clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

From 'little donkey' to UFC champion: How Rafael dos Anjos beat the odds

Guilherme Cruz, MMA Fighting

The reigning UFC lightweight champion puts his title on the line July 7 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, but Rafael dos Anjos’ road to the top of the world started in 1993.

Dos Anjos was no different than any other kid in Fonseca, a traditional district in Niteroi, Brazil. A few miles away from the bridge that connects the city to Rio de Janeiro, he was a hyperactive boy who got interested in martial arts at eight years old. He'd watched his cousin Rodrigo Souza train capoeira at the Henrique Lage school, but it was seeing kids grapple over in his neighborhood that caught his attention.

Dos Anjos immediately fell in love with it. He liked it so much that he would skip classes for it. Rosane dos Anjos, his mother, worked all day to provide for the family, and didn’t notice that her son changed his routine for months.

"I think I spent six months without going to school for classes," dos Anjos remembers. "I walked straight by it to go train jiu-jitsu. When I had money I took the bus, or would ride a bike or even walk to the gym. It was far away from my house, like eight miles or something. I always found a way to get there. My mother was very busy, she worked a lot, so she wouldn’t notice it. I skipped class one day to train, went normally the other, and then would skip two or three days of school. My mother was very busy. She had other problems to deal with, so she didn’t even notice it."

His first jiu-jitsu teacher, Luis Carlos, was the first to bring his attention to fighting. Once a week, Carlos would give dos Anjos and other kids boxing gloves and let them fight on the mat, which led him towards Vale Tudo. Money was an issue though and, unable to pay for classes, dos Anjos had to stop training for a few years. When he finally returned to training three years later, it was under the tutelage of Ronaldo Barradas. At that point, Dos Anjos got more involved with Vale Tudo.

"There were four mats at this gym, for judo, jiu-jitsu, taekwondo and capoeira," he says. "Sometimes the taekwondo and capoeira guys would come to our mat and say, ‘oh, look at these men hugging other men.’"

"They always gave the toughest challenge to ‘Jeguinho.’ He already had such talent. Every time the taparia started, the toughest ones had to fight our ‘Jeguinho.’"

Like dos Anjos’ first coach, Barradas liked to watch his kids fighting, so he often organized a taparia, which is a kind of unofficial slap competition. Punches were not allowed, since all the participants were under 12 years old, but the children were encouraged to use their grappling and striking skills. Dos Anjos was known as "Jeguinho" — "little donkey," in Portuguese — and he showed why in his early taparia days.

"They always gave the toughest challenge to ‘Jeguinho,’" says Souza, dos Anjos’ cousin. "He already had such talent. Every time the taparia started, the toughest ones had to fight our ‘Jeguinho.’"

Souza wasn’t a jiu-jitsu practitioner at this time. In fact, he was one of the capoeira kids that didn’t like any type of grappling training. However, getting dominated by a smaller cousin made him take a closer look at that particular martial art.

"Every time we met at his house, he would move the furniture around to show me the techniques he learned in the gym, trying to convince me how cool jiu-jitsu was," Souza says. "He took me down, and I had nowhere to run. He talked so much about it that I decided to join him. I left capoeira and started doing jiu-jitsu. I thought, ‘If this little man right here can submit me, imagine what a guy like me can do.’ I was bigger than him, and he still beat me up."

"It brought out this side of me," dos Anjos recalls. "I never got intimidated by anyone’s size, by any challenge. I always wanted the biggest challenges, and always did well. I think that made me look at fighting with different eyes."

During one of those grappling matches with his friends at home, dos Anjos, who often got himself in trouble in the streets — "He was a cool kid, but somehow always attracted trouble and never ran from a fight," Souza laughs — was discovered by his mother. When Rosane came back from work, her son and his buddies were fighting in the living room while Rickson Gracie was on television dominating three opponents in single night at Vale Tudo Japan.

"I was watching those fights in the living room with my friends, and we always ended up fighting each other," dos Anjos says. "My mother arrived at home and destroyed the VHS tape [laughs]. Rodrigo was a bit crazy, and I was hyperactive too, so we always ended up fighting. It was cool. We had a fun childhood, always playing around."

With his mom and his grandmother, Judith, struggling to see a future in fighting for him, "Jeguinho" decided to leave home at just 16 years old. His father, Paulo, was living in Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais, and dos Anjos trekked the 280 miles to go stay with him. He wanted to pursue a career in martial arts, and this, he felt, was his best course. To follow his heart.

"I don’t think they had any idea," dos Anjos says. "That was something that God put in my heart, to train as hard as I could. I had a lot of reasons to give up. I couldn’t even imagine being where I am today, but God had plans for me."

When dos Anjos arrived in Belo Horizonte with a blue belt around his waist, he ended up at Aldo "Caveirinha" Januario’s jiu-jitsu school, Gracie Barra. Like dos Anjos’ mother, Paulo, a truck driver by trade, didn’t spend much time at home. That left young Rafael plenty of time to spend at the gym, learning his craft.

"Rafael stayed with me all day for years," Januario says. "Rafael was a fun kid. I remember his first training. He was brave, and already had cauliflower ears. I remember thinking, ‘man, he’s 16 and already looks like this? He must be good — like a little ‘Minotauro.' He liked going for takedowns and putting on a lot of pressure. I thought to myself, ‘if I can polish this kid’s game a bit, he will dominate the world.’"

Dos Anjos' first tests in Belo Horizonte were a success, and he was awarded a purple belt a year later. He kept adding titles to his resume as purple and brown belt until he finally achieved his first dream and became a black belt.

"Caveirinha" says that young prospect was downright "scary," as he won every tournament that he entered. One of the top talents in all of Minas Gerais, RDA’s old "taparia" days took on new meaning when, suddenly, he got an offer to do a mixed martial arts fight.

