Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Rafael Natal makes his UFC debut on Wednesday night against Rich Attonito in Austin, Texas. Martins Denis takes you into the world of "Sapo" before the biggest fight of his career.
The history of Brazilian fighters and their nicknames is an intriguing one, and not just because of how the monikers were created, but how these ring names reflect the fighting styles of each particular competitor.
It started in the early days with a Gorilla (Joe Moreira), passed through Pitbulls (Ebenezer Fontes Braga and Thiago Alves), Jorge 'Macaco' (Monkey) Patino, and now has Anderson Silva spreading his poisons like a “Spider”. But there is a new species of pro fighter in 'the jungle', and he makes his debut on September 15th against TUF 11 alum Rich Attonito - Rafael 'Sapo' (Toad) Natal.
In common with the majority of his prior countrymen, Natal, 28, flaunts a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt and didn't have “Sapo” inserted between his names because of his ability to jump higher or something like that. No, it comes from his first martial art, Capoeira.
"Everybody in Capoeira has a nickname," says Natal, who started studying at the age of 14. "I went to the gym for my first class and the professor asked my nickname, and I didn't have one. A friend of mine looked to me and said, 'he's toad (sapo)', and then that was it."
Looking at Natal during that time period, when he was a little chubby with a large smile, it’s not difficult to see the resemblance to his nickname. And while you would assume that he would be a kid with reduced mobility due to the extra pounds, his enormous will-power to learn more and get past any initial difficulties were essential as he made the move from Capoeira to BJJ.
"Adversaries took me down in Capoeira and I didn't know what to do," he says. "I started in BJJ when I was 20-years old, but my development was quick and I saw that I wanted to be a fighter. My parents were a bit concerned, because at that age I already had financial independence, but they supported me, and I started training really hard due to my dream of being a world champion in BJJ."
Perseverance and the tough training sessions at one of the most respected gyms in the country, the Gracie Barra-BH, under the tutelage of Vinicius 'Draculino' Magalhaes, catapulted Natal meteorically, two years later, to the glory of what he wanted to be, the World Champion as a blue belt in 2005.
"I dedicated myself a lot to BJJ, because I started it later and my only chance of shining was this way. I had a dream of being world champion, so in the early years I trained three times per day and reached my dream."
Still a blue belt in the gentle art at the time, Natal, a huge fan of Royce and Renzo Gracie and Mark Kerr, started to focus his sights on MMA competitions. A few of his teammates, soldiers of GB-BH as Erick Wanderley, Cristiano Lazzarini, Marcelo Azevedo, Edson Jorge and Joaquim Ferreira, already tasted MMA fights. And for Natal, who decided to be a professional fighter, there wasn't any other option but to follow his partners' steps.
"All my efforts turned to MMA, and even thought I kept competing with the gi, I pointed my strengths to other types of challenges, to be among the best in MMA," said Natal, who debuted in MMA in 2005.
"Man, I was lucky to start in a good event; it was in a sold out arena with 5,000 people in a four man tournament, where I faced guys with more experience than me. I was a blue belt and trained only three months of Muay Thai, and at a certain point after the weigh-ins Magalhaes was very nervous due to my lack of experience and Olimpio Fernandes, my Thai coach asked, 'Sapo, what's strongest part of your game?' I looked to Magalhaes and we stayed in silence for 50 seconds and he screamed, 'His heart, this guy has the strongest heart ever, I never saw a similar one.' (Laughs) At that moment we laughed a lot, because if I had a strongest point, it would only appear, or not, after the first fight."
The heart mentioned by Natal's professor was necessary on that occasion as he dispatched both foes with reasonable dominance. However, it seemed as if Magalhaes was a seer, because in his third MMA match, his big heart was called on. Facing Carlos Eduardo dos Santos at Wild Fight five months later after his debut, both men took the word 'wild' very serious.
"I remember that that fight was the best in terms of emotion. Dos Santos was bigger and stronger and we traded blows freely; it was a real war. The ropes were a bit loose and we fell from the ring twice, and dos Santos and I didn't have much technique, but we fought with our hearts. And as a note, that fight was the only that my mother watched. After that, she never more attended an event that I fought in (Laughs)."
A guillotine choke was the outcome in favor of Natal, who grabbed plenty of lessons from the fight.
"Sometimes in the academy I’ll call a teammate to spar in that style (laughs) - no technique, only brawling, closed eyes, landing fists. This is excellent to take off the stress."
After four more wins, Natal was at a good stage in his career and was seen as a middleweight prospect. And while it was thought that the departure of his coach to Texas in 2008 could be a good opportunity to start an international MMA career, things didn't go through. A few months later, Natal lost his unbeaten record by knockout in and started to reevaluate a few things in his career. First - to stay away from his mentor wouldn't be a good idea. Second – to expect the unexpected in MMA, as his loss by KO came against a BJJ black belt with average striking.
A call to Magalhaes in a search for advice made Natal move to Renzo Gracie's academy in New York, where he was welcomed and still stays to this day. The change brought about a positive effect as in his three first fights on American soil he subbed two opponents and knocked one out to earn the Ring Of Combat 185-lb belt while being promoted to black belt in BJJ. But in his second title defense, against Victor O'Donnell, he was dethroned by intriguing way.
"I opted to trade strikes and the first round wasn't going good for me," he says. "At the end of the first round the fight was on the ground and I was on the top, the round finished and I helped him up and went to my corner. The doctor asked me something and I didn't answer because I didn't speak English, so he stopped the fight! I tried to complain and nothing changed. Hey, don't worry I improved my English and I won't lose this way anymore (Laughs)."
Coming off two victories in a row, the last one over TUF 4 winner Travis Lutter by KO, Natal intends to join each piece of the puzzle that his career has had thus far to shine on the UFC Fight Night card. When he steps in the Octagon to confront Attonito, the Mina Gerais native knows one thing for sure - fighting with a 12-2 record has matured him much more than if he was 14-0.
"I prefer to believe that God wanted it this way. I could keep the unbeaten resume, joined the UFC and it wouldn't be that good. I think you need to reach the big stage with several different passages, and I think I got into the UFC with the maturity necessary. I took the defeats well, fixed what was wrong, and I’m looking to not repeat those mistakes."
On Attonito, Natal concludes.
"I know he's a wrestler who trains at ATT, I watched a few of his prior fights and I imagine he'll be tough to beat. He has good BJJ and good striking; he's a complete fighter. I think that this fight will be a war."