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For a former UFC fighter, the road back to the big show is a fairly simple one. On paper. In reality, it’s as rough as competing in the Octagon, as each local bout takes on the importance of a championship fight, with winning not a happy byproduct of a hard training camp and being better on that particular night, but a necessity.
The Ultimate Fighter 19 finalist Dhiego Lima was on his way back after being released from the promotion in 2015, beating Antonio Trocoli and UFC vet David Michaud. His third fight back was against TUF 21 prospect Jason Jackson in December of last year.
Lima was halted in the first round by Jackson, dropping his Titan FC welterweight title in the process. It forced Lima to ponder whether he was going to start the process again or simply move on.
“Especially since I got finished in that fight, in my head, I was like, ‘Man, is this even worth it?’” he recalls. “I’m gonna have to win like three or four fights, not make any money because in the smaller organizations there’s really nobody that pays that much anymore, and you take a chance because you don’t even know if you’re gonna win all of them. We train our asses off, but it’s a fight and you never know what’s gonna happen. So that thought was definitely in my head.”
At 28, Lima was too young and too talented to walk away from the sport, but with a successful gym in Georgia and a wife and kids at home, beginning again wasn’t exactly an attractive prospect.
Then the phone rang with an opportunity to compete on the “Redemption” season of The Ultimate Fighter. Then the blood ran back to his fists.
“Right away, I was like, ‘I’m back in,’ he laughs. “I had just come off a loss and I was in a tough spot. I was like, ‘God, what am I gonna do?’ I wondered if it was even worth it. But once I got the call, the only hesitation was thinking about my family. But in my head, I was back.”
And while the majority of the cast of TUF 25 sees this as a last chance to earn a place on the UFC roster, Lima was just fine with that kind of pressure, simply because he feels that he’s a different fighter than the one that went 1-3 the first time around in the Octagon.
“This was one of those ‘last shot’ things for me; it really was,” he said. “I’m still young, I’m only 28 right now, but I know how good I am. I know how hard I train, and everybody who trains with me, they tell me I can be a UFC champion. I train with high-level guys, my brother (Douglas) is a (Bellator) champion and I do good against him, but come fight time, in every loss, I lost to myself. I don’t know if it was experience or what it was, I couldn’t put it together. This time I went in and said if I can’t put it together and do what I do in practice, then I don’t need to be fighting.”
After losing to Eddie Gordon in the TUF 19 final at middleweight in 2014, Lima returned to welterweight and defeated Jorge de Oliveira before back-to-back defeats at the hands of Tim Means and Jingliang Li in 2015. Means and Li are no slouches, but Lima still believes he’s better than what he showed during his first UFC stint.
“I wasn’t fighting bums, but these are fights I know I can win,” he said. “These are guys I know I can beat. But I just wasn’t ready. I was letting the nerves to get to me, I was letting the pressure of being in the UFC get to me, and I was training so hard that come fight week, I wasn’t even having fun. I was overtrained and I just wanted to be done. There was so much pressure.”
Now, every day is a new day for him when it comes to fighting, and that’s taken him to a new place in his promising career. You can hear it in his voice, and opponents will see it on fight night.
“I’ve been through the ups and downs, I’ve made money in this sport, I’ve lost money in this sport, I won big fights before, I lost big fights before and right now, I’m having fun again,” Lima said. “I had lost that fun and there was so much pressure. My gym is doing well, I don’t have to worry about money, and I fight now because I love it. I found that love for it again and that’s the only way you’re going to fight at your full potential. If I lose a fight right now, somebody was better than me. But it’s gonna be tough to beat me and I’m excited to show that.”