As his professional career as a mixed martial artist quickly approaches the two-decade mark, Raphael Assunção’s biggest lesson, although simple, has been consistent: bounce back.
No matter what his personal or professional life has thrown at him, bouncing back while maintaining a realistic outlook on the possibilities of his career has helped the 39-year-old extend his longevity in the sport.
“I don’t want to be the guy that retired because I'm not physically capable anymore. I’m always reassessing and being realistic with myself and where I stand,” Assunção said. “First of all, physically, but also mentally. Your mentality doesn’t get old, your physicality does, and you have to equalize your mentality based on what you can physically do.”
It’s no secret that the Brazilian has had to face countless bouts of adversity throughout his career, mostly stemming from physical setbacks like injuries sustained during training and a battle with COVID-19, and 2021 was no different.
“After 18 months away, I'm very excited to be back,” he said, laughing. “My two fights that were cancelled — one fight was due to the unfortunate and infamous COVID-19. I wasn’t hospitalized or anything but I definitely felt it. My cardio wasn’t very good, I couldn't imagine fighting. Then, I had a car accident at the beginning of the year. I had an injury, also. So, it was a crazy 2021 (laughs), but I was able to heal up, bounce back, have a training camp and be a part of the last card of the year.”
In the 18 months since his last Octagon showing, Assunção has had to establish an equilibrium between the physical and mental sides of the sport — something he has always been working to balance, but has finally arrived at a stable point.
“It seems like the mental side, the psychological aspect of the sport, depends on the physical side of things,” he said, adding that while facing the ups and downs of physical adversity, you have to find a way to keep yourself balanced mentally.
“I’ve always been a pretty gifted guy. I’m 39 years old, and I healed a bicep tear in record time and went right into training camp. Basically, my left arm is stronger than my right now. So physically, I'm still there,” Assunção said before elaborating on the fact that he was able to focus so heavily on his physical abilities because he’s reached a consistently stable state mentally.
A strong mentality has helped the 35-fight veteran battle through facing some of the bantamweight division’s best — having faced three former or future UFC bantamweight champions and an additional pair of title challengers, among others, since 2016.
“Having faced the greatest guys in the weight class has helped,” the 12th-ranked bantamweight said of his strength of schedule during the most recent phase of his career. “They’re all still relevant, and I was able to beat some of them. I lost to some of them as well, yeah, but that adds a little bit of fuel to my fire and gives me motivation for sure.”
In his 22nd UFC fight, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt will face off against a surging prospect looking to break into the bantamweight rankings in Ricky Simón.
While it might not be considered the toughest test to date for Assunção, Saturday’s performance has massive implications for the man looking to break out of his three-fight losing streak.
“(Simón) is a good fighter. I’m envisioning him almost like a Urijah Faber a little bit,” he said, laughing. “His technicality, he’s a compact guy, kind of fast-paced. I’m imagining him as a version of Urijah Faber, which is great as I’ve always wanted to fight him again.”
While we won’t be getting a vintage rematch 11 years in the making on Saturday, we may see flashes of familiarity from Simón as he and Assunção square off on the main card.
“That being said, I need to utilize my years of experience to get the win Saturday night,” Assunção said, turning his tone from nostalgic to businesslike. “My style is different, but I think we match up well. He’s a quick guy and I'm more of a patient and calculated guy, so that's where I think I have the advantage. I need to use everything I've got, my experience, anything, to go out there and get the win.