"I'm giving my all not to just be the first featherweight in the UFC, but to prove how worthy the 145 pound guys are with a great and glorious victory."
Sometime we forget the power of the “no” – a small word that can have huge consequences in our life. Fredson Paixao, the Brazilian Jiu-jitsu black belt who will make history, along with his foe Pablo Garza, as the first featherweights to step inside the UFC’s Octagon at the Ultimate Fighter season 12 finale this Saturday, is the perfect guy to talk about the dissection of the "no" and what it could have meant for him at a crucial moment of his life.
A nine-time National champion and four-time World champion in BJJ (once as a purple belt and three times as a black belt), Paixao, a native of Manaus, Amazonas, was never a fan of the gentle art when it first appeared in front of him. A poor resident of Japiim, the most populous district of Manaus' South Zone, the kid, who sold ice cream on the streets to help his family, liked kung fu and its moves, and while the lack of money to train in the Chinese martial art was only one of several obstacles for him, Paixao nearly changed the course of his entirely life if back in 1994 he opted for the "no", instead of a "yes".
"I never liked BJJ in the beginning," Paixao says, showing the prejudice of his first observation of the art. "Two guys grappling sounded a bit weird for this macho man here (laughs). I only started practicing it due to a malicious kick a friend of mine delivered to me 16 years ago."
The friend, Leyson, already trained BJJ under the supervision of Professor Orley Lobato, and when the modest academy needed some paint on its walls Lobato's students took over the job. Paixao, a smart boy with a talent for this kind of work, offered to help his close friend on the academy’s new look. And now you'll understand the power of the "no" or better, of a forced "yes".
"I painted the gym's walls to help, I never did it in order to train for free, because like I said, I didn't like the sport." Paixao says. "Lobato liked what I did and asked me, 'Let's start training?' Of course I was ready to thank him and deny the opportunity, but Leyson kicked my heels and I opted for a yes and everything changed."
Mopped up in his first training session on the mat, Paixao quickly turned the difficulties of every beginner into a solid ground game. The boy's ability to work from the top or from the bottom, and the development of a strong and uncommon submission, the wristlock, a move which already forced Japanese BJJ legend Yuki Nakai to tap, solidified the newcomer’s reputation. But only a few believed in his potential in the beginning, which was good for Paixao, who took the doubts as a challenge to be dismantled.
"I was still a white belt when teammates with better financial conditions than me were reading a fight magazine and I told them, 'One day I'll be in this mag.' They laughed a lot, underestimating me. I worked my ass off, and a little over one year later I got the gold medal in the National Championships and had my image and name in the mag."
Prominence in fight magazines and gold medals were a normal routine for 'The King of Wristlocks' during his BJJ career. The standout from the North of Brazil and his superb game forced the master of his professor, grandmaster Oswaldo Alves, to graduate him from purple to black, without the necessity of passing through brown belt due to the quality of his skills.
But after a move to Rio de Janeiro and the disastrous experience of living with a lot of friends in one apartment, he received an invitation from grandmaster Alves to live in his place, as well as a few small sponsors. Paixao wanted to pay back what these people did for him and his first attempt was to make the transition to Submission Grappling Tournaments. Besides the medals, these types of competitions had prize money that BJJ tourneys didn't.
Paixao's ride without a gi was close to catastrophic though, as the black belt participated in the ADCC 2000 Trials and 2001 main tournament without any victories. He insisted on competing, taking place at a traditional grappling tournament in the North of Rio de Janeiro, and losing to the same man who beat him in ADCC Trials. He did get a silver medal in a local tournament in 2003, getting overmatched by fellow WEC vet Rani Yahya in the same year.
The different rules and the lack of a gi were a nightmare for Paixao, who was soon faced with the opportunity to make his MMA debut against Yahya. But there were three problems here: first, he didn't do well without a gi; second, nobody expected that the lackluster performance in submission grappling would help him in his first MMA match; and third, Paixao never thought about a professional MMA career.
"I was training with the team of Gracie Barra focused on MMA named Combat Team, and I had guys like Renato 'Babalu' Sobral, Rafael dos Anjos, Luis Ramos, Gustavo 'Machado' Ximu, Alexandre 'Cacareco' Ferreira and others at my side and they motivated me," said Paixao. "However, people were saying that I'd be beaten, and that I'd ruin my career with a terrible match against Yahya, who was 4-0 in MMA at that time.”
"But I took the fight, and I fought under the pressure of being a champion in BJJ who didn't have success in submission grappling. I fought in my homeland, against a guy with more experience than me and I had the underdog status. But it was time to shine, and I didn't avoid the fight; I stepped forward to avenge my loss in that grappling superfight against Yahya."
Beating Yahya by decision in May of 2004, Paixao saw a new career path, one that he never thought about before, opening itself for him. His determination to pursue an MMA career wasn't shaken when he lost his second match (to Yoshiro Maeda) and he still looked forward, asking, 'Who's next?'
12 fights later (10-3, 1 NC) and now living in Las Vegas - thanks to the friendship with his strength and conditioning coach Carlos Sanchez - Paixao reaches the mainstream of the sport, a field that would have never appeared for him if in 1994 he had said "no", instead of "yes." And when he looks back to that decision, what pops in his head is that it’s a good thing that what happened in the past can be brought back and implemented to emulate the same outcome of success.
"I look back to the very first fight of my career and I think of the will power I had, the work I put in, and the way I was angry for that fight, and I'll be like that this weekend," he says. "The only difference is that I've structured myself to not only fight with heart and the wish for revenge as I did against Yahya, but with the wish of proving that I belong in the UFC. I'm giving my all not to just be the first featherweight in the UFC, but to prove how worthy the 145 pound guys are with a great and glorious victory."