|Just Like Teammates|
While Jake Shields finishes his last few rounds in the ring, Fernando Bettega warms up in front of the mirror. His hands are wrapped, his mouthguard is in, and Josuel Distak barks directions at him, even though this is simply a footwork and movement drill.
Distak then pumps a jab at Bettega, and instructs him precisely about how to attack the jab with a side step and a right cross. His instructions are in hoarse Portuguese; his demeanor is part wistful father, part tough disciplinarian.
Watching Distak shoot jabs at Bettega, and seeing how fluid his reactions have become, it's difficult to believe this is the same fighter who nearly got knocked out by Distak on the focus mitts just under a week ago.
Shields is done with training for the day and he vacates the ring. Melendez remains in the ring as Distak summons Bettega into the squared circle. He is excited to soak up anything else the trainer has to offer.
Distak gets them started on a neck-wrestling drill, and then shows them how to rotate knees to the body, to practice the rhythm and form of battling in the Thai clinch. Minutes later, he adds a step, showing them how to use their foot to kick away their opponent's lead knee, forcing their face down, setting up what could be a killshot knee to the face in the fight.
As Distak instructs, Bettega and Melendez both nod, smile and "Oh!".
"This kind of stuff is awesome for Gil's game, I think," Shields tells me from the side of the ring.
After 30 minutes of drilling and light sparring, Melendez is done for the day. He hadn't even anticipated training today, but just felt he couldn't pass up the opportunity.
Before he leaves, Melendez calls to Bettega in the ring.
"Fernando, was great meeting you, dude," he says. "I'll see you in L.A. for the launch party."
You'd think they'd been teammates for years.
"Do you miss Curitiba?" I ask Fernando Bettega, during a quiet moment in his room.
"Yes, a lot," he admits. "It's my home, so any time I'm gone, I miss it."
"Tell me about Curitiba. What's it like as a city?" I inquire.
My question is purposeful. Context often gets lost in MMA. If you asked your average MMA fan what Curitiba is like, they'd likely imagine a city crawling with MMA fighters. Because of the long-tenured success of Chute Boxe, and playing home to the likes of MMA kings like Jose "Pele" Landi-Jons, Wanderlei Silva, Anderson Silva and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, there is a distorted picture of the city for fans.
In the last three years, that has only intensified. The local MMA scene in Curitiba and its satellite cities in the state of Parana has grown rapidly, with a ton of gyms popping up all over the region, along with loads of new MMA events. Its reputation for muay Thai remains strong: while Bahia in the northeast is considered the home of boxing in Brazil, Parana is unquestionably the state of muay Thai.
Since my association with the city is built exclusively from mining over obscure MMA and fight data, I'm curious what it's really like.
It's nice," Bettega tells me. "It's safe. Not as much partying and craziness like Rio."
"A lot of Brazilian fighters have told me it's cold there," I say. In this case, "cold" is relative; Curitiba obviously isn't Siberia.
"Yeah, it's a bit cold," he laughs. As he thinks about the question, you can see he's recalling the city.
"People think of Rio as the tourist city, the party city. Sao Paulo is the metropolitan city, the financial capital," I say, setting up my question. "What is Curitiba? What significance to Brazil does it have?"
Bettega “hmmmmms” for a good minute before answering me. At first, I can't tell if he's just deep in thought, or if he is struggling to understand my question.
"It's a great city just to live in," he tells me. "It's better for raising a family. It's beautiful, there's a lot of parks. It's a city you would want to make your home."
Fernando Bettega was never a fan of the "Pretty Boy" nickname he got back in Curitiba. It isn't so much that it's inaccurate -- he does have Belfort-esque good looks, and has done a little bit of modeling -- but rather the connotation in Brazil, which is one more of cowardice than superficial self-interest.
"They gave it to me because I gel my hair, you know," Bettega says sheepishly. "But, it's just not me, you know? If I felt like it was me, I might not mind."
Regardless of whether he thinks it's apt, his family has some serious pulchritude.
Bettega shows me a picture of his wife, Elaine, on his phone. I can't tell if it's a wedding photo, a glamour shot, or something else; I'm so intent on the picture, I forget to ask. She's fully made-up, with a perfect updo and a tiara. I assume her blonde hair isn't natural, but she wears it so well you'd swear it was authentic. Knowing she's a pharmacist by trade, I can't help but feel Bettega's got a real catch.
"She's gorgeous," I tell Bettega.
"Thank you, thank you," he smiles. "Good... hmm... how you say... genes?"
