"I like people expecting more from me - I don't see it as extra pressure. They know what to expect because they know what I'm capable of. I always fight stepping forward, and I never back down."
It’s something no fighter wants to experience, but the consequences of a long layoff from the Octagon are something that Brazilian Thiago Tavares now knows very well.
After dealing with injuries in 2009 that sidelined him for 345 days, Tavares - who faces newcomer Pat Audinwood this weekend at UFC 119 – returned to active duty against Nik 'The Carny' Lentz in Virginia this past January.
Well-trained and without a single re-occurrence of the injury that was his main foe in 2009, Tavares seemed very happy to get back; so happy that when Bruce Buffer said the name of his city and country during the introduction, he closed his eyes and, with a smile, said Buffer’s words at the same time, relieved to be finally fighting in the Octagon again.
But as Tavares went to battle against Lentz in order to make up for lost time and deliver a glorious victory in his return, he forgot that overcoming ring rust isn't that easy, and in the first round of his contest, Tavares didn't prevail as expected.
"I felt the lack of rhythm during the first round, but in the second and third I was in the fight," said Tavares, who only had a single good moment in that first stanza when he sank in a standing guillotine, but strangely, he let it go. "I didn't get tired. Round one wasn't enough to gas me out, I just didn't keep it on because Lentz defended it well."
Unchecked kicks delivered by Lentz were seen while Tavares was warming-up, worrying the Brazilian’s corner, which asked him to counter attack with a straight punch or to shoot for a takedown while not being a static target. Was this just one more element of the ring rust? Tavares agrees, but adds that his long time on the sidelines sharpened one area of his game that needed improvement – his striking.
"I know I can get better on my boxing, but I connected my fists several times and Lentz' nose and eye were bleeding. I don't think he stayed up due to my lack of ability on the feet or my lack of strength. That was all with his absorption power; the guy is tough."
But at the same time, while he got his punches right, his kicks seemed inaccurate as he landed two low blows and was in danger of losing a point due to the fouls.
"I really felt that I'd lose (due to the low blow),” he said. “It was obvious that I won round two and was winning round three easily. But that unfortunate kick happens when a right handed guy faces a southpaw; accidents such as those are normal."
Normal or not, the fight went to a draw and even through Tavares had a little bit of disappointment in his face, one thing was reason to celebrate, and that’s that he fought reasonably well for a guy engulfed by injuries that sidelined him for a period that seemed to last forever.
That said, training for his second fight of 2010 started quickly to keep Tavares in shape, and when he got a call to face fellow Brazilian Willamy 'Chiquerim' Freire on August 1st at UFC on Versus 2, he increased the intensity of his preparation to take on the newcomer in a lightweight contest.
Tavares kept a high pace with his teammates at Ataque Duplo and then travelled to Portland, Oregon to share the mats with standouts as Fabiano 'Pega-Leve' Scherner, Fabio Maldonado, Rick Story, Dave Jansen, Dennis Hallman, Matt Lindland, Hermes Franca, Chael Sonnen, Pat Healy, Ryan Healy, and Marcos 'Bicudinho' Maciel.
Tavares was ready to go until bad news came from the opposing camp, saying Freire was unable to meet him due to an injury and the match was scrapped off the card.
"Sincerely, when I got the call informing me, I stayed silent for a long time," he says. "I didn't think about anything, I just wanted to fight, but I knew at that point I wouldn’t get a new opponent in time."
The next step for Tavares was to return to his homeland with the intention of organizing his thoughts and his future plans. Another camp in the USA wasn't an option anymore and even though he had many high-caliber fighters by his side in his final preparations for the prior fight which didn't happen, he didn't repeat the same camp for Audinwood.
"The workouts in the USA are very strong, without a doubt. But I didn't search for them because I thought my training in Florianopolis was weak, as the level of the guys down here is top-notch as well. The choice to train in the USA last time was a mix of opportunities; I was learning different types of approaches and staying on American soil more than I did before the past matches, and not because my teammates in Brazil are not top-notch."
So what Tavares wants to do this time is to get back to the form from his early days in UFC, and prove to those who named him a phenom weren't wrong, right?
"No," he replies. "My last result was a draw, but it's part of my past, and I don't see it influencing my next fight. That was never a problem. I like people expecting more from me - I don't see it as extra pressure. They know what to expect because they know what I'm capable of. I always fight stepping forward, and I never back down."
Always calm in his pre fight interviews, Tavares changed a bit for this upcoming fight and he has a very particular opinion about how recently signed UFC fighters should be welcomed.
"A beatdown for the rookies," Tavares says. "I'll hit Audinwood as much as I can and he knows it. I'm here to show that UFC is the place of the best and whoever’s arriving to the house now needs some lessons from the veterans (laughs). That's the tactic I'll bring for this fight."