Gabriel Gonzaga’s “Napao” translates to big nose. Rousimar Palhares’ “Toquinho” is tree stump, and Antonio Silva’s “Pezao” is big foot. So how did UFC welterweight Che Mills (who is not Brazilian) get the nickname “Beautiful”?
Well, he got it from a Brazilian of course.
“It was sort of a little joke in the gym between me and my training partners,” said Mills with a chuckle. “I can’t remember how it exactly started, but basically it was my BJJ coach, Chico (Mendes). He just held on to it, and for weeks and weeks he just would not let it go. Every time I walked into the gym, he’d be like ‘Hey, Mr. Beautiful,’ and it just kinda stuck. It’s not what a lot of people think – I’m not really a vain person like that. It’s all for fun.”
Life is fun for the 29-year old Gloucester native these days. He’s in the midst of a five month stretch in which he finally earned a spot on the UFC roster after eight years and 18 pro fights, then went on to win his debut against Chris Cope last November with a Knockout of the Night that took just 40 seconds. Oh yeah, he’s in a co-main event this Saturday night against Canadian phenom Rory MacDonald on a UFC 145 card that’s one of the biggest of the year thus far. How does he explain such a run of good fortune?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m still waiting for someone to explain it to me really. What can I say? I can’t really ask for a lot more than that.”
Well, it’s not as if everything were handed to him. A pro since 2003, Mills quickly made a name for himself on the UK scene, and though he would have his ups and downs, once Michael Bisping’s ascension to the UFC became a reality and the Brits started bashing down the doors to the Octagon, Mills was expected to be one of the next wave, and his ticket was going to be the US vs. UK season of The Ultimate Fighter.
James Wilks had other ideas, and in an elimination fight to get into the competition, he submitted Mills en route to winning the series’ welterweight title.
“It was quite devastating at the time,” said Mills. “I had all types of thoughts, and for me personally, it was a bad performance, so I was quite hard on myself, and in my head I was thinking that the UFC obviously saw that performance right in front of their eyes, and I wondered if I would ever get the chance again. I thought that I may not make it to the UFC after all. But I kept going, kept winning, and carrying on, and finally I got my chance.”
Winning seven of his next nine bouts, Mills made his case for inclusion among the best 170-pounders in the world, and with the UFC going to Birmingham for UFC 138, he finally got the call in 2011. But in the lead up to the bout, he felt the pressure of having to make up for his last bout in front of the UFC brass.
“Especially the four to six weeks leading up to the fight, it was a lot of pressure,” said Mills. “Just more so career wise, because I’m not getting any younger and all I was telling myself was that if this goes horribly wrong, then where do I go from here? That was the main pressure I was putting on myself really. I was trying to push what other people were saying about how I deserved it out of my mind to not get too ahead of myself. All I wanted to do was win.”
He did more than that, as his speed and power left Cope in a heap in less than a minute. Praised by UFC commentator Joe Rogan and fans around the world, Mills suddenly had the spotlight firmly on his head. And that was just fine with him.
“I didn’t expect it to be like this at all,” he said. “Publicity wise, I’m getting everyday people recognizing me, whereas before, I could just walk down the street and just be a normal person. So I’m getting a lot more attention and that’s the main thing really. People from all different angles are talking to me and wishing me well, saying they watched the fight, and they wish me good luck in the future. Before it was just hardcore fans, but now, it’s just amazing really.”
Yet if Mills was a revelation to casual fans with his win over Cope, he has also been one to himself, as he has changed his approach to the sport and his career considerably since his early days.
“Really and truly, I’d say the last two years, I’ve really taken it seriously in every aspect,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, before I used to train well and stuff, but that would be it. Let’s say I had a fight in four or six weeks time, I’d say ‘I better get to the gym then.’ I’d train really hard, but then after the fight, I’d take a few months off and just train two or three times a week and not really learn anything. But now I’ve got an entirely different mentality, and after the last few fights I’ve always been back to the gym as soon as possible, trying to learn different aspects, and just trying to grow, basically.”
This Saturday, he will look to show off his talents and veteran experience against rising star MacDonald, whose efforts thus far have him painted as the heir apparent to the welterweight throne manned by his fellow Canadian and training partner Georges St-Pierre. For some vets, that would put a sizable chip on the shoulder as they try to knock the young gun down a few notches. Mills isn’t one of them.
“His wins speak for themselves,” he said of MacDonald. “And even his loss to (interim welterweight champion) Carlos (Condit), he did really well. I see a really talented kid, he’s got a bright future ahead of him, no doubt, and I don’t have anything bad to say about him. I’m quite complimentary towards his style actually.”
But they still have to fight. And while all the hype surrounds MacDonald, Mills is quietly confident that with a win, he’ll be getting that spotlight turned on him once again.
“That’s the motivation really,” he said. “Everybody’s talking about Rory, and deservedly, but the way I see it, the more people talk about him and the more people say that I haven’t got a chance, if I did get that win, the sky’s the limit.”