The Northeast of Brazil. It’s a place where many events happen, and many fighters appear, but only a few reach the mainstream, get a bit of popularity, or have their name considered among the great fighters.
Even today, we still see some guys struggling to prove that their records have more fights than those shown on the internet in order to get that dream opportunity to fight internationally. There are examples like Thiago "Pitbull" Alves and Gleison Tibau, who are currently top contenders in the toughest UFC divisions, but before that both suffered, battled and emerged from the small circuit of Brazil's Northeast.
The latest to break out is UFC newcomer Ronny Markes, who makes his Octagon debut against Czech powerhouse Karlos Vemola in a preliminary bout on Sunday’s UFC Live card in Milwaukee. The 23-yearold product of Kimura/Nova Uniao, a warrior factory in Brazil, battled through the same difficulties which all men trying to be athletes have to survive before turning pro - but one thing he didn't experience was having his first MMA fight at home like his pioneer peers. Instead, he fought outside Brazil.
"MMA was something I wanted to be in, and before my first MMA fight I didn't have enough money, as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Submission events don't have high awards, so I worked like a bouncer while I was still an amateur," he said. "I knew a group of Spanish tourists who were visiting the city. They went to the night club I worked at and they had an academy in Madrid in 2006, so the invitation they gave me was the start for me."
Okay, we know Spain isn't known as a Mecca for MMA yet, but for Ronny that was a golden opportunity to make money teaching the gentle art, while learning the culture of the Old Continent. Reaching Spain, the Brazilian met countryman and former UFC fighter Fabricio "Vai Cavalo" Werdum and his brother Felipe, and Markes' saga begun. At that time, the 19-year old native of Natal, Rio Grande do Norte wasn't scheduled to fight yet, however, the doors were opened for him when a Werdum student couldn’t fight and Markes was in the right place at the right time.
"I remember Felipe's words exactly: 'Hey kid, do you have the courage to step in?' That was my chance to show the BJJ I developed in the Kimura/Nova Uniao gym and I accepted without hesitation," he said. "I fought against a Frenchman with five fights, and thank God I beat him."
The 2007 fight in Europe was the start of the MMA journey for the young Brazilian. That same kid couldn't study BJJ when he was younger, because even though his uncle was a practitioner and Markes admired him a lot, his parents didn't like the idea of the family's joy training and he just had his first contact with the mat at the age of 15 with professor Iranilson.
The fame of the Kimura/Nova Uniao gym attracted the attention of Markes, and he wanted to train with them. But the main obstacle for the kid was the subscription fee of the gentle art classes. Either he paid for his round trip bus fare from home to the academy, or he paid the academy; both were an impossible mission.
"Jair Lourenco (Kimura/Nova Uniao founding member) gave me permission to train for free, and I'm very thankful to him. He only asked me for dedication and perseverance in training."
A runner-up in National BJJ competition,a multiple time State of Rio Grande do Norte champion and winner of numerous submission awards (conquering his weight and the absolute divisions) showed that the confidence of Lourenco, and by that time the support that his parents gave him, were integral in building a tough competitor.
But tough men are proven to be real tough when they drive onto the toughest roads, and when Markes was traveling back and forth from Spain to resolve his working papers, he tore his right knee’s ACL and his world crumbled. The setback not only interrupted his future, but put the man in check.
While thinking how to get a surgery to fix himself up, he entered into a depression. Markes lived a hell for around one and half years, but in the group of Spanish friends who gave Markes his chance to move to Europe was Carlos Copado, who paid for the surgery for the Brazilian to keep his career going.
"Copado is a fight fan who didn't forget his friend when I needed him," he said. "He supported not only me, but my teammates like Renan Barao (UFC bantamweight). And Copado always said I could be with the best. Paying my surgery was really important, however his motivation was what really pumped me up."
Excited to get back to the action after more than 400 days on the sidelines was a huge challenge for Markes. Reluctant, but determined, he returned with an easy win by submission - surviving the jitters of his re-debut. Smashing guys one after the other, Markes compiled an admirable 10-1 record. The defeat, when he got armbarred last year, happened on what Markes says was his opponent’s night, not taking any credit from his foe.
Young fighters learn from defeats, and Markes did, but in fact, his last fight before joining the UFC was the one which really showed his maturity, as he prevailed in a "killing the ghosts" situation. As a better explanation, for a man who mirrored his style after Ricardo Arona and Paulo Filho, facing the latter in Brazil was something he never imagined. But the time had come.
"I faced it (fan facing idol) professionally, because we know to be the man, you need to beat the man," he said of his fight against the former WEC middleweight champion. "The first round I beat him up, and I imagined he'd return damaged for the second (Laughs). He came stronger."
Filho worked his natural wrestling ability in connection with his super judo throws and excellent BJJ to score a takedown and return the punishment. And under a tough rain of strikes, Markes got the lesson that he needs to be successful in the UFC. Hear the corner.
"He smashed me," Markes says. "But I could hear my cornermen well, and they guided me to keep the calm and pass through the toughness of the second round assault to shine in third and overwhelm him by unanimous decision."
After the fight, which changed his life, he's now going to even more important fights. Joining a big league like the UFC, Markes is putting his name with the best on the planet. So taking on a six-time Czech Republic national wrestling champion in Vemola, he expects to make all the blood, sweat, and tears pay off with a victory inside the Octagon.
"I was much too anxious in the past, and my wife helped to slow me down. Perhaps if I joined the UFC before, I wouldn't sleep for the weeks prior to Sunday the 14th," he said. But I'm surrounded by great people - my coach Lourenco, Andre Pederneiras, my strength and physical coach Thiago Macedo. So I feel ready."
"I know Vemola has the Octagon experience, and he likes to keep pressure on from the beginning to finish the fights in the first round. I'll be alert from the very first second of the fight looking to surprise him on the counter-attacks. He's a wrestling specialist, a tough ground and pounder, but I'm a BJJer and I can grab whatever he offers me when the fight hits the mat."