After a nine-year struggle to reach the pinnacle, Antonio Carvalho has a place in the UFC. | Photo: Al Quintero
When it comes to obnoxiousness, perhaps nothing can approach meeting that one person who will tell you, in all seriousness, “Hey, man. I do UFC.”
While it has become more of a punch line, it also seems that everyone involved in mixed martial arts has a story about someone actually uttering the inane phrase. Thanks to the aggressive expansion and success of the Ultimate Fighting Championship -- all while conveying a very particular image -- maybe it was inevitable that “Billy Badass” pretenders would emerge. What no one could have anticipated, however, was how it might also complicate things for a handful of fighters that do not fit the “cage fighter” image.
“This happens to me all the time,” says Antonio Carvalho, barely able to contain a chuckle. “I’ll be at a thing with some of my friends, and someone will talk to [Sean] Pierson, who’s been in the local media and in UFC events lately, so they'll recognize him, but they’ll start talking to me and wonder why I’m there with them. When I tell them, they don’t believe for a second that I fight, too. Either they think I’m an amateur, or they think I’m lying.”
Disheartening as may be to be deemed illegitimate to one’s face, the fact that Carvalho laughs while recalling such episodes speaks to his good humor and that it happens often enough for him to recount the stories. As a part-time kickboxing instructor and full-time fighter out of Bruckmann Martial Arts in Toronto, the bearded Canadian even has business cards with his credentials on them. Not to belabor the point, they are also emblazoned with a picture of him embroiled in battle with Hiroyuki Takaya. However, some people seem unwilling to cut him a break.
“One time, I gave my card to someone, and they responded, ‘Whatever. That’s not you!’ Like, I’m really that guy that says, ‘Hey, I do UFC, too!’” Carvalho says, with a roar of laughter.
The misperception extends beyond fair-weather MMA fans. Having competed in Montreal and Mississauga in his last three bouts, he recalls being accidentally overlooked by puzzled local media “looking for fighters to interview” in the locker room, never mind the fact that he had his hand raised on the card they had just covered.
“Maybe it’s the glasses? Or the clothes?” muses Carvalho, whose wardrobe is Spartan and ominously lacking in garish MMA apparel.
Hardcore MMA fans are familiar with Carvalho because of his run on the grassroots Japanese circuit. Fellow fighters in Canada know him for that, too, and more. Regardless, the lack of widespread recognition -- let alone belief -- of Carvalho as a fighter does not seem to bother him much. If anything, he prides himself on not being the skinhead with bad tribal or kanji tattoos in the foil MMA muscle-T. That is not who he is, nor tries to be.
No, Carvalho is that nice young man from down the street that lives with and cares for his ailing mother, Rosa Marie. He is the one hanging out with the senior citizens every morning at 6 a.m. at the local Ajax Coffee Time. He is that nerdy guy reading up on retro video game history at the local Chapters bookstore. He is the one with a picture of his very fluffy Himalayan cat on his Facebook profile since, surprise, he loves his cat to death.
These mild-mannered characteristics aside, he is also a nine-year veteran mixed martial artist. Carvalho is one of the few foreigners to throw himself willy-nilly into the grassroots Japanese MMA when classes like his native featherweight were deemed too light and thus irrelevant in North America. It was in Japan that he fought for the Shooto title, ran roughshod over Shooto icon Rumina Sato and picked up a close decision victory over perennial Top 10 featherweight Hatsu Hioki -- who, coincidentally, is more famous than Carvalho in his home country of Canada, thanks to Hioki’s two wins over Mark Hominick.
Whether by design or accident, recognition has been a long time coming for Carvalho. However, “Pato” finally has the chance to change perceptions when he makes his Octagon debut against Felipe Arantes at UFC 142 on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Swimming with the Ducks
Carvalho began training in judo before eventually incorporating Brazilian jiu-jitsu. His first judo dojo, which regularly opened its mat space to a variety of grapplers, was superficially open and friendly to foreign martial artists. However, when Carvalho, then a green belt, began cross-training in jiu-jitsu, dojo personnel quickly made their displeasure clear.
“The head instructor told me, ‘Antonio, you’re swimming with the ducks when you could be flying with the eagles.’ I remember the Monkey [Richard Nancoo] and all the other guys from [Shah Franco’s] gym there with me, and they’d overheard it. I thought, ‘Man, what a BS attitude.’ I told [the instructor] then, ‘Well, if you’re the eagle, I’d much rather be a duck.’ The guys heard that and started laughing, and since then, they started calling me ‘Pato,’ which is Portuguese for ‘duck.’ It stuck,” says Carvalho of the origin of his nickname.
This episode sums up much of Carvalho’s life. Thematically, it has been one in which he has fought, for better or worse, to define his own identity and role in the face of the expectations -- or lack thereof -- of those around him, whether it was to be a proper Portuguese youth, soccer player, martial artist or fighter. Its genesis lies in his childhood in Portugal and became such an intense presence in his life that he credits it with helping him develop a moral code and drive to achieve lofty goals at the best of times and haunting him psychologically and promoting otherwise self-destructive behavior at the worst of times.
Born and raised in Canada, Carvalho moved to Portugal at age 9, attending middle and high school there. Originally optimistic about the big move, he and his elder brother, Jorge, quickly met with adversity while trying to settle into their new life.
“We just didn’t know how [to integrate]. I didn’t know why we were being bullied and beat up and why no one would help us, even if we asked. School was difficult, too, because teachers told me that I wasn’t going to amount to anything because I couldn’t speak Portuguese very well and because I didn’t understand how life was there,” recalls Carvalho. “So my brother and I used sports to get around everything and find acceptance. In the beginning, soccer was also resistant because we were from Canada and, of course, ‘Canadians can’t play soccer,’ but we proved them wrong -- eventually.”
