In his 13th year as a professional mixed martial artist, Joao Zeferino’s confidence has climbed to an all-time high. His self-belief comes from his faith in being a complete fighter. In his words, “If you don’t believe in yourself, you are in the wrong sport.”
The progression towards becoming a finely tuned mixed martial artist has been a gradual process for Zeferino, having taken 13 years and 31 fights to arrive at his desired destination. He finds comfort in the words of former trainer Duke Roufus. “Some guys mature earlier as fighters,” the four-time world kickboxing champion once told him. “Some guys mature later.” At 32 years of age, Zeferino believes he has finally reached his potential.
“Me personally,” he said, “I matured later.”
A sample of that maturity was on display at Professional Fighters League 3 on July 5, as he put away Paul Bradley with punches less than two minutes into their bout. It was there that his self-confidence and technical skills intersected. Zeferino leaped in with an overhand right, followed it with a stiff left hook and then closed the deal.
“It starts from the inside, because you’ve got to believe,” Zeferino said. “I played the distance. I didn’t want him comfortable with my movement and my feints.”
Zeferino has delivered 15 of his 22 professional victories by submission but believes his standup has caught up to his ground game. He credits boxing coach Lenny Wilson and muay Thai coach Jamie Crowder for his improvements. With that said, Zeferino goes the extra mile to make sure he stays sharp in other areas.
“I feel like definitely, right now, my striking is on the same level as my grappling,” he said. “My grappling I keep working as hard as my striking. I work everything super hard. Wrestling used to be my weak spot, but after I fought Jon Fitch [in 2016], I started to work on that, and [now] I can guarantee I’m a very good wrestler.”
Another facet to Zeferino’s evolution was finding the ideal weight at which to ply his trade. While he has competed as a welterweight in the Professional Fighters League, he fought once at middleweight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and several times as a lightweight in the World Series of Fighting. Neither 155 nor 185 pounds seemed to suit him.
“My life used to suck at lightweight,” Zeferino said. “The cut’s too hard. I’m a big boy.”
The Brazilian enjoys life as a welterweight, where he can eat better and no longer runs the risk of alienating his fiancé during difficult weight cuts. Zeferino can now pour all of his efforts into that which is most important.
“I’m training to get better,” he said.
Zeferino knows he needs to be at his best in order to claim the million-dollar prize the PFL will award to its end-of-season welterweight tournament winner. He believes the talent present in the 170-pound pool rivals that of other major promotions, including the UFC.
“I don’t think you can find an easy opponent fighting for a million dollars. I don’t want that,” Zeferino said. “There’s a lot of talent outside [the UFC], a lot of guys that can go toe-to-toe with anyone over there.”
His list includes Yuri Villefort, the man he will face at PFL 6 this Thursday at the Ocean Resort Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Villefort, who lost a unanimous decision to Rick Story in July, finds himself in the unenviable position of needing to score as many points as possible to qualify for a playoff spot. Currently in first place in the welterweight standings, Zeferino can secure a No. 1 seed with another first-round finish. However, “The Brazilian Samurai” has no plans to alter his strategy. He prefers to let the fight play out naturally, just as it did against Bradley.
“I’m going to fight my fight, because for Bradley, I didn’t [push for a finish] in the first round,” Zeferino said. “That really doesn’t come to my mind. Winning is all that matters. I believe in myself, I trust myself, I trust my training [and] I want it. I want it more than anything.”