Where the Big Dog’s Loyalties Lie

By John Lee Jul 2, 2008
Ricardo Almeida (Pictures) is a bit of an anachronism in the rock star culture of today's MMA. In fact, he is part of the old guard that nostalgically reminds us of MMA's roots in "martial arts."

His relationship with Renzo Gracie (Pictures) -- whom he refers to as "maestro" (or master) -- in particular harks back to a distant, romanticized era of master and student.

Martin Rooney, who has been Almeida's strength and conditioning coach for nearly a decade, points to the melee that broke out after Almeida's victory over Nathan Marquardt (Pictures) in 2003 as a poignant example of the fierce loyalty that exists between fighter and coach.

"When Ricardo won the King of Pancrase, there was a lot of talk that week," recalled Rooney. "So when Ricardo had [Marquardt] in checkmate, he just held that [guillotine] choke a little bit longer. When he released, Marquardt punched him in the face. Ricardo later said that it was like in the movies when you have a devil and an angel on your shoulders. Renzo was the devil jumping in and kicking Marquardt, and I was the angel coming in and telling Ricardo not to do anything else."

In return, Almeida has guarded the Gracie name and tradition with a sense of duty. The name may have lost some luster in the modern MMA landscape, but there is no denying its historical relevance or pervasive influence in the sport.

"It's very important," stressed Almeida about upholding the Gracie legacy. "Every time I step up to compete, I don't want to lose because I'm representing the whole family of Gracie jiu-jitsu or Brazilian jiu-jitsu. When I first started training jiu-jitsu in Brazil, I was like 15 years old -- this was pre-UFC -- and if you wanted to fight or do a vale tudo fight, you'd get picked to fight. You just don't want to fight, you get picked. Guys would fight challenges against luta livre or another kind of martial arts just to prove that jiu-jitsu was the superior martial art. … I think I still carry a lot of that old-time mentality of like I'm representing something a lot bigger than myself."

In keeping with this traditional worldview, Almeida sees the martial artist not only as a fighter but also a teacher and philosopher. At his gym in New Jersey, Almeida interacts with hundreds of students and finds great pleasure in sharing his knowledge of jiu-jitsu with others.

Almeida's mantra is that jiu-jitsu is not just a sport but a lifestyle. And this philosophy has often yielded surprising results.

"I had this guy come to the school," started Almeida. "He's around 50-55 years old and he wasn't sure whether he should enroll or not because he was a heavy smoker. … I eventually convinced him, and he started training at the academy. And he quit smoking! And then he got his son involved at the academy as well. His son was also a heavy smoker and he quit smoking! And then his wife, who was also a heavy smoker, she had to stop smoking because the two men of the house stopped smoking!"

Almeida's philosophy also stems from his passion for surfing, which he inherited from his father, a semiprofessional. Almeida describes the experience of surfing as a form of "moving meditation" and derives profound insights from it -- "you're out there by yourself and you are your own island" -- that he has applied to jiu-jitsu and MMA.

"It's very similar to jiu-jitsu and MMA in that the environment is constantly changing," he elaborated. "In the ocean, the waves come and they come by and go towards the shore and you got the wind and the tides changing. But you cannot overpower the ocean. If you try to overpower the ocean, you die. In MMA, I feel that early in my career I was trying to overpower my opponents and I wasn't as successful as I could have been."

Once he learned to let go, Almeida began dominating his opponents and put together an impressive series of consecutive wins over notable fighters, including Marquardt and Kazuo Misaki (Pictures). In May 2004, however, he retired suddenly.

Nearly four years later, he returned this February to face Rob Yundt (Pictures) at UFC 81. The greatest challenge of Almeida's life came three weeks prior to the bout, though. As a consummate family man who places his wife and two children above anything else, Almeida was devastated to learn that his son, Renzo, was diagnosed with autism. So emotionally distraught, Almeida was close to abandoning his comeback altogether.

But you cannot overpower the ocean, the waves reminded him.

Today a major reason that Almeida fights is for his son. He wants to show Renzo that his old man is also "working through the grind like he is."

"Some things he really wants and some things he doesn't enjoy, but he has to go through the process regardless like me," quietly asserted Almeida.

Another factor that motivated Almeida's return was the rising technical sophistication of MMA. These past few years will perhaps be looked back on as MMA's renaissance period in terms of the explosive growth in talent and the number of cards being churned out.

"I was watching guys like Diego [Sanchez] and [Josh] Koscheck and even Kenny Florian (Pictures), who was a jiu-jitsu guy but has great stand-up now as well," said Almeida of the fighters that impressed him most. "Watching these guys just transition and push the technical element of the fight to a whole different level, I didn't want to miss that push."

It's not that Almeida feels the need to add to his legacy, but simply put he's just itching to know how he would fare in today's MMA climate.

His bout against rising Canadian middleweight Patrick Cote (Pictures) this Saturday at UFC 86 will serve to answer many of his questions. But it is no mystery how this classic grappler-versus-striker match will play out.

While many critics point to Cote's submission loss to Travis Lutter (Pictures) and expect a quick finish for Almeida if the fight hits the ground, Almeida sees a different story.

"People don't give Patrick enough credit for his groundwork just because he got caught by Lutter so quickly," explained Almeida. "But I think it was more of a mental mistake he made. I actually think he has solid skills on the ground. He has been steadily improving and he actually has excellent submission defense, so I expect it to be tough."

By the same token, Cote supporters cite Almeida's TKO loss to Andrei Semenov (Pictures) as a portentous foreshadowing and argue Cote's heavy hands will be too much for the "Big Dog."

"He's got that one-punch knockout power," Almeida said. "He has awesome stand-up and he's constantly improving. Before he didn't used to kick a lot, but now sets up his power shots with kicks."

But in response he feels Cote's opponents were playing into his strengths. "He's been knocking out guys that trade punches with him," Almeida said. "It's like me submitting guys that pull guard. … I just have to be very aware of what he's trying to do or how he's trying to set up the big right hand or the big knockout punch."

In preparation, Almeida has been training with Rooney, who is the bestselling author of "Training for Warriors: The Ultimate Mixed Martial Arts Workout." His three-day regimen focuses on building absolute strength that will be important against a bigger opponent like Cote and maintaining a high level of conditioning that is critical at this level of competition.

In a division that is withering in compelling matchups, the Almeida-Cote fight is extremely important in creating a legitimate contender to Anderson Silva's throne and the next great narrative in the division.

Almeida might not be looking past Cote, but many fans certainly are -- hoping, perhaps, for a bout between an all-time great in Silva and a fighter who could become one.
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