MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — Rodolfo Vieira will become one of the greatest jiu-jitsu competitors to ever enter the Octagon when he faces middleweight Oskar Piechota at Saturday night’s UFC Uruguay. He has gone through a lot despite what his short MMA career might indicate.
A five-time jiu-jitsu world champion and one-time ADCC gold medalist, Vieira made the transition to MMA in 2017 and racked up a perfect 5-0 record in the sport in just 28 months. He admits he didn’t expect to become a UFC fighter so quickly, but credits his glorious career in jiu-jitsu for the push to the eight-sided cage.
Vieira signed with the UFC after defeating 10-0 middleweight Vitaliy Nemchinov in just two minutes at ACA 96, the biggest win of his career record-WISe, but his toughest test came when he didn’t anticipate any struggle.
A few months after debuting in the sport, the jiu-jitsu black belt was one of the stars at Shooto Brazil 74 in 2017. Fighting in front of family and friends in his hometown Rio de Janeiro, Vieira was set to meet short-notice replacement Fagner Rakchal in a 185-pound clash.
Vieira was a huge favorite, but Rakchal, who held a 2-3 record at the time, forced him to dig deep that night.
“I still don’t know how I won that fight,” Vieira told MMA Fighting. “I never spoke with anyone about it, but I went through many bad things during that camp. I’ll sum it up for you: I injured my knee and my lower back. I couldn’t train jiu-jitsu, just Boxing. I couldn’t get any takedowns, nothing at all.
“I also had a bacteria in my stomach and the doctor told me later that if I took longer to treat it could evolve to a cancer. I took antibiotics for 25 days and couldn’t train. It sucked, man. That’s why I don’t know how I won that fight. I didn’t even deserve to win that fight, but I guess I was so hungry, fighting in front of my family and friends, everyone there, that I thought, ‘I can’t lose to this guy here in front of them, I have to submit him.’
“The only way I could win would be with a submission, but I took him down and couldn’t do sh*t. It was horrible, man, but, in the end, I submitted him. I couldn’t believe it, man. It’s like you said, I had to overcome difficulties. I dislocated a finger 10 seconds into the fight… That fight was horrible for me. I still can’t believe I won.”
Another lesson he learned that night? MMA fans are different.
Whenever he entered an arena to compete in a jiu-jitsu tournament, Vieira would have his fellow GFTeam athletes rooting for him in the stands. He was such a likeable figure in the grappling world that competitors from other gyms would eventually root for him as well.
Vieira had family and friends at Upper Arena to support him at Shooto Brazil 74. He was a popular name in the martial arts circuit, so others would support him against the unknown 2-3 rival. When Rakchal began showboating and clipping Vieira on the feet, though, the “Rodolfo!” chants weren’t coming anymore.
“I’d like to fight at home, with the crowd in my favor, even if the MMA crowd is a bit weak, they cheer for whoever is winning,” Vieira said. “I was fighting in Rio, where I was born, and most of the guys that were there were from Rio as well. They were rooting for me, chanting my name, and when I started to get beat up they started chanting ‘fat guy, fat guy’. I though ‘f*ck, they changed sides already.’ It’s complicated, but it is what it is. I’m happy regardless.”
Taking IBJJF world championships into consideration, Vieira is the second-greatest grappler to ever enter the Octagon behind Roger Gracie. And like many jiu-jitsu practitioners have said in the past, Vieira also feels he’s representing something more than his brand in the cage.
“I’ll always use jiu-jitsu and represent jiu-jitsu in my fights because that’s what brought me here and made me who I am,” Vieira said. “I know things will get complicated eventually and I will have to be ready to use other things when I can’t use my jiu-jitsu.
“I try not to think of what I’ve accomplished in jiu-jitsu, I try to forget that I’m Rodolfo, a five-time jiu-jitsu world champion, and try to see myself as a regular guy in the UFC, someone who worked hard to earn his space there. I know there are some people rooting for me, people who follow me from the jiu-jitsu days, and I’m happy with their support. But I try not to think too much about it. I just want to train hard, do my best, go there and win.”
Vieira started to make a name for himself on the jiu-jitsu circuit when he was a brown belt defeating black belts in Abu Dhabi. “The Black Belt Hunter” now sees himself as “a fourth degree white belt looking to earn his blue belt in MMA”, and hopes that a win over Piechota might take him to that level in the sport.
“He’s extremely tough, way more experienced than me,” Vieira said of his opponent. “No matter who I fight, I have to believe in my game, in what I’ll do. I try not to think too much of what he’s good at, in what he does, or you’ll choke and not let your game flow. I don’t think he’ll go to the ground with me, but I’ll be prepared for any situation.”
The 29-year-old middleweight is as confident as ever going into his UFC debut. Yet, he won’t disguise the fact that even the best have doubts.
“When I stop and envision the fight I imagine everything,” Vieira said. “I imagine myself winning, I imagine myself losing, getting submitted, getting knocked out, or knocking him out, submitting him. It’s a mix of negative and positive thoughts that is fucking hard to control. Whoever says they only imagine themselves winning is a liar. ‘Oh, think positive and everything will be alright’. No, that’s not how things work.”
“The same thing always happened in jiu-jitsu, I never was 100 percent certain I would win,” he continued. “I always thought someone could beat me. I would do my best and hope that my best would be enough to come out victorious, of course, and it’s the same thing in MMA. But it’s complicated. Every time I go to sleep I have to clear my head to sleep well, otherWISe I stay up for an hour thinking about this shit and won’t sleep.”