Rafael Carvalho needed a pair of wins in Bellator to earn a shot at the middleweight title, and he’s surprised how quick he got to the top of the division.
The 29-year-old Brazilian signed with Bellator in 2014 after winning nine straight with eight TKO finishes in Brazil, and took only three minutes to stop veteran Brian Rogers in his promotional debut. Carvalho then returned against kickboxing sensation Joe Shilling in April, improving to 11-1 with a split decision win and earning a shot at the middleweight title against Brandon Halsey at Friday’s Bellator 144.
"To be honest with you, it was a bit too fast," Carvalho told MMAFighting.com. "I entered Bellator as an underdog, there were some other fighters ahead of me. Nobody knew me, and I showed my work, showed what I can do. My first fights were co-main events, and I was kind of surprised by that too. I expected to fight one more fight before getting a title shot next year, so I was surprised when I heard I would be fighting for the title."
Brandon Halsey got stripped of his 185-pound title after missing weight before his first title defense in May. He will have a chance to reclaim the title at Friday’s Bellator 144 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, but Carvalho has other plans.
"I will fight him as if he was still the champion," he said. "It’s going to be a five-round war, and we’ll do our best. Nothing changes the way I see this fight. I’m 100 percent ready for this fight, ready to put on a show and bring this belt to Brazil."
A decorated wrestler with a perfect 9-0 record in MMA, Halsey has finished five of the seven opponents he’s faced under the Bellator banner, but Carvalho expects the former champion to focus on takedowns on Friday night.
"He relies on wrestling, and he’s really good at it," said the Brazilian. "He’s an All American, so his wrestling is pretty good for MMA. I can’t underestimate him at all. He was the champion for a reason, he beat Shlemenko. I will try to keep the fight standing as much as I can, but I’m ready. I can fight him standing or on the ground. I’m expecting the fight to go to the ground, but I will be ready anywhere.
"I have worked on my takedown defense long before this fight, but always focusing on my Muay Thai," he continued. "I added some things to my game, fixed a few mistakes. The fight starts standing, and a lot can happen before we go to the ground. I worked hard on my jiu-jitsu, my submissions skills, so I can win wherever we go. Everyone has holes in their games, and I realized that his holes are constant. I studied his fights with my coaches and we set up a strategy to work on those holes."
Halsey stopped the likes of Alexander Shlemenko and Kendall Grove in Bellator, but Carvalho wants to earn the 10th knockout finish of his career to claim Bellator gold.
"I always want a knockout," Carvalho said. "The majority of my wins were by knockout, so that’s natural for me. I want to win this title with a knockout. That would be amazing. Winning this belt would be the apex of my career. Many people didn’t believe this would be possible, and it’s going to be the icing on the cake. That’s something really special for me. I had a goal in my mind, to win a major world title, and I didn’t expect this to happen so quickly."