clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Bellator champ Rafael Carvalho reflects on tough road to the top


Rafael Carvalho became the Bellator middleweight champion less than four years after his professional MMA debut, and looks back at the tough road to the top ahead of his first title defense in Boise, Idaho, opposite 45-fight veteran Melvin Manhoef.

Since his early life in the Chapeu Mangueira favela in Rio de Janeiro, Carvalho looked up to his older brother, Marcelo Penca. Penca ran a social project for poor kids, but only at age 7, Carvalho started to care about martial arts. Between jiu-jitsu and muay thai, the options available at his brother’s project, the young kid chose to put on the gloves and throw kicks and punches.

Carvalho enjoyed training, but he didn’t want that for his life. In fact, he dropped it for over a decade. When he was 18, Carvalho decided to join the army, and that’s the first drastic change in his life.

"I stayed away from martial arts for years, and returned in 2005 when I joined the army," Carvalho told MMA Fighting. "That’s when I finally started being serious about it."

Carvalho imagined a perfect life in the army. Uniform, women, and fighting for Brazil. It took a few weeks for him to realize that it was nothing like he ever imagined.

"I wanted to join the army because I thought it was cool, the uniform and being a patriot, all that," he said. "I liked it at first, but then I regretted joining the army because it wasn’t like I thought it would be. I was too young, 18 or 19 years old. I was a kid. I thought about women and all that. When I joined the army, I saw that it wasn’t what I thought it would be."

"In the first weeks as a rookie, they put you in some rough situations," he continued. "The basic stuff, things that everybody goes through when they get in. You work hard. I mean, you work really hard."

Carvalho stayed in the Brazilian army for 10 months, the mandatory period. Back to Chapeu Mangueira, he needed to find a regular job to make some money, so he went to Prado Junior street, two blocks away from the world famous Copacabana beach, to ask for a job at a bar called Botequim do Leo.

"I was working as a waiter and still didn’t look as martial arts as something serious," he said. "I only wanted to stay in shape and have a better life. I started liking martial arts for real after doing an amateur fight in Rio de Janeiro. I thought ‘let’s see what happens next, let’s see how I’d do inside a ring’."

Botequim do Leo

Carvalho eventually quit his job and decided to move to Curitiba to pursue a life as a fighter. Or part-time fighter, as he still needed another job to make money. In December of 2011, he made his professional debut against Junior Cesar Araujo, but it didn’t go his way.

A submission loss didn’t stop him from trying, though.

Four months later, Carvalho returned to action to score his MMA victory. In the next nine months, Carvalho entered the ring four times, winning four straight by TKO.

"I started late, really late, when I was 25 years old. I started doing this really late," Carvalho said. "Everything I won, it was like a meteoric rise. It was even further then I expected. I never thought for a second that I would come this far, but I’m thankful to everything that happened and will still happen in my life.

"You have to find time. It wasn’t about time only, but having to adapt to the circumstances," he said of training and fighting while having a part time job. "You’re exhausted when you leave your work, go home to change your clothes and eat something, and go straight to the gym. No time for anything else. Not taking anything away from anyone, but this is not for everyone. You need to want this more than anything.

"Everybody goes through difficulties until they reach their goals, I’m not better than anyone. God won’t give us anything we can’t handle. If I handled everything I’ve been through until now, it’s because He knew where I would go. Let’s say that everything that happened in my life built me in a way that things would be easier now. I think that everything I’ve been through, everything I still go through, help me when I get inside the cage. I say to myself ‘I can’t hand him everything I worked so hard for on a silver platter’. I use this as a motivation."

On Oct. 23, 2015, Carvalho’s life changed one more time. A left kick to the liver dropped Brandon Halsey at Bellator 144, and he was the new 185-pound champion.

"It changed the way people see me," Carvalho said of winning the Bellator middleweight gold. "I’m more respected now that I won this title. Many doors have opened to me, many good things have happened. I believe everything has changed."

At Friday’s Bellator 155, inside the CenturyLink Arena in Boise, the Brazilian titleholder looks to become the first to successfully defend the middleweight title since Alexander Shlemenko’s run as champion, and he has prepared accordingly.

"My preparation was better and more intense than when I fought for the title," Carvalho said. "It’s my first title defense, so we did a different strategy, had a different focus. My camp was pretty good. I was always an underdog in my Bellator fights and I won every single one of them. If I continue being the underdog and continue winning, that’s what matters to me. I can’t focus on what people think."

Before facing Carvalho for the 185-pound gold, Melvin Manhoef entered the kickboxing ring at Bellator’s first trip to Italy, but ended up losing to Alexandru Negrea. Manhoef was knocked down once in the contest and lost via decision, but Carvalho didn’t take that fight into consideration while preparing for Bellator 155.

"I watched it, but I can’t look into it that much because we’re fighting for a title now, and he probably prepared differently for this fight," said the champion. "Everything changes. That was a kickboxing fight, and this is MMA. He can take me down and try other things. Everything changes."

Manhoef is a striker with heavy hands, but the champion is expecting anything from him Friday night.

"I work with every possibility," Carvalho said. "I believe he might try to take me down, so I have to be at my best. He might try to take me down, or I might try to take him down. We’re fighting MMA."

"Maybe a kick, a knee, an elbow, a punch. Maybe a submission. I have many weapons to finish the fight," he continued. "But if I can knock him out, that would be perfect, especially because of his history in the striking world."

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the MMA Fighting Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your fighting news from MMA Fighting