"Fans who are looking at my fights and see that I only have submissions, I warn them - my life is full of continuous learning; I don't focus my training on taking feet, necks, arms. I'm entering the Octagon to display what a martial arts practitioner has best - wisdom."
Everybody has their dreams, their problems and difficult times, and nearly all of us have goals. A few make their dreams come true without much of a hard road, others switch their final destination when facing an unexpected obstacle, and some simply put their heart, perseverance and dedication towards only one goal - to shine in what they do for a living.
Carlos Eduardo Rocha, aka 'Ta Danado', a Brazilian fighter who lives in Germany and who will face TUF 11 runner-up Kris McCray in a preliminary bout on November 13th’s UFC 122 card, sits firmly in the latter category. And that’s not just because he started as an amateur Brazilian Jiu-jitsu practitioner and now made it inside the Octagon, as his story goes far beyond that.
Born in Cabedelo, but living in the streets of the city of Joao Pessoa, in the Brazilian state of Paraiba, Rocha, a poor kid without a family, never got involved with all of the bad things that a young person with no adult supervision could fall under. Instead, he looked to survive without robbery, drugs or similar crimes, as he washed dishes to make some money until a chance to move to another Northeast state, Fortaleza in Ceara, appeared. That was a time and a transition that the Brazilian citizen, who lives in Hamburg, Germany, doesn't like to chat about, holding back the details of the time when he had only the stars as a roof and about the family he never had.
"That was a time that I don't like to remember nowadays," said Rocha. "I prefer to look forward and speak about how proud I am of being found by Darcio Lira."
Lira, a traditional Brazilian Jiu-jitsu instructor and leader of a respected team which takes his name, was the man who made sure that the term ‘life on the streets’ and the name of Rocha were not to be spoken in the same sentence anymore. At that moment, Rocha's dream started to take shape as soon as he showed resilience and will in his first training sessions. These were two of the attributes that not only earned him praise from his master, but also his nickname - Ta Danado - something hard to be translated, but that defines itself like the Tasmanian Devil cartoon character.
"I was very agitated on the mat, so much so that sensei Darcio asked me, 'Hey kid, stop being so agitated (danado), stay calm.' I was there, always talking, always playing, so I got this nickname from masters Darcio and Darlyson (laughs)."
The difficulties for the young Tasmanian Devil from Brazil didn't end when he started competing in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu though. His team wasn't packed with sponsors and supporters, and soon he realized that if he wanted to take part in a tournament in the gentle art, it would take a marathon of efforts.
"BJJ isn't a cheap sport in terms of enrolling in the competitions and traveling to the main tournaments, which are held in different states than the ones I lived in when I was in Brazil." Rocha recalls. "I only had the chance in blue and purple belt of competing in the World Cup of BJJ (held by CBJJO)."
Those travels that he was able to take weren't in vain, as Rocha got the gold medals. The second trip earned him first place on the podium in his weight and in absolute, feats that sent the fighter's imagination racing to the MMA scene. But if BJJ was already surrounded by difficulties, MMA would be even worse, as training with a team without tradition in the sport and with no money to make the road easier for the future competitor formed a formidable stairway. Yet 'Ta Danado' kept himself believing while he went up the steps.
"I already had my idols like Rickson Gracie, Ricardo Arona, 'Minotauro' Nogueira, Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua and Rogerio 'Minotouro' Nogueira, along with the army from Ceara that was fighting in UFC. I talked to my teammates and I said 'One day I'll be inside the Octagon, you all will see.' I trained hard, beat some guys and here I am."
Simple to describe, but not to simple to realize. Without a single MMA match under his belt, Rocha had the opportunity to make a different life in the center of Europe - Germany. The guy who had nothing in Brazil, who cleaned the mats only in gratitude for his masters and not because it was his responsibility, received an invitation from a German citizen who was visiting Lira's Dojo back in 2007 to teach BJJ and fight in Europe. The chance to start his career left Rocha with one thought, that it is now or never.
"When Kai Schreider told me about the conditions, I only took my backpack and said, 'let's go.' He had connections with one of the pioneers of MMA in Germany, Andre Balschmieter, and finally I started teaching classes."
Rocha didn't think much about the huge culture differences, and the food, climate and distance from his people. He expected small troubles along the way, he says, but the biggest one was to show German citizens that martial arts wasn't a product brought by customers, it has philosophy and respect.
"Sensei Darcio taught me about the Budo of Martial Arts, and I bring it forever," he says of his roots. "In the very beginning it was hard to explain to the Germans that BJJ wasn't a product only, and it was tough to pass on the discipline of the martial art."
With his first task completed, the second - his MMA debut - didn't happen in the first year of Rocha's life on German soil. But he continued teaching his BJJ class normally until the day that he went to Dresden as the cornerman of Balschmieter. Due to some medical issues, the German MMA pioneer couldn't compete, and it was Rocha who stepped up to take the slot.
"I wasn't prepared technically, but that was what I wanted to do," Rocha said. "They didn't want me to compete because I was a world BJJ champion. That was an issue to surpass. But soon everything was okay, and I just finished the guy with a choke."
That first MMA competition of Rocha was supposed to be in tournament format, but with guys getting injured during the competition, he only fought once. Good for him, because in the finals he'd take on a veteran with 17 fights under his belt, including a match against Gegard Mousasi, in Steve 'Machine' Mensing. And when I say him, it signifies Mensing, who two months later couldn’t escape from Rocha, and he was forced to tap due to a well sunk leglock.
With an 8-0 current record, seven by submission, Rocha is now a huge idol in Germany - teaching classes at X-Ess Fights Gym, an academy that his 'brother' Willy Steinky got him inside. So with a legion of fans and the buzz of signing to the UFC, it could force the Brazilian to forget his roots. But he still has the links to the academy where everything started. In the search of training with experienced fighters and camps, Rocha landed at Gracie Fusion in Rio de Janeiro, but only after asking permission from his master Darcio Lira. It’s something that is hard to come by nowadays, with fighters looking for better camps without many links to what they passed through earlier.
"Roberto 'Gordo' Correa was a guy that inspired my game in BJJ, and his team (Gracie Fusion) has some of the best. What I lived while training in Rio is like a dream coming true," he says. "I watched these guys on TV and now I'm rolling and sparring with them. This has made me more motivated than ever."
After six weeks of training with high caliber guys in Brazil, Rocha feels great as he prepares to step in the Octagon in front of his followers in Germany. Fighting, like McCray, for the first time as a 170 pounder, he reveals what pumps him more for this fight, and then finishes with one more lesson of Budo he carries with him since his start as a martial artist.
"My manager told me it's only a one fight contract, just to motivate me like, 'Win the first and get more,'" he says. "I don't see McCray having the tools to surprise me; what I watched is what I lived in my day-by-day. To beat this 'Ta Danado' here isn't easy, so let's impose 15 minutes of total pressure on him.
"Fans who are looking at my fights and see that I only have submissions, I warn them - my life is full of continuous learning; I don't focus my training on taking feet, necks, arms. I'm entering the Octagon to display what a martial arts practitioner has best - wisdom. It’s the wisdom of improving what's going well, wisdom to learn, stay sharp and do the work properly to overcome the foe."