"I’m always hungry but I’m never in a rush. I take things one fight at a time, and right now I have a very tough fight in front of me with a guy I respect." -Ricardo Almeida
It’s not a tragic love story, but the growing rivalry between East Coast based Team Renzo Gracie/Frankie Edgar and West Coast based Xtreme Couture is rising to Shakespearean heights, taking on a Romeo and Juliet plotline, pitting the Montagues of New Jersey against the Capulets of Las Vegas.
The “family” rivalry came to a head on New Year’s day, when Edgar turned around a first round drumming at the heavy hands of Gray Maynard to earn a draw in just his second defense of his UFC lightweight belt against the only man to beat him in his professional career.
Now, Edgar’s “Mercutio” and Maynard’s “Tybalt” -- Ricardo “Big Dog” Almeida (13-4) and Mike “Quicksand” Pyle (20-7-1), respectively -- will take their opposing flags into the Octagon and duel it out at UFC 128 in Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center on March 19.
Almeida is Edgar’s Jiu-Jitsu coach, corner man and overall strategy coach, while Pyle is Maynard’s. Each man is a wily veteran of the sport with a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu base and vastly improved standup over the years.
And while Mercutio and Tybalt’s fight was for family honor, the stakes are similar in this welterweight clash of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu aces.
“Of course Frankie (Edgar) has unfinished business with Maynard and Xtreme Couture are our arch rivals right now, but ultimately no matter what is going on outside the cage, it’s going to be Mike Pyle and me inside there, and that’s when technique will trump everything else,” says Almeida.
Almeida is coming off a unanimous decision victory over TJ Grant at UFC 124, while Pyle took it to John Hathaway at UFC 120 with his own unanimous decision win. But the similarities between these two welterweight journeymen don’t end there.
“In a way Mike Pyle is a mirror image of me,” says Almeida. “He’s a veteran of the sport who splits his time between trainer and corner man and fighter. He’s the grappling and Jiu Jitsu expert out there and he helps and corners all the guys around him, like I do out here. As far as technique goes we are both original grapplers with improved standup.”
And just like Hollywood has its six degrees of Kevin Bacon, Mixed Martial Arts has its six degrees of Renzo Gracie.
“Before Mike Pyle moved to Vegas he used to train with us at Renzo’s,” says Almeida. “I never had the chance to roll with him but I’ve seen him train a lot with Renzo and Matt Serra. I’ve followed him through the years. I was involved with Renzo’s team in the IFL, where Pyle fought, so I’ve seen several of his fights and he’s a phenomenal fighter. I get the feeling he’s a big part of the grappling aspect at Xtreme Couture and that’s one of the best teams in MMA, so I have my hands full and I’ve been training really hard for this fight, so wherever this fight goes I’m ready to bring it to him.”
When he came back to the UFC in 2008 after a nearly four year hiatus from the sport, Almeida was unsure about how successful he would be. He saw fighters with similar pedigrees enter the world’s most prestigious MMA organization and lose, but he rolled the dice and has gone 5-2 since his return, and has built an elite level team at his Hamilton, NJ academy in the process.
“When I came back I thought, ‘Where am I going to fit in the division and the sport?’ he said. “Back then a lot of guys were coming in from Japan, where I had success, and they were all getting their butts kicked, and on top of that, I had a long layoff, so I had a lot of unanswered questions about myself. But fortunately I did okay and was able to make the right adjustments, coming down to 170 and building what I think is one of the best teams in the world with Renzo Gracie and the guys who come down from his school.”
That team includes UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, and up and coming guys like John Cholish, Igor and Gregor Gracie, Charlie Brenneman (who trains occasionally when not at his home gym at AMA Fight Club – also in New Jersey), and high level collegiate wrestlers from up and down the East Coast.
“These guys are like my brothers and I trust them with my life,” says Almeida. “I’m a little older and I have to be a little more careful about getting injured but I love martial arts. I love what I do on a daily basis. I’ll be training up until the day I die, whether I’m competing or not.”
Even with his success inside the Octagon and with his team, Almeida says he struggles daily with his natural inclination to be a teacher, and his other vocation of being a fighter.
“I have several high profile fighters that come here every day, and I have the option of training myself or helping those guys out, and I’ve learned I’ve got to be selfish. I’ve learned that when I have a fight coming up I need to focus on myself, and fortunately the Frankie Edgars of the world know that and are always helping me as much as I help them.”
Of course, being a hub where top level fighters pass through often has ancillary advantages, like learning new techniques from an array of trainers these fighters bring with them.
“We’ve all benefitted from having Mark Henry, Frankie’s boxing coach, who comes down and helps everybody on the team, and we’re all better for it,” says Almeida.
Last year, Ricardo cut down to welterweight and has gone 2-1 in the division – his only loss there coming at the hands of UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes. And while 170 pound kingpin Georges St-Pierre contemplates a move up to middleweight should he vanquish Jake Shields at UFC 129 in Toronto in April, Almeida offers some advice for his Team Renzo Gracie teammate.
“Welterweight is Georges’ division,” he said. “It’s his show and I’m happy for all of his success. If he beats Jake and gets the chance to fight Anderson Silva, that’s a dream fight, why not? A fight like that will add even more to his legend and those are the type of fights that people will talk about fifty and a hundred years from now. I think at 170 Georges is not the tallest guy but he has long arms and has a good reach advantage and gets to keep the fights on the outside. But when I came back to fight at 185, I found that the guys were cutting a lot more weight and were really tall, and I just couldn’t wait on the outside too long. I was giving guys the chance to hit me without me having the chance to hit back. So I think Georges will find he’ll have to push the pace a little more but I think he understands that. No one trains harder or understands the game better than Georges St-Pierre. If he decides to go up he’ll find the same success up there as he did at 170.”
This brings us back to UFC 128 and Almeida versus Pyle, where a win for Almeida could catapult him back into title contention.
“I’m just as hungry as ever. I’m always hungry but I’m never in a rush,” he says. “I take things one fight at a time, and right now I have a very tough fight in front of me with a guy I respect. It should be a good one for the fans.”
Conventional wisdom in the MMA game tells us that when two fighters have similar strengths – in this case the grappling game – that the fight will stay on the feet and will be a crowd pleasing slugfest. If that’s the case, Almeida is correct.
It should be a good one for the fans.