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Where are they now: Pride’s Ricardo Arona

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Guilherme Cruz, MMA Fighting

NITEROI, Brazil -- Ricardo Arona was one of the best fighters in Pride history. He didn’t follow the big stars to the UFC after the Japanese promotion collapsed in 2007, and he hasn't been heard from much since.

Arona made his professional debut in 2000 at Rings with a victory over Andrei Kopylov. In that same year, he defeated Tito Ortiz and Jeff Monson to win the first of his three titles at ADCC World Submission Wrestling Championships.

Later that year, the Brazilian beat Jeremy Horn and lost to Fedor Emelianenko in a controversial decision loss, but signed a contract with Pride. "The Brazilian Tiger" made his debut one month after becoming Rings’ middleweight champion with a pair of wins over Jeremy Horn and Gustavo Machado in the same night, and UFC light heavyweight tournament winner Guy Mezger was his first victim in the Japanese promotion.

Arona won eight of his 12 fights in Pride, including victories over the like of Wanderlei Silva, Alistair Overeem, Dan Henderson and Kazushi Sakuraba. Inexplicably, he wasn’t one of the additions to the UFC roster after Zuffa bought Pride.

Six years have passed since Arona’s last fight in Pride, a knockout loss to Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou in April 2007, and he has fought only once since.

"When Pride was over I didn’t negotiate with the UFC," Arona told in Itacoatiara, a beautiful beach in Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro. "I wanted to take some time off. I was fighting five times a year and needed some rest. When I decided to return, I injured my knee and everything has changed.

"I competed professionally since I was 15, and when I was 30 I needed to stop," he continued. "Pride was over and I decided to stop and look to the MMA market, to see where I’d fit. I fought again two years later, at Bitetti Combat, but I torn the ACL in the first round. I fought two more rounds, so it took me almost two years to heal."

Fans around the world ever wondered if he would ever fight again when he accepted to fight UFC veteran Marvin Eastman at Bitetti Combat 4 in Rio de Janeiro, winning via decision.

It wasn’t the best performance of his career, but it was a great win considering he injured his knee in the first round, when his foot got stuck between the mat and the fence.

"I’ve fought 18 times in Japan and didn’t feel the pressure I’ve felt fighting in Rio de Janeiro," he said. "I’ve never fought in a cage before and I felt very comfortable there. Many fighters felt that change [after Pride], but I loved it. I felt at home inside the cage."

With an injured knee, Arona went to Las Vegas with his friend Rogerio "Minotouro" Nogueira, who was scheduled to fight Jason Brilz at UFC 114 in May 2010, to meet Dana White.

According to Arona, the UFC president told him to get one more win before they sign him, but it never happened. Three years have passed since that day, and he had the chance to fight again when he got offers from major promotions like Strikeforce, but he never accepted.

"When I decided to fight again, I started to train with my friend Paulo Filho, but I injured my other knee," he said. "I’ve tore the ligaments of my other knee and I will have to go on surgery again. I will do the surgery by the end of the year, so I will need to take some time off to be at 100 percent again. That’s the reason I’m not fighting yet. I have to heal everything to return."

Arona has only won one fight in seven years, but he still wants to compete against the best.

"UFC is the goal of every fighter, and that’s my goal," he said. "I don’t know if I’ll need one or two more fights to get there, but I’m not worried. UFC is the goal, and I will be ready to get there. The only chance I won’t fight again is if my body can’t do it anymore. But I had a knee surgery before and healed well, so I believe my other knee will be 100 percent. I know time flies, but I also believe in my experience. Everything will be alright.

"I’ve talked about it a lot in the past, so I decided I won’t fix a deadline for my return because I need to be solid in every aspect of the fight to return, and I still have that knee surgery to do," he continued. "I believe my recovery will take a year and I should be able at least to decide what’s next at the end of 2014. Will I return fighting jiu-jitsu, submission or straight to MMA? I expect to be ready to fight in one year after the surgery, but if it takes more than a year I’m okay with that too. No rush. I need to get ready to return at 100 percent and that’s what matters."

But a fighter needs money, and having only a single fight in six years doesn't afford a house in Itacoatiara.

"Every athlete lives with the money they get from sponsors and purses," Arona said, "and I haven’t competed recently, but I have Quiksilver and Moskova as sponsors and they support me a lot."

"The Brazilian Tiger" is slowly building his gym in his own house, and he expects to be surrounded by the best teammates when it’s finally finished.

"I like to teach and watch people learning and growing as fighters, but I’m extremely competitive," he said. "I’m building a structure where I can train and get ready to compete. I want to have at my house everything a fighter needs to be able to compete at the highest level without leaving Itacoatiara. I have everything I need here. I live in peace, thinking about my projects. I can stay healthy using the nature, like the mountains and the sea. It would be tougher to do it in the city, and that’s why I love to live here."

"I’ll build a structure with all the equipment I need, but I will also have the best sparring," he continued. "I have a lot of good guys to help me here, but I also want my friends to help me, like Anderson Silva, Rodrigo 'Minotauro', Amaury Bitetti, Rogerio 'Minotouro', Paulo Filho and many others. I will also go to Rio de Janeiro to train with them, but I don’t want to need to go there to train like I needed in the past."

Arona looks slimmer today, but he still weighs the same he used to when he competed in Japan.

"My weight is the same for 10 years," he said. "I weigh 205 pounds and have always weighted that. I always weighed around 209 pounds on fight night while my opponents were at 220, 225 pounds. I believe that the fighters should weigh in on the same day of the fight. Weighing in the day before is ridiculous. That’s not your real weight. You’re a big coward if you need to lose 25 pounds to fight. If you’re really good, there’s no weight. You need to fight at your real weight class."

Arona will be a 36-year old fighter when he finally recovers from his knee injury (projected to be at some point in 2015), but he believes he will be ready to beat anyone in the UFC -- and that includes Jon Jones.

"Jon Jones is reigning in this division, but his last fight was really close," Arona said. "People have trouble dealing with his height and reach, his style, but he’s not unbeatable. You just need to be smart.

"We all saw after his last fight that he’s not that monster that everybody believed he was," he continued. "When I fought Alistair Overeem, he was a monster as big as Jones and I used the right strategy to win. You need the right strategy to beat Jon Jones. Glover Teixeira is an aggressive fighter standing, but he can’t let Jon Jones fight his game.

"I’m capable of beating any fighter. I’ve proven it already. I only need to be 100 percent to do it. Today, I can’t beat any of them. That’s the reality. But I believe a lot in myself. I’ve fought fighter from every weight class. Doing the right thing, I have a chance against any of them. Most of the fighters today (in the UFC) lose because they make mistakes, not because the other one if better than them."

Before driving back home in his car, a mid-1990’s silver BMW, the Pride veteran asks to send a message to his fans around the world, He wants to remind them that Ricardo Arona will fight again.

"I’m doing everything I need to return to the ring and do my best again," Arona said. "I know I’m the type of fighter that the market needs, and I need this time to get ready to go to war again."