Fabio Maldonado never backed down from a challenge, and he’s facing the biggest of his career on June 17: a fight with Fedor Emelianenko in St. Petersburg, Russia.
"My head is not in Russia yet," Maldonado told MMA Fighting, explaining that he will fight in Brazil five weeks before Fight Nights 50. "I had the option to cancel this fight since it wasn’t signed yet, but I gave my word that I would fight so I wouldn’t pull out. I can’t let everybody down. Of course, I wanted to cancel everything, but I can’t let them down."
The Brazilian brawler, who racked up a 5-6 record under the UFC banner between 2010 and 2015, is scheduled to headline 1º Round Combat in Natal, Brazil, on May 6, in a five-round, 230-pound catchweight clash with Felipe Dantas (9-0).
"He’s a tough guy," said the Brazilian. "He’s not as experienced as Fedor, of course, but he’s a tough and undefeated guy. He’s having his chance. I believe I’m the favorite, but a fight is a fight. I can’t let this become a problem."
Dantas will be Maldonado’s first MMA fight since leaving the UFC, but not his first bout. Earlier this year, Maldonado returned to the boxing ring to score a pair of quick first-round knockouts in Brazil.
"It was good to activate my boxing," he said. "Sometimes we lack the things we know the most because we’re trying to do everything at the same time. I was able to have a good performance in boxing."
With two MMA fights scheduled outside of the light heavyweight division, Maldonado explains that he might move up to heavyweight for good now.
"I believe I can come back to light heavyweight one day, but I need time to prepare myself," said Maldonado, who lost to Quinton Jackson and Corey Anderson in his final UFC fights. "I’m not here to give any excuses. When I fought Glover (Teixeira) and Stipe Miocic, I was in great shape. I have nothing to say about any loss except my last one in the UFC.
"I should have asked for the same favor I gave ‘Rampage’, I should have asked for a catchweight against Anderson. I needed that because my body felt the weight cut. I ran so much on fight week to cut the weight that I had no legs to fight. The other losses, I have nothing to say. People can believe in me or not, I don’t care."
Maldonado last experience as a heavyweight didn’t go as he expected, losing a short-notice fight to UFC title contender Stipe Miocic in 35 seconds. Against Emelianenko, he knows he has to be at his best to win.
"Fedor is good everywhere," Maldonado said. "The fight starts standing and I can’t enter the ring thinking about not getting taken down and eat two punches and lose like against Miocic. I have to pay attention. I have to be patient in this fight. The biggest difficulty in this fight is Fedor’s speed and explosion. The idea is to catch him when he’s coming. But I won’t wait for Fedor to come, I will attack him as well."
"It was hard to believe at first," he continued. "The fight was done and my life went on normally. A few days later, I looked at myself in the mirror and thought ‘man, I’m fighting Fedor. That’s crazy’. It’s like being a basketball and playing against Michael Jordan. You’re facing the best of all times. Life is a big Ferris wheel, you never know what’s going to happen. The only thing I promise the fans is that I will fight with all my heart against Fedor."
Fighting Emelianenko in Russia is the opportunity of a lifetime for Maldonado, but it came with a price. Stefano Sartori, who works for Fight Nights in Brazil, offered Maldonado a fight with the former Pride champion in Russia, and the UFC veteran did not contact his longtime manager Alex Davis before accepting it.
"It came from nowhere," Maldonado said. "Sartori asked me if I wanted to fight Fedor, and I laughed. I said ‘tomorrow or next week?’ I thought it was a joke. I really didn’t believe at first, and ended up getting the fight."
Davis wasn’t aware of the fight until he was contacted by MMA Fighting, and decided to cut ties with the fighter after years of relationship.
"I know I was wrong," Maldonado admits. "I made a mistake by not telling him. I was going to tell him the other day, but I admit I made a mistake. I never thought it would actually happen, and all of a sudden I had everything in my hands, flight tickets for Russia and all that. I admit that he’s right."