Almost 20 years after entering a vale tudo ring for the first time in Brazil, Evangelista Santos is still fueled by his cockfighting spirit.
"Cyborg" competed in some of the biggest mixed martial arts promotions in the world throughout his career, from Pride to Strikeforce, and is excited to make his Bellator debut Friday against rising welterweight Brennan Ward.
"I’m very confident," Santos told MMA Fighting. "I did a great camp. I fought three months ago at Legacy and kept training hard as soon as I got this offer from Bellator. It’s a great opportunity to show my work to the entire world. He’s the type of fighter I like to compete against. I like to fight the toughest ones. I always fought the toughest ones, I never had easy opponents. I was tested against the best. The toughest the fight, more motivated I get. He comes to fight, and that’s the way it should be."
Santos’ Bellator debut comes two years after the night he decided to retire from the sport. Fighting Melvin Manhoef in Brazil, a rematch from their classic war at Cage Rage in 2006, "Cyborg" lost via TKO in 46 seconds, but complained that referee missed an illegal knee. He failed to get the result overturned to a no contest, and decided to leave the sport.
"Cyborg" stayed retired for over a year, but not fighting was driving him crazy. Stepping away from mixed martial arts was against everything he believed since he was a young kid in Rondonopolis.
"When I was 12, I started working with cockfighting. I took care of the roosters," Santos said. "When I became a fighter, I had this spirit. You have to die fighting, never run away from a fight. The rooster that runs from a fight doesn’t come back to the stable. A fighter that runs from a fight is not a real fighter. That’s the spirit. My best quality isn’t my technique, but my heart, to never give up. I can identify with the rooster because he’s there to kill or be killed. If the guy is breathing and the referee didn’t stop the fight, we’re going to fight.
"(Cockfighting) is illegal in Brazil now, but it was normal back in those days," he continued. "I was born and raised in Rondonopolis, and there were more than 20 cockfighting stables in the city. The breeders needed someone to take care of their roosters, and I worked for one of them. I stayed there all day taking care of the roosters. That was my mission. I woke up in the morning and went to the stable to feed them, to train and prepare them for the fight. We prepared them for two months for each fight. We did sparring every Saturday, and they would fight each other using protection. During the week, we did conditioning training and eat the right food.
"It’s a real fight, with three 15-minute rounds with iron beak and spur. The rooster could become blind, but kept fighting. That’s the spirit I was born with. I see me as an extension of that. If the rooster runs from a fight once, it will run again if put in the same situation, and the human being is the exact same thing. A fighter may have all the technical qualities, but if he chickens out once, he will chicken out again. When I decided to become a fighter, I already knew that. Running away? No f***ing way. If you chicken out, you don’t need to come back home. That’s how I teach my students. You see a lot of fighters that are technical, but run from tough fights. (Chael) Sonnen, (Conor) McGregor, they are only good when they are winning. You don’t truly know a fighter when he’s beating someone, but when he’s getting beat. Wanderlei (Silva), ‘Minotauro’ (Nogueira), those are real roosters. I have the cockfighting spirit, it’s in my blood, and will be like that forever. Never give up."
Santos’ family wasn’t bothered to see a 12 year-old kid taking care of roosters, so he did that for five years. But how did they react when he decided to fight in a ring with no gloves and almost no rules at all?
"When I started competing in kickboxing, my mother thought it was cool, but then I decided to do vale tudo when I was 18," he said. "I heard that a tournament was happening in Campo Grande, 125 miles away from Rondonopolis. I had no idea what vale tudo was, so I got a UFC tape and saw Marco Ruas fighting. I was impressed, I wanted to be like him, so I signed up for the event."
On Sept. 7, 1996, "Cyborg" entered a one-night, eight-man lightweight tournament, and his life changed forever.
"When I got to the gymnasium, I thought ‘well, I’ll see the first fight and see how it is. Watching it live is different’. But the first fight of the night was mine. I said ‘f*ck, let’s do this’," Santos said with a laugh. "I entered the ring like crazy and knocked the guy out. I also won the semifinal. In the final, I fought a jiu-jitsu brown belt and we did a tough fight, but I lost. Fans went nuts, they loved it, and when I felt the blood in my face I thought ‘f*ck, that’s what I want to do for a living’. I felt like a rooster in a cockfight that night. After that, I never walked away from the sport."
Santos’ first opponent under the Bellator banner, Ward enters the bout coming off four stoppage victories, including three first-round finishes under the Bellator banner. "Cyborg", who scored the majority of his MMA victories by knockout, expects Ward to avoid a stand-up battle at Bellator 153.
"I believe his instinct will tell him to close the distance and use his wrestling after he eats the first punch," he said. "His chin wasn’t tested yet, and I will test that. I’m also a black belt in jiu-jitsu and I worked a lot on that as well. If we have to go to the ground, I’m prepared for it. I know that’s what he wants to do. He won’t take the risk and fight me in my territory for too long because it will get ugly for him, and he will give me the opportunity to submit him. I’m a black belt and few people know that, so I might have an opportunity to show my jiu-jitsu in this fight."
Competing for the first time inside the Bellator cage, "Cyborg" says it’s not a big deal.
"It’s all the same," he said. "UFC, Rizin, Bellator, Legacy, I see no difference. The difference is the rules and the lights, and that’s it. Inside the cage, it’s all the same. When the cage closes, it’s you against your opponent. I take this fight like I did with my 47 MMA fights. Sherdog doesn’t have 11 other fights I did in Brazil, but it’s only numbers to me. The experience I got inside the ring, no one can take it away from me. I feel more comfortable inside the ring than in any other place in the world. I was born to do this."