For anyone good enough to strap on a pair of UFC gloves, the pressure to win is always there. The pressure to be exciting is mounting. After UFC president Dana White's bombshell last week that up to 100 of his fighters may be looking for new employment in the near future, any margin for error has nearly evaporated. It seems that winning big and winning flashy are the only ways to ensure an extended stay in the big show. That's a heavy weight to carry for anyone, but it's particularly cumbersome for the promotional newcomers, the unestablished names who often comprise event undercards.
There are exceptions, of course. Take for instance the recent TUF Live contestant Cristiano Marcello. At Saturday's UFC on FUEL: Silva vs. Stann event, he will be making his third octagon start. Despite the fact that all three of them have been scheduled as preliminary matches, and despite the fact that he's 1-1, Marcello seems unbothered by the new reality.
But maybe that's because it's his old reality.
Marcello (13-4) is something of a throwback to the early days of MMA. He was training in jiuj-itsu by the time he was 11 years old and fought professionally for the first time at the age of 20 -- in a no gloves, vale tudo tourney in which he competed and won twice in one night.
Things were different then. To travel to his first event in the spring of 1998, Marcello took an 18-hour bus ride alongside his cousin Fabricio Camoes, another future UFC fighter who would go on to fight Anderson Silva in the final. After battling Silva for over 25 minutes, Camoes lost. Meanwhile, Marcello won his two fights, though he needed almost 34 minutes to beat his second opponent, Ray Peres. Beforehand, he and Marcello had promised to divvy up their winnings.
Their grand take? Five hundred dollars, split two ways. And they embraced every second of the journey.
"It was a great experience," he told MMA Fighting. "It was cool in that moment, something we really wanted to do. It was a great memory. I loved it."
The hunger of those early days in the fighting world is something that shaped his view of fighting. Even today when purses are larger and exposure has widened, his roots cannot be shaken.
While Marcello is largely known as a submission specialist, he really grew up during the heyday of the famed Chute Boxe gym, the home to warriors like Wanderlei Silva and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, among others. There, aggression was a part of daily life. It was the paint on the walls, the sweat on the mats, the fuel your body craved.
Marcello believes the mind set comes partially from the setting. Chute Box is anchored in Curitiba, a populous city in southern Brazil. While Brazil summons for many the images of lazy, sun-splashed beaches, Marcello says Curitiba can be a cold place without such leisure. There is also a level of poverty there. Couple those together and you have a lot of hungry kids looking for something to do.
Chute Boxe is, from the roots up, a Muay Thai gym first. Contact is in their DNA. Aggression is in the foundation.
"Every time I go inside the octagon, I go to submit or knock out [my opponent]," said Marcello, who has 11 of his 13 wins by finish. "Even my losses are exciting fights. I don't have a fear about anything because I think I entertain the crowd. I do what UFC wants. I go to finish. I fight exciting. I don't have fear.
"Yes, I go to win but I cannot lose my own style," he continued. "I go to finish. Even in my jiu-jitsu competition, I go to finish. Sometimes I lose the match by two points but I almost broke the guy's arm or something because I tried to submit him. To me, if he wins on points but I was closer to finish, I win inside my head."
That finisher's mentality -- what he calls the "spirit of the sport" -- has guided him through a wild odyssey that has spanned two generations of MMA, two long absences from the sport and runs in the UFC, PRIDE and TUF.
But prior to this recent stretch of UFC employment, Marcello was perhaps best known as a fringe character, the guy who choked out Charles "Krazy Horse" Bennett backstage at PRIDE Shockwave 2005. It's an incident that Marcello now regrets. But in a strange way, it's something that still motivates him to move forward, to create other, more positive moments that will be remembered.
"I'm not proud about it," he said. "I only defended myself. He was aggressive with me and I defended myself. I don't want my kids seeing something like that. I want them to see me inside the octagon as a sportsman."
The trip was also part of his connection to Japan. When he boarded a plane due for Saitama earlier this week, it was to be his 27th trip to the Pacific island nation. Most of those trips were made when he was coaching Chute Boxe fighters, but even his own pro fight career has brought him to diverse locations from South Korea to the U.S. to Jordan.
At 35 years old, Marcello has bridged the gap between two generations and now, as the UFC decides upon who is expendable in the great talent purge of 2013, it should be stressful times for most prelim fighters. But Marcello is a special case, a prelim fighter who has already lived two lifetimes in the fight game, who has won and lost on the biggest stages while proudly representing his roots. The Saturday night fight against Kazuki Tokudome? It's not going to make or break him, and that makes him free to compete as he always has in the cage, with the spirit of the sport guiding him.
"I say thank God every night," he said. "I'm the kind of person, I don't ask for something. I say thanks for the blessed life I have. I've had opportunity. I've been all over the world with MMA and with martial arts. I have a solid family. I have a wife and two kids. I have a successful gym. I have good people around me. I have a good career. What can I say that’s bad? I love everything in my life."