Maybe the worst time to watch a fight is when you’re a week away from your own fight. Antonio Carlos Junior knows this firsthand, especially the reality that it’s worse when friends and teammates are the ones in action while you’re halfway around the world.
So as Carlos watched his American Top Team squadmates Dustin Poirier, Edson Barboza and Omari Akhmedov compete on the UFC 242 card in Abu Dhabi while he finished his preparations in Florida for his battle against Uriah Hall this weekend, his mind raced.
He talked of the controversial nature of Barboza’s decision loss to Paul Felder.
“I'm scared sometimes about these kinds of things,” he said before being reminded of UFC President Dana White’s mantra to not leave matters in the hands of the judges.
“At this level it's hard,” Carlos laughed. “I try not to leave it.”
Then there was the dominant effort turned in by Khabib Nurmagomedov against his teammate, who he praised for his work ethic and championship heart. As for the lightweight champion?
“Dustin's a tough fighter, it's just that Khabib was a monster,” he said. “He's different. That's why he's 28-0.”
It got Carlos to musing about the day when he gets to fight for a championship.
“I think about that every day - how I'm gonna feel, how it's gonna be.”
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At present, the 29-year-old Brazilian is ranked 13th in the world at 185 pounds, one slot below the man he’s fighting this weekend in Vancouver. It’s a pivotal fight for “Cara de Sapato,” but then again every fight is pivotal at this level, something Carlos got a crash course in back in 2014, when he made his debut in the UFC with a win over Vitor Miranda that earned him an Ultimate Fighter Brazil title…at heavyweight.
His next fight would be at light heavyweight, and after losing to Patrick Cummins, he finally settled in at middleweight. All in seven pro fights.
“I only had three fights before the Ultimate Fighter,” he said. “I had to learn in the hardest place inside the UFC. And it was pretty hard.”
Yet as time went on, Carlos found his groove. A move to Florida to train with ATT was a smart move, and as he evolved his game, the wins piled up. By the time he beat Tim Boetsch in April 2018, he had won five straight, four by submission, and it was smooth sailing all around.
Until it wasn’t anymore.
“Last year was pretty hard for me,” Carlos admits. “I got divorced and my mind wasn't good. Emotionally I was bad. Then I had my first injury - and I hope my last one - and I needed surgery. It was pretty hard to come back. And when I put everything together, I know I wasn't good.”
It all came to a head in his comeback fight in May, when a strong start against Ian Heinisch was overruled by a strong finish from “The Hurricane,” with the unanimous decision going Heinisch’s way.
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“You need to be in the moment,” said Carlos. “I feel that especially in my last fight, I lost that. I was focused on the mistakes the referee (Todd Anderson) was doing like (missing) the headbutt and a lot of things. I spent all my energy so I couldn't show the best of me. The first round was great, the second round I was doing good too, then out of the blue after the headbutt, I started to get angry and I lost my focus and that was a big mistake. That was my 11th fight in the UFC, so I should know that I have to keep my focus no matter what happens in the fight.”
Call it another lesson learned, and heading into his highly anticipated matchup with “Prime Time,” Carlos believes everything has come together at the perfect time.
“I'm looking forward to getting there and put all the work, everything I trained this past camp, together and show the people everything I've been doing,” he said. “I think I improved a lot this time, especially mentally, and I'm really happy and I want to see that in the fight because it's working really well this far.”
The question is, what Uriah Hall will he see on Saturday; is it the guy who looks like he can beat everybody, or the one that could lose to anybody?
“I hope it's gonna be the second one,” laughs Carlos, who nonetheless is preparing for the killer who has filled highlight reels for years.
“I want to be prepared for everybody. I think he's a really tough guy. He's dangerous and he's pretty fast. He's flashy and can throw some spinning kick out of the blue and knock somebody out like (Gegard) Mousasi, who is one of the best fighters in the world. He has some holes in his game, I think, but you always have to pay attention to him. You can never relax.”
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Carlos won’t relax. Not now and not as long as he’s chasing a gold belt. That’s the goal, and he’s ready to start chipping away at it.
“What I want to do now is make it right,” Carlos said. “I'm really happy and excited and I want to put another winning streak together. I want to get this belt. I know I can. This division is pretty hard, I see a lot of good guys, but I'm there too. I'm (number) 13. I hope I'll be top five really soon and I want to fight for the belt.”