"Yes, genes," I nod, affirming his English.
"My wife, she has six brothers, so I have 11 nieces," Bettega tells me. "Four of them are models. Some of the younger ones might become models, too."
The family already has a pretty hefty modeling portfolio, and keep in mind that Bettega and his wife haven't even had children yet.
As we pack up to leave the El Nino Training Center, Gilbert Melendez' girlfriend, Keri Anne, sits down next to me.
"You know, there's always fighters in here, and I'm always around them, so I don't really get starstruck that often," she explains to me. "But, I got a little bit nervous and excited with 'Jacare' here."
"Yeah, he's got natural magnetism," I tell her. "I've been around tons of fighters, but there's definitely something different about him. His got one of those one-in-a-million personalities. Real, natural charisma."
"I've done some muay Thai before, Gilbert is trying to get me to start doing some jiu-jitsu and MMA," she further explains. "When I first met him and he tried to get me interested, he actually used to show me highlights of 'Jacare.'"
It says a lot about a competitor when his highlight videos can serve as that kind of social lubricant.
When practice winds down at Gilbert Melendez' El Nino Training Center, I'm privy to some devious plotting by his trainer, Cesar Gracie, and his teammate, Jake Shields.
"I want to do it before you leave for your fights," Gracie tells Shields.
"Yeah, maybe tomorrow?" Shields replies.
I'm starting to gain a sense of what they're talking about. It seems they're plotting for a group moment to give Melendez his BJJ brown belt.
"Are we talking about a belt promotion?" I ask, admittedly intruding on the conversation.
"Yep. A real beatdown," says Gracie, smiling, in reference to the fact that a promoted student has to walk down a line of his training partners, single file, and take a slap to bare stomach.
"Hey, if we do it right after practice, will you guys film it?" Gracie asks me.
"Absolutely," I tell him.
When practice is over, Cesar Gracie lines the students up against the wall, and brings “Jacare” in front of the class. The grappling ace tells them how happy he is to have gotten to train with them, and how much he enjoyed getting to roll with them. Then, Gracie says that it's a special occasion, not only for “Jacare's” presence, but also because Melendez has earned his brown belt.
The entire gym -- Bettega, “Jacare” and Distak included -- breaks out into cheers and claps. Melendez holds his hands above his head like he just won the biggest fight of his life. In some way, he has, given how notoriously stingy Cesar Gracie is with his belt promotions.
Melendez, with his hands behind his head, runs down the beatdown line, taking a bevy of thunderous slaps to the stomach. When he finishes, the entire team poses for a picture. Bettega, “Jacare” and Distak look right at home in the picture. You'd never know they weren't Cesar Gracie products themselves.
After "Jacare" shows off a few of poignant moves, it's all hard rolling from here on out. The fighters pair up, aggressively going for the jugular, despite the itty bitty amount of mat space available in Melendez's gym.
“Jacare” walks around the room, offering pointers and tips on the whole gamut of techniques which the fighters are attempting. The room treats him with reverence. These students' "real" coach, Cesar Gracie, nods authoritatively from the side of the gym.
Fernando Bettega is rolling with Gilbert Melendez. The competition is intense. Melendez is on top, but he can't seem to get to past half guard. Bettega's positioning game still isn't strong, but his defensive instincts are fantastic.
"He's a smart guy. His grappling is very, very slick. No one submitted the other, and that says a whole lot," Melendez says of the rolling.
|Taking The Post|
As “Jacare” continues to teach the jiu-jitsu class at the El Nino Training Center, former Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields, less than two weeks ahead of his UFC debut against Martin Kampmann at UFC 121, enters the gym.
Shields has just completed a training session of his own. He's in a t-shirt and jeans, and the first thing he says as he sits down is that he's exhausted from the training. However, when he sees that Souza is in the house and teaching the class, he's instantly on the mat -- without even changing out of his denim -- drilling a butterfly guard sweep with double overhooks that the Brazilian is showing off.
"I'm not gonna train, I'm just checking out the moves," Shields told someone on his cell phone just moments earlier.
The technique involves kicking out the far leg of the fighter on top, taking away his base and setting up the sweep. “Jacare” stresses how fighters often try to sweep by using their hook to lift a fighter up from the crotch, where his hips are the heaviest.
As the rest of the class continues to drill it, Shields comes to the sideline and discusses the move with trainer Cesar Gracie.
"I do a variation of that sweep. That's cool, though," Shields remarks. "If a guy posts on me, I normally switch to the leglock. But that's a great way to take away the post. I really like that."