|Anything To be Better|
For the kind of folks that frequent and hang out at Cesar Gracie's gym in Pleasant Valley, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza is a superstar.
As we arrive as the strip mall that houses this particular holding place for the Cesar Gracie squad -- many team members have their own gyms that their teammates all come to and train frequently -- there are fans hanging around outside. One has a printed photo of "Jacare" rear-naked choking Ian Murphy. Souza is more than happy to oblige. He seems both excited and humbled every time people recognize him, praise him in the street, or ask for pictures and autographs.
When we enter the gym, the fighters go and change. Jake Shields is in the ring, working takedown set-ups with Gilbert Melendez. "Jacare's" trainer, Josuel Distak, watches on from outside the ring, observing, as if he's preparing Shields for his Oct. 23 fight with Gilbert Melendez.
As Shields chases the takedown, Distak intercedes. He signals to Melendez and Shields, and jumps into the ring. They looked at him inquisitively at first. Distak speaks no English, but the vibe he gives off, and the demonstration he gives piques Shields and Melendez.
Distak shows Shields how to attack with punches off a low kick, ultimately culminating in a fake takedown, an uppercut, and a real takedown set-up. Despite being a middle-aged man, Distak goes through the demo full speed, and it looks flawless. Where many fighters would simply ask "Who is this Brazilian guy who just jumped in the ring?" Instead, Shields and Melendez are deep into it. They both immediately drill the fake takedown and uppercut.
The enthusiasm for and dedication to learning, from anyone and anyone who has something to offer, is a staple of Cesar Gracie's students.
"He doesn't even speak English, but you can tell he knows what he's talking about," Shields tells me. "This guy makes champions, he trains Anderson [Silva], 'Jacare,' and other guys. I can learn from that. Anything to be a better fighter."
|Brothers In Training|
As we ride in the limo, Fernando Bettega turns to me and discusses training at Gilbert Melendez' gym the night prior.
"Nate Diaz, I was surprised. Not his level, I know he's good, but, how nice of a guy he is," he tells me. "I see his interviews before, and he's not looking at the camera, seems like he doesn't want to be there. When I grapple with him, he was a great guy. I loved it."
"Cesar Gracie's students, especially the Diaz brothers, they're dedicated to training. Anyone who is in the gym with them, they're like a brother to them," I tell him.
"Yes, I can sense that," Bettega tells me. "The whole gym, feels like a family, you know? Everybody is friends, but they're not just joking and hanging out. They really want to train. The training is great."
The night prior, Nate Diaz and Bettega had an intense roll for 10 minutes. It was an interesting pairing because of Diaz's long-limbed, offensive attack, and Bettega's defensive grappling skills. Diaz worked tirelessly to set up back control, but couldn't quite sink his hooks on Bettega, who consistently got back to his feet. The pair both ended up back standing on several occasions while rolling, which was very unusual for that particular session.
"He's very aggressive, it makes for great, hard training," Bettega tells me. "A great training partner."
|Not Too Shabby|
I'm in a limosine with Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza, Fernando Bettega and Josuel Distak. We're eating McDonald's, en route to Cesar Gracie's gym in Pleasant Hill. "Groove Is In the Heart" by Deee-Lite is on the radio. This is easily one of the most surreal moments of my life.
After a week of being shuttled around in Jeff Sherwood's Toyota Tundra, Jacare mentioned yesterday that a friend of his drove a limo, and he'd love to be able to ride in one. Since we're such nice guys, we got it arranged. It is a tad ironic, since during dinner conversation, Souza and Distak have criticized Anderson Silva -- Souza has spent a lot of time as a training partner for him, and Distak has trained him for many of his notable fights -- for going "Hollywood" recently.
15 minutes into the trip, "Jacare's" appetite strikes. He asks if we could just stop somewhere and get some fast food. So, we end up in McDonald's.
Initially, I didn't plan on eating. I've actually been worried that "Jacare's" gastronomic indulgences are going to make me balloon up overnight. Plus, I was busy watching the interaction between "Jacare" and the worker taking his order, who was quite blatantly a transgendered male-to-female.
I am surprised to see Fernando Bettega in the line. He's in the high 180's right now, and though his fight is still seven weeks away, he's trying to eat clean.
Imagine my surprise when I hear him say my name, and present me with a Happy Meal. It's intended as a joke, but it's an incredibly thoughtful one: I can't turn down the delicious guilt of McD's, and I also get a finger skateboard toy. Not too shabby, if you ask me.
One thing that impresses me about our Brazilian contingent is the level and depth with which they casually discuss fights.
Covering this sport, one of the first things you learn is that your typical fighter has very little awareness about what's going on in the sport around them. It's not unusual to hear prominent fighters talk about how they never even watch UFC events, let alone show an active interest in the MMA world.
This is a different group, though.
As we eat lunch at Baja Fresh -- steak burritos are extremely high on the seemingly endless list of things that "Jacare" loves to eat -- Josuel Distak asks, "Brock or Cain?"
"Cain. Boxe, wrestling... muito bem. Melhor...uh, than Brock," my attempted fractured Portuguese is horrible, but he understands me.
"Cain!" Jacare cries out. "Better boxing and wrestling. Even if Brock takes him down, he'll get up."
This concept is extremely important for "Jacare." When he talks about what makes him an effective fighter or where other jiu-jitsu standouts have failed, it's the first thing he emphasizes tactically. He talks about the importance of being intelligent, and for him that starts with knowing not to lay on his back.
Bettega nods and agrees. It's a clean sweep for Cain at the table so far. However, Jeff Sherwood and Josuel Distak are both believers in Brock.
"Brock is bigger and stronger than Cain. Cain won't be able to stop him," Distak opines. "No one will. He'll have to go back to WWE!"
Distak laughs raucously at his own joke. His laugh is a distinctive one: he bares his perfectly straight pearly whites, and his mouth and face freeze into place, while he bellows in laughter. I think everyone has an uncle with that kind of laugh.
Other big fights are all discussed in spades. We talk Vitor Belfort and Anderson Silva, and Distak -- who has trained both fighters at various points -- informs us that in the first five minutes, no one in the world can hang with Vitor. Similarly, he tells us all about the trials and tribulations of Paulo Filho, about how he trained two days for Joe Doerksen and five days for the first bout with Sonnen. Bettega and I start talking about Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos, what a terror he is in the gym, and why the level of fitness he shows in training never translates to the cage.
"You know, a lot of MMA fighters don't really have a lot of insight on the sport, even though they're professionals," I tell Bettega.
"Yeah, I think a lot of guys, it's just a job," he tells me. "But I love this. I love this sport."
|More Good Than Bad|
Fernando Bettega seems pretty clean. He eats salad and chicken almost exclusively. Other than a post-workout Gatorade or protein shake, he appears to drink only water throughout the day. However, Bettega's chief vice comes in the early morning.
Coffee. A lot of coffee. Jet black coffee.
"Coffee?" I ask. "No cream or sugar?"
"Nah, cream and sugar aren't good for you, you know?" he tells me, sipping the hot blackness.
"Neither is coffee," I laugh.
"Yes, yes, I know," Bettega replies. "But, it's not too bad, and it helps me wake up and get ready. If I just have some black coffee, and it helps me train hard in the morning, I think I did more good than bad."
Maybe he's right. After all, beyond the coffee, he's a model of temperance and self-control. And, considering he's alongside "Jacare" -- who eats anything and everything in sight 24 hours a day, and washes it all down with the poisonous syrup that is Coca-Cola -- maybe Bettega's not in such bad shape after all.