Murilo Bustamante file photo: Stephen Martinez/Sherdog.com
Giving up the thrill of competition can be a tough thing to do.
Murilo Bustamante has done it all in MMA, from winning UFC titles to founding one of the most successful teams in the history of the sport. Yet at age 43, he is not ready to put fighting behind him. Bustamante returns to action following a nearly three-year hiatus this Saturday at Impact FC against Jesse Taylor. He took time off from his final preparations in Brazil to reflect on his career and discuss his upcoming fight with Sherdog.com.
Bustamante’s path toward MMA stardom began at the age of 10 when he began training at Carlson Gracie’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy. Over time, Bustamante added boxing and judo training to his jiu-jitsu and began taking vale tudo fights in Brazil. He developed enough of a reputation that he was invited to compete at the inaugural Martial Arts Reality Superfighting show in the United States.
MARS was an early attempt to compete with the Ultimate Fighting Championship on pay-per-view. In the main event, Renzo Gracie stopped Oleg Taktarov with one of the most vicious upkicks in the sport’s history. Bustamante entered an eight-man tournament and advanced to a finals showdown with feared nearly 300-pound wrestling standout Tom Erikson.
“My manager at the time tried to schedule an easier single fight,” Bustamante recalls. “He wanted to put my student Carlos Barreto in the tournament, but I preferred to fight in the tournament because I thought I was more prepared and wanted to test myself against good fighters.”
The bout between Erikson and Bustamante is one of the more notable fights from that period, presaging both an evolution in wrestlers’ MMA strategy and the development of weight classes.
Erikson outweighed Bustamante by nearly 100 pounds, but Bustamante’s jiu-jitsu was able to neutralize Erikson for the most part on the ground. Erikson eventually decided to simply stand back up and utilize his size and strength advantage in a kickboxing battle with Bustamante. The bout was declared a draw, but many considered it a win for the much smaller Brazilian.
Bustamante was soon invited to the UFC, where he went 3-1 and won the UFC middleweight title from Dave Menne. But the most memorable bout of his UFC tenure was a controversial tilt with Matt Lindland. Bustamante caught Lindland in an armbar in the first round and Lindland appeared to tap out. Referee John McCarthy stepped in and broke the hold, but then decided to restart the bout. Bustamante proceeded to submit Lindland again, the second time with a guillotine choke in the third round.
“I have to mention Big John is the best referee that I saw my whole life,” Bustamante says with a laugh. “And I think he saved all his mistakes for my fight! I was crazy because I thought I finished the fight. I started to celebrate then he said, ‘No, go to your corner.’ That was unfair. I won the fight and didn’t stop because Lindland tapped but because Big John stopped it. I was really confused and upset, and during the break I tried to recover my mind. I had to keep fighting and keep my focus. Luckily I won the fight.”
It was during his time fighting for the UFC that Bustamante helped to found the renowned Brazilian Top Team. Bustamante had a disagreement with his master, Carlson Gracie, and left to start his own gym in April 2000. It gave Bustamante the opportunity to run business and training the way he saw fit.
Many notable fighters followed Bustamante, and additional fighters trickled in from other schools. Soon, BTT boasted the most impressive collection of MMA talent in the world including Bustamante, Mario Sperry, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Ricardo Arona and Paulo Filho.
BTT heavily focused on cross training and brought in specific coaches for wrestling, boxing and muay thai. Bustamante was the head coach and was responsible for devising strategies for upcoming fights. But while things were going well for Bustamante and his training center, things were not going so well for Bustamante and the UFC.
Bustamante was UFC champion at a very tumultuous point for the company. Many of the UFC’s star fighters were embroiled in contractual disputes. Bustamante, Jens Pulver and Josh Barnett all left the company following title bout victories. Bustamante took a year’s layoff from fighting before resurfacing in the Pride Fighting Championships.
“The UFC offered me good money at the time, but I thought I could make more money,” Bustamante recalls. “In the end, looking back at the situation, it was bad for them and bad for me. If I kept my belt in the UFC, it would have been really good because I liked my time there. They didn’t have the money and power, but they treated fighters well. I wouldn’t say that I regret leaving because I had a great time in Japan for Pride. But if I could stay in the UFC at the time, I would stay.”
During much of the time Bustamante fought for Pride, Pride was considered the preeminent fighting organization in the world. That proved to be a mixed blessing, as Bustamante fought on many high-profile shows but often got lost in the shuffle. He also lost a number of close judges’ decisions. His decision losses to Quinton Jackson and Dan Henderson were particularly controversial and could have altered the trajectory of his career.
In discussing those losses, Bustamante doesn’t sound bitter but matter-of-factly and almost nonchalantly points the finger at the Pride organization.
“It was a mix of factors,” Bustamante explains, “the interest of the show and bad referees. It wasn’t only bad referees but that the show had preferences of fighters and protected some fighters.”
While Bustamante still holds frustrations about some Pride decisions, he has more positive than negative memories from his time fighting in Japan. He views the period fondly while wondering if Japanese MMA will ever fully return to prominence.
“The Japanese audience was amazing,” Bustamante says. “They were so polite and quiet. Martial arts are a part of the history of the country. They have a lot of respect for the fighters. Japan had a really good economy and Pride was the biggest show that it could be. I fought at the Tokyo Dome in front of nearly 70,000 people. When UFC bought Pride, the shows in Japan couldn’t reach the size Pride had before and I don’t know if the Pride fans became Dream fans or Sengoku fans. That was a different time. I don’t know if Japan can return.”
While Bustamante hasn’t fought since New Year’s Eve 2007, he hadn’t intended to enter into retirement. He signed to fight for a promotion called Godz of War in 2008, but the show never ended up taking place. He later had to turn down an offer to fight for Affliction because of his preexisting contract with Godz of War.
Bustamante then needed to put fighting to the side to take care of some family issues in 2009. Those issues resolved, he returned to hard training earlier this year. He had an amateur boxing bout and now will return to MMA competition against former “Ultimate Fighter” contestant Jesse Taylor.
“I’m really happy to fight again,” Bustamante notes. “It’s not because I want to accomplish something or make a lot of money but because that’s what I love to do. I still have the skills to make a good show and put on a good performance. I’m doing what I want to do because I love to do it. We’ll see how long I can do it.”