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Former Bellator MMA middleweight champion Rafael Carvalho suffered his first setback in six years at Bellator 200 in May, a technical knockout defeat to Gegard Mousasi bringing an end to his 15-fight winning streak. He aims to avoid his first career losing streak when he faces Lyoto Machida at Bellator 213 on Saturday at the Neil S. Blaisdell Center in Honolulu.
Carvalho’s fourth defense as Bellator’s 185-pound champion was surely his toughest to date. For all the success Melvin Manhoef and Alessio Sakara have enjoyed, Mousasi operates at an entirely different level. Yet Carvalho was unafraid of the challenges the Dutchman posed and believes he has weaknesses that can be exploited.
“He has a handicap in his standup,” Carvalho told Sherdog.com. “His previous fights showed this. My coach instructed me not to kick his body at first. I made the mistake of kicking his body.”
It was a regrettable decision, as “The Dreamcatcher” parried the strike and used it to transition into a takedown. Although he later returned to his feet, Carvalho never managed to separate himself from Mousasi’s strong clinch.
“He surprised me,” Carvalho said. “Then I tried a kimura at the wrong time. He controlled me on the ground, and it made it difficult for me to get out of positions. He’s a very good grappler and was clever at getting away from the standing fight.”
Having such a long winning streak snapped in such decisive fashion can play trick on a fighter’s pride. However, Carvalho remained positive in the face of adversity.
“My confidence has increased [since the loss],” he said, “and I intensified my workouts in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.”
The Rio de Janeiro native now has another difficult test in front of him: a former Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder in Machida. It marks his first appearance outside the UFC in more than 12 years.
“Machida is an idol in Brazil, and I really like his style,” Carvalho said.
When “The Dragon” cemented himself as the top 205-pound fighter in the world in 2009, Carvalho was just 23 and still two years away from making his MMA debut. He has since compiled a 15-2 record and become champion of a major promotion. Meanwhile, Machida has gone 9-8 after knocking out Rashad Evans for the light heavyweight crown at UFC 98.
Earlier this year, there were some who questioned whether or not Machida’s best days were far behind him. He was in the midst of a three-fight losing streak and had just come off of an 18-month suspension administered by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. However, he has rattled off back-to-back wins over Eryk Anders and Vitor Belfort since he returned in February. Carvalho sees Machida as a serious threat, even at 40.
“He is dangerous and remains an outstanding MMA fighter, a Top-5 fighter in the world, for sure,” Carvalho said. “He has no defects in his game. Perhaps his speed has decreased.”
Machida’s karate-based style has long been a difficult puzzle for opponents to solve. Some have preferred caution and using a methodical attack; others have gone the opposite direction and taken an aggressive route. As for Carvalho’s planned strategy, he prefers the latter.
“If you are patient with a chess player,” he said, “you will be knocked out.”
Despite his winning streak and three successful title defenses, Carvalho was not disappointed when an immediate rematch with Mousasi was not forthcoming. The chance to fight someone of Machida’s stature represented a noteworthy conciliation prize. In addition, Carvalho believes that once his hand gets raised at Bellator 213, he will get his opportunity to win back the middleweight title.
“I will beat Machida,” he said, “and I will be the next challenger [for Mousasi].”
With one fight left on his contract after Machida, Carvalho could soon test free agency and find out his value within the industry. However, his loyalty to a promotion he has called home since 2014 makes the idea seem less likely.
“I want to stay here,” Carvalho said. “I am happy with Bellator. [Bellator matchmaker] Rich Chou treats me very well, and I’m grateful to him. I know they value me, and I will continue for a long time with Bellator.”