A few years ago, Thiago Alves was a wrecking ball, a thickly muscled welterweight bone crusher who smashed everything in his path. His run included five straight knockouts, including the one that seemed to announce the end of Matt Hughes' stretch near the top of the division. But then something changed. Alves was suddenly going to decision after decision, even against fighters like John Howard and Rick Story who while tough, had never reached the division's elite level. To make matters worse, he went 1-3 from July 2009 to May 2011.
His dark days finally ended last November, when he choked out Papy Abedi, his first finish since June 2008.
It would be easy for him to say now that those days were just a rough patch that he had to work through, but that wouldn't tell the entire story. To hear him tell it, it was a period of time that damaged his confidence and forced him to make changes.
"It definitely shook me a little bit," he told MMA Fighting. "But it's like when you're trying to build muscle, you have to break down muscle to rebuild it stronger. That's what happens in life and the MMA game. The sport just broke me so I can come back stronger. That's where I am right now. It definitely wasn't a situation I was expecting but it happened, and then you've just got to be positive and make the best of it. If you have the talent and the work ethic and the right mind set, you can accomplish anything in this world. That's what I'm driving for."
And make no mistake about it, Alves is still focused on smashing his way back to the top. He says he's hungrier now than he's ever been, focused on proving that his previous run up to the No. 1 contender slot -- he lost to Georges St- Pierre by unanimous decision -- was no fluke.
Still just 28 years old, age is no concern, as he's about the same age as other divisional contenders. His Friday night UFC on FX 2 opponent Martin Kampmann is 29. Interim champ Carlos Condit will be 28 in April, Jake Ellenberger turns 27 later this month and Johny Hendricks is 28.
Ask Alves what went wrong and there's no easy answer.
While he's still with American Top Team, changes in the coaching and athlete rosters altered the training environment for a time. He made lifestyle changes, shedding some friends along the way. He also finally addressed the long-standing weight issue that saw him tip the scales heavy twice during his UFC career, bringing in renowned strength and conditioning coach Mike Dolce to help.
But the biggest change came internally. Alves suddenly realized that he'd been fighting so long that the training had become routine, with little thought to what he was accomplishing on a daily basis. Now, everything he does has a reason behind it.
"The goal is to be the world champion," he says. "I'm much more aware of the consequences. I'm much more aware of what it takes to get there."
But Alves isn't going to pound his chest to remind the rest of the division that he still matters. He's been around long enough to know that the best thing he can do is make a statement with his performance.
"I dont want to say anything," he said. "They know what’s coming. But when you try to say something like, 'me, me, me,' it doesn’t work like that. I’m just going to go out there and show everyone, listen, I never went anywhere. I was just making myself stronger. Now is my time, so watch out."
The way he sees it, the fight with Abedi was a test, a matchup against a dangerous yet unknown opponent that could trap him into complacency. If it was a test, he passed with flying colors, rocking his opponent with a right hook before earning the finish.
As Alves snaked his arm under Abedi's chin to sink in the fight-ending choke, the drought was finally over, the dominance he once showed reappearing. Like the Alves of old, it's not nearly enough. The Kampmann fight excites him because the Dane is a complete fighter with sharp skills both standing and on the ground. But the Pitbull is ready to bare his fangs. He promises that the fight won't go to the judges and says he knows he can do to Kampmann what the sport did to him.
MMA once broke him but the rebuilding phase sculpted a new model, one looking for a new streak of stoppage wins, because one wasn't nearly enough.
"I'm very, very hungry," he said. "I'm still starving, but I know I have the right skills to break the man and finish this fight, and that's what I'm going to do."