When fans think of superstars from other sports, larger-than-life figures spring to mind. Yuri Villefort wants to be that kind of torch bearer for mixed martial arts.
“My goal is to be like the Pele or Muhammad Ali of MMA,” he said.
Villefort, who holds a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, is preparing for an upcoming fight in May in South Florida. Unbeaten in six professional outings, he has gone the distance only once. Villefort last appeared at an Action Fight League in June, when he submitted Jason Fitzhugh with a second-round armbar at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla.
In March, Villefort celebrated his 20th birthday. He cautioned future foes not to let his age fool them.
“I see people my age, and guys don’t know what to do,” he said, “but fighting has taught me what I want in my life.”
Born in Brasilia, Brazil, he was spoon fed martial arts. At age 5, he began studying judo with his brother, Marcus, and those lessons remain with him more than a decade later.
“I did it until I was 12,” he said. “For kids, judo is the best because it teaches self-respect and self-defense.”
Villefort gravitated naturally to combat sports competition. His father, BJJ black belt Francisco Silva, was a jiu-jitsu legend, reportedly winning 300 fights. Villefort, who fights at 170 pounds, never had the chance to see his father compete, as he retired at 40.
“I saw pictures of my dad fighting,” he said. “They were black and white pictures. The people of his generation have a lot of stories.”
Villefort briefly ventured into soccer before moving to Rio de Janeiro to begin BJJ training at Brazilian Top Team. There, he and his brothers trained for a time alongside former WEC middleweight champion Paulo Filho and the Nogueira brothers, Antonio Rodrigo and Antonio Rogerio. Villefort competed in amateur BJJ and boxing as a teen.
Opportunity knocked when his brother, Danillo Villefort, was invited by Rafael Dias to train at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla. -- a school headed by Ricardo Liborio. Invited by his brother to join him, Villefort packed his bags at 16 and left for Florida. He spent roughly four years at ATT before parting ways with the gym in March. The split, according to Villefort, was amicable.
“I wasn’t happy over there,” he said. “I grew up there. I love everyone. I don’t have problems with anyone. It’s kind of like I just got my own wings and flew like a bird.”
Now, he, his brother and other fighters rent a warehouse in nearby Boca Raton, Fla., and train on their own.
“We don’t have a team. It’s just us,” Villefort said. “We pay to use the facility. We don’t fight for anyone. The sport is changing. The teams are getting too big.”
In addition, Villefort spars with former ATT teammates Jorge Santiago and Gesias Cavalcante, along with former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans. He thinks MMA is undergoing major changes.
“I believe that the sport is going to be like boxing, where you rent a facility, train for a couple weeks and then you fight,” Villefort said. “It’s hard to train with a big group of people. I believe that [this] is the future. The focus on the training depends on you.”
At the start of his fighting career, he pushed back against stronger and more experienced opponents with sheer talent and will. Those challenges have shaped him into one of the sport’s most promising prospects in any weight class.
“All my fights have been against guys that were stronger than me,” Villefort said. “I fight guys who are in their late 20s and 30s. I’m 15 times stronger than I was, so I can defend if someone wants to take me down.”
Villefort follows a rigorous training schedule six days a week. The 20-year-old prospect trains twice a day on Mondays and Wednesdays and three times a day on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He also adheres to a strict diet.
“You are what you eat, so I watch my food,” Villefort said. “I’m restrictive with my foods.”
Confident in both his striking and submission grappling, Villefort has focused much of his effort on improving his wrestling. In a division populated by accomplished wrestlers, it seems a wise decision.
“In my division,” Villefort said, “you have to know wrestling.”
Backed by hard work and considerable talent, Villefort only sees more success in his future. He wants to reach the pinnacle of MMA and compete in the UFC: “I hope to one day fight with the best.”
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