Imagine, if you will, a bantamweight fighter in 2013 with one pro mixed martial arts bout under his belt. In his second pro fight, he takes on Renan Barao. Then, for an encore, he returns in 2014 and goes up against Dominick Cruz.
Sounds farfetched, right? But that's not far removed from what OneFC star Bibiano Fernandes attempted at the outset of his MMA career.
With world-class jiu-jitsu credentials but just one MMA fight, Fernandes took on Urijah Faber and Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto in consecutive matches in 2006 and 2007. This was back during the time when a Faber vs. Yamamoto bout was considered the lower-weight dream fight to make.
Fernandes lost both matchups. The Faber fight, which was on a King of the Cage card in Reno and was Faber's last fight before going with the WEC full-time, was stopped due to cuts; and Fernandes went the distance with Yamamoto on a Hero's event before losing the decision.
But the big early tests helped mold Fernandes into the fighter he is today. Since the Yamamoto decision, Fernandes has won 11 of his past 12 fights, a streak he takes into his OneFC interim bantamweight title fight against Koetsu Okazaki on May 31 in Manila.
"In jiu-jitsu, if you want to be the best, you have to go up against everyone," Fernandes, a multi-time World Jiu-Jitsu Championships gold medalist, said in a recent phone interview with MMAFighting.com. "There is no easy way to the top, no getting around it. You have to push yourself if you want to be the best."
"You could look at those fights and say, why would someone in my position take those fights?" Fernandes said. "That wasn't how I looked at it. When I fought Urijah it was billed as the best in MMA against the best in jiu-jitsu. I knew if I was going to make it in this sport, I had to fight the best strikers. The best Muay Thai fighters. The best boxers. If I don't, then how can I become the best? Maybe you can look at it and say that I lost, but I look at it like, after those fights I knew I could compete with anyone in my weight class."
Those aren't empty words. Fernandes, who lives in Vancouver and regularly trains at Matt Hume's AMC Pankration gym in the Seattle area, turned heads with his performances in Japan's Dream promotion, where he won both the featherweight and bantamweight titles.
His bout with Okazaki (8-2-1), a former Shooto champion with seven finishes among his eight wins, was made an interim title fight due to a shoulder injury suffered by champion Soo Chui Kim. When asked if he can take an interim title belt as seriously as a regular title, he taps into the same drive that pushed him to fight over his head at the start of his career.
"Interim title, title, no title, it's all the same," Fernandes said. "The challenge is in becoming the best. I don't consider myself the best fighter in the world. If I consider myself number one, what would be left for me? I'd get lazy, I'd get arrogant. You can never stop learning and never stop with new challenges. The day I consider myself the best is the day I'm through, because I compete for the love of the competition. If I get the belt, that's nice, but it's not about the trophy, it's about the challenge.
"Ozazaki is going to push me in every way," Fernandes continued. "He's a veteran, he's crafty. I'm confident in my skills but I know if I don't give him the respect he deserves, he can win the fight."
It's been a year since Fernandes spurned a UFC contract offer to sign with OneFC. While the decision raised some eyebrows in the mixed martial arts world, Fernandes doesn't sound like a man who in any way regrets his decision.
"I'm very happy in OneFC," Fernandes said. "I'm a happy warrior. When I'm happy, I fight better, because I compete for the joy of fighting. You'll see it in my performance in the ring. I've never been treated better by a promotion in my life."