Alex Oliveira: The ‘Cowboy’ Way

Less than a year into his initial run with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Alex Oliveira will draw his first main-event assignment opposite Donald Cerrone at UFC Fight Night 83 on Sunday at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Oliveira’s road to the Octagon included triumph and tragedy, as the Brazilian “Cowboy” faced the unimaginable horrors life threw his way: hunger, the murders of two brothers and a fight alone against a gang. Oliveira never lost hope or his sense of humor.

Born in Tres Rios, Brazil, a countryside city located a little more than 80 miles from Rio de Janeiro, Oliveira grew up poor and worked with his mother cleaning houses at a young age. His first real job resulted from his love of animals.

“I used to escape from school to feed and clean horses and cows on a farm and started to get paid for that,” he said. Oliveira worked for 50 cents a day. To avoid hunger and help his mother and four sisters at home, he dropped out of school when he was only 9 years old.

Interrupted Dreams

Before discovering he had a talent for fighting, Oliveira pursued two childhood dreams. First, he set out to become a soccer player, but his “natural toughness” forced him to choose another path.

“I tried hard, but it didn’t work out,” Oliveira said. “I abandoned soccer after I broke the legs of two teammates. The first one kicked my leg and broke his; the other one was my fault. I missed the ball and hurt him, so I found out soccer was not my sport.”

By the time he was 15, Oliveira found a second passion: horseback riding.

“I started to participate in competitions, but since I didn’t have the money I needed to buy basic equipment, I made my own,” he said. “All I had was a rope, a cowboy hat and a garbage man’s glove. Even not having basic equipment, I won a couple of competitions and earned much more than I could get working a regular job for a month.”

Due to a lack of sponsorship, Oliveira was forced to abandon another dream. After his failures in soccer and horseback riding, he uncovered his greatest talent in a most unusual way: fighting a gang by himself in order to save his brother’s life. Oliveira lived in a violent neighborhood. Two of his three brothers were killed -- one in a shooting, another in a stabbing -- and he grew protective of his five surviving siblings, four of them sisters. One day, while at a carnival parade in his hometown, Oliveira’s brother got involved in a fight with some gang members.

“He got hit in the head by a rock and fell unconscious on the ground, and they started to attack like cowards,” Oliveira said. “The self-protection instinct got me mad.”

Though he was alone, Oliveira did not hesitate to intervene with punches and kicks. He knocked out two of the gang members and sent the rest scurrying. A professional MMA fighter witnessed the attack and invited Oliveira to train at his academy. Oliveira was initially upset that the fighter, whom he had known for years, did nothing to help. A month later, however, he decided to visit ATS, the academy run by Andre Tadeu. Oliveira informed Tadeu of his desire to make money fighting, so the trainer placed him in a professional muay Thai class. He spent three days sparring and three days making trips back and forth to the hospital.

“The third night I returned, the nurse asked me, ‘How come you are taking an IV every night?’” Oliveira said. “I told her, ‘From now on, I’ll start sending other patients for you.’”

Building a Fighter

Oliveira was working in construction when he started his muay Thai training in 2011. It was slow going and difficult to feed his three kids with the money he made. As a result, he put his fighting skills to use to supplement his income. Three months after his first muay Thai class, he received $50 for his in-ring debut. He knocked out his first three opponents and convinced Tadeu it was time to move to MMA. Impressed with Oliveira’s potential, Tadeu introduced him to wrestling and luta livre.

In December 2011, “Cowboy” made his first MMA appearance and delivered a beautiful knockout. The results of three of his next four fights were the same. By that time, Tadeu felt it was time to take Oliveira to Otavio Duarte and Phillip Lima, the leaders of Tata Fight Team and promoters for the Watch Out Combat Show organization.

Duarte and Lima accepted Tadeu’s assessment and gave Oliveira a serious test at WOCS 25 on April 12, 2013. There, he faced the far more experienced Wendell de Oliveira Marques in what would be the first “short-notice bomb” of his career. Oliveira trained for three weeks for an event that was to be broadcast all over Brazil across Combate Channel. It was a turning point for the “Cowboy.”

Though he lost a unanimous decision, Oliveira surprised everyone by going three tough rounds with a respected welterweight who already had 27 pro fights under his belt. In response to his performance, Duarte and Lima invited him to live in the Tata Fight Team dorm in Rio de Janeiro. He shared a room with three other fighters in the Cidade de Deus slum, of “City of God” fame.

From ‘Ultimate Fighter’ Frustrations to UFC Contract

After moving to Rio de Janeiro, Oliveira fought three times in four months. Duarte and Lima introduced him to UFC matchmaker Joe Silva at the tryouts for Season 4 of “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil.” Oliveira had never made the cut to 155 pounds but saw the opportunity of a lifetime in front of him and accepted the challenge. He was chosen at the tryouts, but a few days before the scheduled trip to Las Vegas to tape the show, Oliveira was cut. Duarte believes it was because the UFC did not believe he could make weight consistently enough. The promotion elected not to take the risk.

“Cowboy” remained persistent, knowing the tough times were behind him. He focused on his fights in Bitetti Combat, WOCS, Face to Face and Coliseu Extreme Fight. One week after he defeated former “Ultimate Fighter” contestant Joilton Santos in February 2015, Oliveira received the short-notice invitation to face Gilbert Burns at a UFC Fight Night event in Brazil. He had three weeks to cut 35 pounds.

“I remember I was helping my cousin build his house,” Oliveira said, “and ‘Tata’ Duarte called me saying, ‘You’re in the UFC.”

Oliveira entered the cage as an underdog and surprised onlookers by dominating the then-unbeaten Burns for two rounds. Even though he submitted to an armbar in the third, “Cowboy” had the UFC’s attention.

Official UFC Firemen

The showdown with Cerrone will not only decide the identity of the foremost “Cowboy” in the UFC. Both men have become known as promotional firemen, always willing to answer the call to bolster events as short-notice replacements.

“Maybe he saved events more times than I did, but he’s been here longer,” Oliveira said. “I for sure have some kind of record, though: five fights in the UFC with less than three weeks to train.”

No matter the outcome of his bout with Cerrone, Oliveira remains grateful for where his career has taken him, forever mindful of the difficult road he traveled.

“Considering everything I went through in my life, I can’t complain,” he said. “Believe me, I’m thankful that the UFC is giving me all these opportunities. Hopefully the bosses are thinking, ‘If he’s doing this on short notice, imagine what he can do when we give him three months to train like everyone else.’”

Oliveira then told a story about a dream he experienced not long ago.

“When I entered the UFC in 2015, I dreamed one day that I would see my picture on the poster,” he said. “I never imagined it would be less than a year from my debut. As I said, there can only be one ‘Cowboy.’ My gun is fully loaded. All I can promise is a difficult time for my opponent and a great time for the fans.”

Leonardo Fabri contributed to this story.
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