"I said that when I come back, I’m not coming back just to win; I’m coming back to prove something." - Vagner Rocha
As his Friday bout against Jake Matthews approaches, Vagner Rocha chuckles when asked about the size advantage the Aussie powerhouse may have on him come fight night.
“He doesn’t look any bigger than Gleison Tibau, and I train with Gleison every day,” Rocha said, and anyone who has seen Tibau in person knows that, basically, a statement like that ends such a line of questioning immediately. The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt will elaborate though.
“It could work for him and it could work against him. It could work for me, it could work against me,” he said. “But when you have a jiu-jitsu base, you train in the room with everyone, and to me, size never really mattered.”
It always was the appeal of jiu-jitsu, the idea that technique surpassed any physical advantages an opponent might have. Rocha certainly knows the philosophies and practical application of the gentle art as well as anyone, but he is also aware that in mixed martial arts, you can’t win consistently these days without having more than just one weapon.
“This sport is mixed martial arts for a reason, and you can’t really bank on one thing,” he said. “I think the guys that are the greatest in the sport are the guys that are great at one thing and well-rounded in everything else. And that’s something that I’ve been really trying to focus on and my wrestling and striking have made tremendous leaps.”
Being well-rounded wasn’t necessarily Rocha’s M.O. during his first stint in the Octagon in 2011-12. Entering the UFC on short notice against Donald Cerrone at UFC 131, Rocha was decisioned by “Cowboy” in that bout, but showed enough to get a return call. Three months later, he was back, submitting Cody McKenzie. Now 1-1, the Florida-based Brazilian decided to make a move ten pounds south to featherweight for a February 2012 fight against Jonathan Brookins. It proved to be disastrous as Rocha was knocked out in the first round.
“I decided to make a weight cut that I should have never made and it hindered me in the fight,” Rocha said. “I got knocked out and I had never been knocked out. I hadn’t even been dazed in training, let alone knocked out, and I think it was because of the tremendous weight cut. I put myself through torture to make weight and I shouldn’t have done that.”
Rocha was cut loose from the UFC after the loss, and he questioned his future in the sport for a time.
“After the Brookins fight there were a couple things that happened to me. One was the decisions I needed to make in my life about whether I was going to be fighting or not fighting,” he said. “I thought I belonged there (in the UFC) and suddenly I’m not there anymore. So I had to make some decisions, some corrections to see how I was going to change and what I was going to do and how I was gonna do it.”
He decided to fight again, returning in November of 2012 with a second-round submission win over Mike Bruno. By August of 2013, he had secured three more wins, but he wasn’t just fighting in order to pile up victories and present a gaudy winning streak to the UFC. He had a plan the entire way.
“The next step was making sure that I got better every time I fought,” Rocha said. “I wanted to go back and I said that when I come back, I’m not coming back just to win; I’m coming back to prove something. Every fight I took outside of the UFC was to make myself better, so I took fights that challenged me in all aspects. I did three rounds minimum of striking on my feet, which is something I’m not really known for and something I was lacking in my game. So I worked really hard to make my stand-up part of my fighting, and I felt comfortable and I enjoyed it.”
In April, the UFC made a visit to Orlando for an event, and for the Pembroke Pines resident, what more perfect scenario would there be than for him to return to the Octagon for a fight that was basically in his backyard? It didn’t happen, but Rocha still headed to the event as a spectator. And while driving, he got a call saying that he might be needed to fight. Rocha said he was ready, complete with mouthpiece and cup.
“It’s in the trunk of the car right now,” he laughs.
The call wasn’t about the Orlando show, but about UFC 172 in Baltimore a week later. Rocha was in, but just days before his fight with Joe Ellenberger, Rocha was injured and had to withdraw.
“I got hurt pretty badly,” he said. “I broke a rib days before the fight at the hotel, warming up with my training partner. We rolled and through a straight fluke accident I busted a rib and it took me forever to heal.”
Rocha would get the green light to resume training and eventually the phone rang with the offer to fight Matthews. Again, there was no hesitation.
“I live by this sport,” the 32-year-old said. “I make a living off teaching and training, so if they call me tomorrow and say ‘we need you,’ I’m ready to go. And this time, Vagner Rocha is not just “the jiu-jitsu guy.”
“I have definitely expanded my horizons and I think that’s the difference,” he said. “Not that I’m coming into this fight to say I’m a striker, but I’m definitely coming into this fight knowing I can do whatever it takes to win.”