“When I lose or win this isn't only me, this is a bunch of people like my friends, family, coaches, teammates, students who rise or fall with me."
Rafael 'Sapo' Natal had a good training camp for his UFC debut in September as well as for his second match against Jesse Bongfeldt this weekend at UFC 124 in Montreal, Canada. Surrounded by teammates who have already stepped in the Octagon like Renzo Gracie, Rolles Gracie Jr., Andre Gusmao, David Branch and Ricardo Almeida, among others, Natal heard it all from these experienced battlers about what to expect.
Then he got a surprise.
Facing American Top Team’s Rich Attonito at UFC Fight Night 22, Natal was doing well until a big right hand from his foe landed and connected at 3:24 of round one. Getting hit in the face is expected when you're in an MMA bout, but what followed this strike changed the whole complexion of the fight for Natal.
It doesn't matter if his teammates talked to him about fighting on automatic for more than 10 minutes after eating a punch, until you pass through this yourself, you don't believe it. And that was exactly what Natal went through for the rest of the fight, acting without really knowing what to do or not to do.
"The only thing my teammates and my coach (Vinicius Magalhaes) didn't tell me was that Attonito's hands were like steel," he laughs, giving merits to his adversary. "His coach, Marcos DaMatta, told me that just after the fight, but too late, don't you think (laughs). I was never hit as strongly as that in a fight; one day after I was still damaged.
"Let me tell you something, life is a school. I heard fighters talking about fighting in automatic after getting hit and they continued fighting instinctively without any recall of what happened before the strike. I thought it was a lie, but it happened to me. After Attonito dropped me, I don't remember anything. The feeling is terrible when you watch the fight and realize you lost positions, you didn't fight well, and you didn't hear your cornermen."
It could sound just like a loser's excuse, but the right hand of Attonito was something like the beginning of the end for Natal. Clearly after the first five minutes of round one we could realize that Natal wasn't 'grounded'. He sat down during the break between rounds one and two, and he asked his corner "How he hit me?" It was obvious that after a crazy spinning elbow, he got caught. However, after the 15 minutes of fighting Natal displayed that he wasn't 100% okay.
"I didn't know if I was winning or not, but after the final bell I asked my coach why Attonito was raising his arms if we were going to the third round," he said. "Unfortunately I wasn't there after that bomb he connected, and my mistake was that spinning elbow which Attonito capitalized on and it shook my head for the rest of the fight."
The 27-year old Brazilian black belt now knows the stories of fighting on automatic are real. But he didn't get only that from his first fight in the UFC. For a fighter well-versed on the ground, Natal also showed powerful leg kicks. And though they weren't technical, with the force they were landed, they were enough to worry Attonito.
"The power comes from my mother and father, the strength is in my veins (laughs). Or from the time I trained capoeira. I know I need to sharpen them and I've been practicing with Phil Nurse. And not so many know that Renzo Gracie's gym has excellent Muay Thai training. Maybe in the future I can travel to Thailand or Singapore, but I think I still can hurt people with the tools I've had since my first standup training sessions back in Brazil with master Olimpio Fernandes."
The main problem with testing things that still need adjusting is the price you may pay. One error and a fight can be decided when your adversary takes advantage. Natal, for his second step in the UFC, will take on newcomer Bongfeldt, a replacement for veteran Jason McDonald. This time the focus is on not committing mistakes, and fighting the UFC rookie with a more calculated game plan.
"The fact is, I couldn't take much of my first experience inside the Octagon to apply against a newcomer (laughs). And Bongfeldt has more fights than I do," said Natal. "What was good for me is that the change in opponent happened early, so I didn't switch strategies. I think I prepared myself better than the first fight because I had my old strength and conditioning coach, Wesley, pushing my limits and Nurse helping my Muay Thai."
But this affable athlete (born in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, but fighting out of New York City, New York) turns the mood serious when the issue is his responsibility to not repeat his past outcome. Natal got his UFC contract after beating TUF 4 winner Travis Lutter, and he doesn't want to be one more on the list of good fighters who joined UFC and then accumulated negative results, mainly because Natal doesn't fight alone - he fights for many.
"My will to fight is the same,” said Natal. “When I lose or win this isn't only me, this is a bunch of people like my friends, family, coaches, teammates, students who rise or fall with me. What makes me happy after a victory is the smile on the people's faces, and a defeat is a nightmare. I remember my younger brother calling me after the UFN 22 fight and saying, 'Rafael when I saw you lost, I couldn't stop my tears.' Kids are always sincere and can't hide their feelings. That hurt me, and because of that I'm so dedicated to my professional fighting career."
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