There is no doubt that when Junior Assuncao got the call for his first UFC fight five years ago, the quote "a dream come true" was one of the many that define what an appearance in the organization means to professional fighters from all corners of the Earth. The significance of this move for newcomers or veterans who have been pursuing spots inside the famous Octagon for years is the certainty that the blood, tears and sweat spent in the gym and on the local circuit are finally paying off.
But once you get inside, performing on the elite level against the best in the business can turn a dream into a nightmare if you realize that your best at that moment is not enough. Assuncao debuted by losing to ultra tough Kurt Pellegrino by submission, then dispatched Brit Dave Lee in the same fashion before having the last fight of that first stint in the UFC against top contender and TUF5 winner Nate Diaz. Recalling what Assuncao thought after the loss to Diaz is nearly impossible, but we can imagine the questions:
"What really happened?"
"Is my time in the Octagon over?"
But since we are talking about a combat sport here, MMA is a continuous challenge and one where there is ample room for improvement, so the former UFC fighter always wants to get back to where he was. Eager for his return to the elite of this sport, the warrior starts mauling foe after foe until that phone call brings him back to the UFC again. That’s just what Assuncao did for about four years.
"I didn't fight in the UFC since 2007, and from that time until today learned a lot and I matured a lot," Assuncao says of the life outside the UFC. "During these four years out of the organization, I put all my effort and focus on returning with more experience. When I lost to Nate Diaz, I put it in my mind that I wanted to get back. I took four years to make it happen - with blood, tears and scars. And my plan is the belt. Getting back to the UFC is a dream coming true, and I hope this becomes a kind of example to other fighters who competed in UFC and are trying to return. Believe in your dreams, keep your focus and don't give up."
The walking papers of UFC are eyes openers too, as Assuncao realized that the game does not involve only fighting, but checking on the mistakes he made the first time around in order to not repeat them a second time. So changes are necessary.
"I am 30-years old and I have not lost a fight for about four years,” he said. “I learned from the defeats I had inside the Octagon as well as outside of it. I think I stepped in for the second time very differently because now I'm a 100% pro. I do not teach martial arts classes anymore, and my focus in exclusively on fighting. I want to fight for next four, five years and win a belt during this time.”
And he’s doing it at featherweight, as opposed to the 155 pounds he competed at during his first stay in the UFC.
"I was a small lightweight,” he said. “Off training my weight is around 165-171. So I re-did my diet and once I began only training MMA, the adjustment was good. The idea of becoming a 145 pounder was the correct move, because the training and the routine helped me to stay in shape."
Early on during his rough road back to UFC, Assuncao was matched against Torrance Taylor, and a defeat by unanimous decision in May of 2008 was an unexpected blemish on the Brazilian’s résumé. It complicated matters, but Assuncao's mind had no room for doubts as his desire to not give up was louder than any setback.
"The world isn't perfect," he jokes. "I returned to UFC with seven victories in eight fights, and I wanted eight in eight. I thought that defeat would harm my plan of returning to the UFC, but my last fight was the pivotal point, because I never felt so much responsibility like that day. I knew a seventh victory could be my ticket to get back to the UFC, and a defeat would harm the four years of hard work of making it happen. I was scared of losing outside the UFC again, as I was fighting bigger guys than I usually do. The last guy I fought (Wesley Murch) won four consecutive matches, and I fought with extra pressure, but I subbed him, and that was six wins in a row. I knew that I needed not only a good record, but I also needed a good winning streak. So it was a really stressful situation. But I'm back!"
At UFC 135 on September 24th, it was the long waited return of Assuncao, and standing on the other side was Eddie Yagin, a fighter with similar experience, but without what the Brazilian now had, the Octagon experience.
"Yes, I am a veteran now," he says, commenting on the talk that he overreacted at weigh-ins, getting too close to Yagin's head. "I knew he was debuting and eventually he would be nervous like I was in UFC 64."
The performance against the "The Filipino Phenom" was a mix of new tricks with top cardio from Assuncao. Providing unorthodox looks with switches in stances, the Brazilian got to control the majority of the fight, teeing off on Yagin in a last round which started with a ground and pound display at 2:21. And if it was not enough to finish the bout, it did leave the impression necessary to show that Assuncao is a different fighter from the one seen back in '07.
"Well, the plan was to finish the fight, and I got upset for not doing that," he said. "But at the level we fight, we can't spin the roulette wheel and see what happens. I think my focused training and my swimming reflected in my lungs in the fight. Cardio is a very important factor. I already saw black belts becoming white because the gas tank was empty when he needed more. Facing Ross Pearson, I am training at 6,000 feet over the ocean level, so I am more than ready for 15 minutes."
Fighting Pearson on Friday on the preliminary card of UFC 141 is the bout Assuncao wanted, as he campaigned for the match on Twitter and now he will welcome the TUF9 winner in his featherweight debut. Openly challenging a man nicknamed “The Real Deal,” the Brazilian capoeira and BJJ black belt assumes the risks and the rewards of a fight of this magnitude.
"Beating a tough guy like Ross can catapult me to the front line of the 145-pound division," he says. "I take it seriously, as it was my decision. I know he is a dangerous fighter if I play his game, and we studied his game, but on fight night everything is different. He comes forward and we saw it when he fought Edson Barboza. He tried to fight at short range, avoiding the powerful kicks. If he fights like this against me, he will go the ground, because my style is different, so I think our games match well. But I believe I have more tools to become the winner. Anyway, I don't have a crystal ball, so we need to wait to see what will happen on December 30."
In the second step of his second stint, Assuncao has Pearson in his sights as the next obstacle on the way to his eventual goal – a featherweight title.
"I’m pursuing my goal to be the champion. I am coming from seven victories, and I am not intimidated by anything,” said Assuncao. "December 30th I will impose my game, and when I am on, I will use my creativity to win."