leave the state for over a week and I was living in the gym out of a suitcase for a week with my wife and my one-year-old boy and I came home after an exhausting day of trying to leave to go fight and I find my best friend of nine years dead, alone in the house.
“That really took a toll. After finding him like that, it made my decision make a lot more sense.”
The 34-year-old welterweight faced the usual barrage of criticism and social media psych evaluations that accompany an athlete pulling out of a fight, with Perry insinuating that the 12-year UFC veteran who went the distance with Georges St-Pierre in a welterweight title fight at UFC 100 and has faced some of the top fighters in the history of the 170-pound weight class was scared to face him and ducking their encounter.
Nothing could be farther from the truth, not that Alves feels the need to justify his decision to Perry or anyone else.
“If you’ve never really been through a hurricane, you don’t know what’s going on and what actually happens,” said Alves, who returned to both the welterweight division and the win column at UFC 210 in Buffalo last April. “It’s a completely frightening state. You don’t know what’s going to happen and how you’re going to get through it.
“I truly believe that to go out there and compete – to do what we do and go out there and perform – you have to be 100 percent ready. You’ve got to have no doubts in your mind, nothing holding you back; that’s the best way to perform. I have too much respect for my sport and too much respect for my business to go into competition mode like that, leaving my family struggling here, not in the best frame of mind, especially being a new father and husband.
“It was my duty to stay with them; my family will always come first.”
After dealing with the aftermath of Irma, Alves was booked to face Zak Cummings as part of the UFC’s debut event in St. Louis, Missouri on January 14 of this year.
The day before the fight, Cummings slipped in the bathtub and was forced to withdraw from the contest.
“It was like, ‘I don’t know who I upset or what happened,’” laughed Alves, reflecting on the last minute cancellation of his fight with Cummings. “But it is what it is. It was such a difficult time in my life, losing my friend and my family going through that situation that it kind of made me numb for a very long time and then not getting the opportunity to fight again it was like, ‘Man, that sucks, but it is what it is. Time to move on. What are we going to do next?’
“I’m kind of bulletproof like that right now.”
In addition to feeling impervious to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Alves believes he’s just now entering the prime of his athletic career.
Despite being more than a decade deep into his UFC run and having logged his first professional appearance nearly 17 years ago, the South Florida staple just turned 34 in October and feels like now is the time for him to take all the knowledge and experience he’s garnered to this point in his career and turn it into one more run of success, starting this weekend in Austin, Texas against Millender.
“This is the best I have ever been inside the gym,” said Alves. “I’ve got my weight under control, I’m healthy, I haven’t had an injury in – God forbid – two years or something like that and I’ve been working with the best coaches in the game day in and day out. My Fight IQ is through the roof.
“I’m a better fighter than I was 10 years ago in every way and that’s why I’m so excited, so eager to get back in the cage – so I can use all this information and experience that I’ve been collecting over these years and put it to the test again, see how far I can run with this.
“He has a lot of height and reach on me; he’s a tall kid,” he said of Millender, who registered a first-round head kick knockout in January to earn his call to the Octagon. “He’s coming in on a six-fight winning streak and he was a two-time champion in another organization, but I know he’s never been in there with the kind of competition he’s going to face on Sunday. He’s never faced anybody on my level.
“I’m excited to get in there and show the different levels to this game. I know he’s going to come prepared, I know he’s going to come ready, but it doesn’t matter what he brings – I’m too damn prepared for him.”
After an arduous five months, Alves can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel and even though he’s stood in the center of the Octagon and had his hand raised in victory countless times in the past, this one is going to mean a little bit more.
“I know that when you go through a lot of things like I’ve been through, once you get a glimpse of the reward that I’ve been waiting for, it’s a lot sweeter, so I know that it’s going to feel great.
“I know my time is due, the reward is coming and I’m ready to collect.”