Rafael dos Anjos is the UFC lightweight champion, and only seven men can say they were able to beat the top 155-pounder. Adriano Abu, who made his MMA debut facing a fellow newcomer dos Anjos in 2004, still uses that claim to fame 12 years later.
Abu fought dos Anjos in the opening bout of Juiz de Fora Fight’s first edition in September 2004, and ended up winning the contest via split decision. Despite his success inside the ring, Abu decided to leave the sport a year later to work as a prison guard.
"I even fought once after that, did a few muay thai and jiu-jitsu fights," Abu tells MMA Fighting, "but I would need to quit my job and move to a bigger gym if I wanted to become a full-time, professional MMA fighter. My coach told me to go train at Chute Boxe at the time, but my father was a painter and my mother worked as a cleaning woman and I didn’t want to take risks. I’m happy with the choice I made."
The footage of the three-round bout is on YouTube, helping Abu gain notoriety in his hometown more than a decade later.
"I’m respected here in Juiz de Fora, even with the prisoners, because of my fights," he says. "The prisoners know about my fights, and my win over Rafael dos Anjos changed things for me. I saw that he’s the fifth best pound-for-pound fighter in the UFC, so everybody talks to me about it. A prisoner once told me they would never riot during my shift [laughs].
"I worked as a chief of the rapid intervention group in Minas Gerais, to work in cases of riots or rebellions. I coordinate that much due to my knowledge in fighting. That fight with Rafael helped me got this job, too. They knew that I could stop a prisoner faster without hurting them because of my skills."
In August 2014, when Abu wasn’t working at the jail, the prisoners started a riot. They used mattresses to block the cell doors, and torched everything. At home with his wife and daughter, Abu had to run to the jail to help control the situation.
"I got there at midnight, the situation was out of control, and backup wouldn’t get there until the next morning," he says. "It was ugly. I got all the agents together and told them what to do, how to get in, how to use the shields. ‘If someone jumps in, you know what to do.’ My group came in and we were able to end it without anyone getting hurt. It was beautiful.
"I reached out to one prisoner and he said ‘Abu, you’re a fighter and all that, you know that our situation here is horrible. We want to talk to a judge.’ I asked them if they were coming out, and he wanted to know if I guaranteed they wouldn’t get beat up. I was a fighter, so they thought we were going to beat them up when they left. I told them no one would get hurt, and they agreed to leave. I believe my training in martial arts, and God, helped me control that situation."
Abu was respected in jail, but being known as a MMA fighter who once beat the man that now holds the UFC belt can get you in complicated situations. During a routine procedure at the jail, moving prisoners to different locations, one man decided to start a fight. He told agents he wouldn’t leave the place, and challenged Abu to try and take him out.
"I went to the pavilion two knowing that sh-t would get real," Abu says. "I felt the same way I did when I walked out for my MMA fights. This guy was walking from one side to the other, waiting for me, while 20 other agents were waiting outside, afraid to get in. I said ‘open this door. I want to see if this guy is everything he says.’ When the agent opened the door, the prisoner said ‘Mr. Abu, you’re here because you’re a man, so you can handcuff me and take me outside.’ I never needed to actually fight with a prisoner because my mentality would be enough, I guess."
Still working in a hostile territory a decade later, Abu doesn’t regret his decision to leave MMA. The jiu-jitsu black belt also teaches boxing and muay thai classes, and sees himself inside the Octagon every time dos Anjos goes in there to compete. On July 7, when dos Anjos enters the cage to defend his title against Eddie Alvarez in Las Vegas, Abu will be cheering for him.
"I root for him. He got to a place I could have gotten too, but I’m happy with my decisions," Abu says. "Every time I see him winning, I know that could have been me."