RIO DE JANEIRO - Rafael dos Anjos is a Brazilian UFC champion with a heart residing in two disparate places – sunny Southern California, his physical home and training base the past three years, and his sultry hometown of Rio de Janeiro.
It’s been his dream to bring a title belt to Rio, and Friday the humble dos Anjos experienced the joy of seeing aspiration become reality. At a packed Ginasio do Maracanãzinho, dos Anjos lifted the UFC’s lightweight title belt aloft for validation. And the hometown fans rejoiced along with him.
“I really feel like I am rewriting the history of the UFC by bringing this belt to Brazil,” an emotional dos Anjos told UFC.com. “It means everything to me.”
The gracious Brazilian, 30, captured the lightweight title on March 14 with a unanimous five-round decision over Anthony Pettis at UFC 185 in Dallas. It was a grueling, punishing brawl that saw dos Anjos, the underdog, take the upper hand early.
“I’ve prepared to fight five rounds before against Benson Henderson, but Pettis, he is a tough guy. I hit him hard, but he kept on going,” dos Anjos recalled. “After the second round, I thought ‘Now the fight is really starting.’
“I knew that my strategy was working. I was determined to get this belt. And I was confident the whole fight.”
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His wife, Cristiane, and sons Gustavo and Rafael were watching intently just outside the Octagon in Dallas, and this week Cris joined dos Anjos in a return to Rio, also her hometown, to savor the hard-fought victory with her husband.
“During the fight I had to remain calm because our kids were with me,” Cris dos Anjos recalled. “But I was so excited. For me, he is a very inspirational person. An incredible husband and father and, in MMA, he is a champion. It’s a gift from God.”
The couple arrived in Rio on Thursday from their home in Newport Beach, Calif. and were immediately met by overjoyed UFC fans as dos Anjos unveiled the championship belt at the event hotel along Copacabana Beach.
“They said to me, ‘The show is over!’ or something like that,” dos Anjos said with a laugh. “They were singing a song with that (phrase). I just hung out a little bit near the beach. We didn’t party. It wasn’t like that. We just enjoyed the moment.”
Amid a full day of autograph signings and more fan adoration on Friday, the amazing experience of feeling a dream come to life washed over dos Anjos like a refreshing ocean breeze.
“I wrote my name in the history of this sport,” he said, proudly displaying his UFC belt on his shoulder like all champions. “I think it’s just the beginning. I think all the hard work I’ve put in my whole life was to get this belt.
“For sure, I’m going to work even harder to keep this belt. It’s going to stay here a long time. But this belt isn’t only for the Brazilians. It’s for my American fans, too. I’ve lived there for three years and they’ve given me all the support. This belt is for them as well.”
Now that he is king of the UFC lightweight division, dos Anjos said he’s ready for anyone who wants to take his cherished belt away from him.
“I love big challenges and every time I face a big challenge in my life, I overcome it,” said dos Anjos, who will take a three-month break from training and competition to recover from a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee. “It’s gonna be a fun time now and I’ll enjoy my family a little bit. I’ve fought five times in the past 11 months. I need to rest my body, my knee and my foot. And I will enjoy being with my family.”