Carvalho’s dedication to soccer drew attention from scouts with Sporting Lisbon’s developmental program at age 13; he would have been groomed as a goalkeeper. However, despite the financial and status allures of major European soccer, Carvalho ultimately withdrew from the program to finish his schooling in his true home of Canada.
“It wasn’t a matter of confidence, since I always knew I could go back to it. I decided to return home to Canada to finish school, but Sporting always kept me on their list to come back when I was ready, and they’d always expected that I would. I expected I would, too, after finishing school,” says Carvalho.
It was not meant to be, as Carvalho met Justin Bruckmann at Durham College, where the duo’s shared curiosity in the nascent sport of MMA saw Carvalho joining Bruckmann in the gym instead.
Besides his interest in MMA, however, he believes his youth in Portugal played perhaps too great a role in starting him down that path.
“I’ve always said I got into MMA for the wrong reasons. I was an angry kid, and I think that burden is what pushed me towards it. I think it drove me a little too much. Since then, I’ve always been attracted to sports where I’d be able to prove myself,” admits Carvalho. “I liked being a goalkeeper because, although soccer was a team game, I had all this independence and responsibility. I liked fighting for the same reasons. I didn’t want to hurt people, though. I just wanted to be accepted for the skills I could bring to the table. You can’t deny skill, right?”
Carvalho’s urge to prove himself subsided as his jiu-jitsu improved under Sylvio Behring and his Shotokan karate sharpened under Franco. Despite the stigma that traditional martial arts held in MMA then, “Pato” developed alongside fighters like Bruckmann, Nancoo, and Bill Boland under the Franco-Behring banner, learning and adapting the Okinawan art to MMA in ways that few traditional martial artists were willing to do. It was the same approach that saw Machida-style Karate -- itself a descendant of Shotokan -- changing the MMA community’s opinion of karate when Lyoto Machida captured the UFC light heavyweight title.
“I think we noticed that we were unique. For sure, not enough people gave it the credit it was due. Most people wanted to attribute our skills to kickboxing, but it was karate, and it worked. We weren’t the first to do it, but we certainly did push it hard at the time,” says Carvalho.
Not surprisingly, this counter-cultural sensibility appealed to Carvalho. In a sport that rapidly sought to eliminate martial arts and philosophies deemed superfluous, Franco’s modified Shotokan turned the MMA dogma on its ear and, like Carvalho’s quest for acceptance, netted results that could not be denied. Carvalho evolved from an angry kid wanting to be a prizefighter into a quasi-traditional martial artist that excelled in MMA -- essentially, “the victorious underdog” incarnate.
It could not last, however, especially when Carvalho moved to Japan.
Carvalho’s time in Japan still elicits a complex jumble of emotions.
Before moving, Carvalho visited thrice for Shooto competition, first defeating Takeshi Inoue in a close decision and next crushing Sato, a personal hero. Carvalho’s third trip resulted from a last-minute offer to face then-143-pound champion Alexandre Franca Nogueira for the title, but a knee injury saw “Pequeno” replaced by Inoue at the eleventh hour. Injured with a torn left meniscus himself, the late bout offering and opponent change just before stepping onto the plane further stacked the odds against “Pato.”
“I had an injury, but, given the title opportunity, I had to take it. When things went wrong, I panicked and didn’t react the way I should’ve. I got beat pretty abysmally,” recalls Carvalho, with a wince. “It left a bad taste in my mouth and, worse, I couldn’t just return to fighting because I needed knee surgery. I was depressed, but with time, I got it in my head to just move to Japan to seek redemption for myself.”
Living in the ancestral home of martial arts naturally appealed to Carvalho, and, so, fresh off of knee surgery, he relocated. Through friends on either side of the Pacific, he was introduced to Hiroyuki Abe and began training out of his Abe-Ani Combat Club. Together with Abe, “Pato” boldly walked into leading Shooto promoter Sustain’s main offices to proclaim, “‘Hey, I’m here. Please put me in the ring.’ [Sustain promoter Kazuhiro] Sakamoto-san had this shocked look on his face, like, ‘Oh, man, what do we do with this kid?’ Funnily enough, I had surgery two months prior but didn’t do the proper physiotherapy yet, so I really had no right to be in the ring.”
Fortunately, Carvalho got his time to heal. He was slotted nearly half a year later against rising featherweight star Hioki, who had recently garnered notoriety in Carvalho’s native Canada for defeating Hominick twice to win and retain the TKO featherweight title. The first round saw the Nagoyan control Carvalho on the canvas, passing his guard at will. “Pato” then surprised onlookers by narrowly capturing rounds two and three on two of the judges’ scorecards with his striking. The victory constituted not only a successful return from injury for Carvalho but also his most significant career victory, then and now. However, it is a win that has generated contention over time.
“The surprising thing is, at the time, everyone said I won it, but all these years later, people seem to be saying that I should’ve lost. In hindsight, Hioki is much better now than he was then, so that fight isn’t an accurate assessment of his abilities now. He’s erased that loss by capturing the Shooto title --something I never achieved -- capturing the Sengoku [Raiden Championship] title and winning his first UFC fight,” says Carvalho. “It was definitely close, but I still think I won. I know that probably doesn’t mean much to people because they don’t know how I really am, but if I felt I’d lost but won a BS decision, I’d be the first person to say so and ask for a rematch. It wouldn’t be right otherwise.”
Finish Reading » “Like my original reasons for getting into MMA, returning to Japan to pursue the relationship was also for the wrong reasons. We both had different ideas of what we were to one another.”