My first (real) fight

In the first week of September 2004, dos Anjos received a phone call that changed his life forever. Longtime veteran Ebenezer Braga, who for nearly a decade fought some of the best fighters around the globe, was starting his own MMA promotion in Juiz de Fora, some 165 miles away from Belo Horizonte.

Even for the best jiu-jitsu practitioners, there was the undeniable bottom line — winning gold medals didn’t help pay your bills. So Braga’s offer for young dos Anjos to make 600 reais to fight three rounds — worth about $218 dollars in 2004 — was sweet music to his ears. The fight was scheduled for Sept. 24, and he had almost no time to prepare.

"Man, I've never had 600 reais in my hands before," dos Anjos remembers thinking after his conversation with Braga. "I was 19 at the time and I said, ‘okay, cool, let’s do this.’ If I won, I’d get paid 1000. I didn’t invest anything at all in training back then, I just went to the fight. I'd never even worn MMA gloves before, yet it was a good way of making money. There were some jiu-jitsu tournaments back then that would pay cash to champions, which was something rare, but in an MMA bout you would make money in a single fight."

Another MMA newcomer, Adriano Abu, would be the one standing opposite him in the ring that night at Juiz de Fora Fight 1.

And like dos Anjos, Abu had virtually no time to train for his debut. Braga had called Abu’s coach at Brazilian Top Team Juiz de Fora searching for an opponent to face dos Anjos. Abu, who knew RDA's name from the jiu-jitsu circuit, was asked by his coach if he'd be willing to take it, and his pupil didn’t think twice -- especially after taking to heart some comments made by his trainers.

"They told me Rafael couldn’t strike, that he was a pure grappler, and that it would be an easy fight," Abu says. "We didn’t have much time to prepare, so I went in there like a kamikaze. I thought to myself, ‘you wouldn’t have time to prepare if you got into a bar fight, so let’s see what happens.’ I was good at jiu-jitsu and was already training Muay Thai and liked to strike, so they gave me the fight. I already knew and admired Rafael because he had won a few openweight tournaments at Gracie Barra."

When the fight started, Abu realized almost immediately that he didn’t get himself into an easy fight. In fact, Abu realized he didn’t know anything about dos Anjos’ fighting skills. Everybody knew dos Anjos could grapple, but only the kids that faced "Jeguinho" in Fonseca knew about his hands.

"I didn’t even train jiu-jitsu because I was good at it and wanted to keep it standing, and you can see that he rocked me right in the beginning," Abu says. "I thought he was going to clinch or go for a double leg, but he went there to brawl. At that moment everything turned black, and I couldn’t see a thing. He landed a few hands and I just thought, ‘I’m going to die.’ I expected to go out at any moment, but I never did, and we went on to the second round.

"I started to use my Muay Thai techniques in the later rounds and I was able to hurt him even from the bottom. I had no idea he would be that tough, though."

They ended up going the distance, and both fighters thought they won. As the local fighter, the crowd was pro-Abu, and he ended up getting the victory via split decision. "I will remember that night for the rest of my life," Abu says. "His face was swollen, it was hard for him to breathe, and I went and celebrated with a barbecue."

He can laugh about it now. "It was a nice night," he says.

Everybody knew dos Anjos could grapple, but only the kids that faced 'Jeguinho' in Fonseca knew about his hands.

Dos Anjos was disgruntled with the decision, but as a silver lining he had discovered something he really enjoyed doing. Two weeks later, with his face barely recovered from the three-round war in Juiz de Fora, the 19-year-old fighter entered the ring one more time. Back in Belo Horizonte, dos Anjos faced Joao Paulo Almeida Alves, scoring his first victory. In the process, he pocketed more money than he ever dreamed he could.

"In one month, I won 1600 reais," he laughs. "I said, ‘man, I have to do this.’"

Meanwhile, just as RDA was realizing professional life in the prize ring, his family back in Niteroi had no idea what he was up to in Belo Horizonte.

"I didn’t even know he was training MMA," his cousin says. "He hid that from everyone in Rio. When I found out he had this fight in Juiz de Fora, I got in touch with him and started following him more. After that, I even decided to fight MMA, too."

With a 1-1 record in mixed martial arts, dos Anjos returned to action six months later, scoring his first stoppage victory — a TKO over Felipe Arinelli. Less than two months later, though, against Jorge Britto, he took another tumble. He lost a tough decision that evened out his record.

"He was super upset because he couldn’t stand losing, and I don’t think he even lost those fights," says "Caveirinha," who fought and won via TKO that night. "The judges were really just amateurs back then. I asked one of the judges after the fight why he gave Jorge Britto the win, and he said that Rafael spent too much time on top and taking Britto down. I asked him why he lost, since he was the one being aggressive. It made no sense. You could tell the judge had no idea what he was judging."

Dos Anjos hated losing, and a 2-2 record wasn’t a good start to a career that could give him more money — and a different way of life — than jiu-jitsu. Being so far away from his family, dos Anjos once again considered moving.

"I remember being at his house and telling his father to believe, because Rafael was so talented, and the whole world would recognize that one day," "Caveirinha" says. "He won everything, with or without the gi. He entered gi and no-gi tournaments the very same weekend he had to fight MMA, and he won everything. He’s the only guy that I ever saw doing something like that. He was really talented, but our gym wasn’t the best place for him. It was a bit amateurish. You can’t be an MMA fighter training with a jiu-jitsu team only. It’s impossible."

Still young in his career and open to competing in any combat sports, dos Anjos took an opportunity to compete at the European Championship. At the time, it sounded great. But the reality of the situation didn't quite meet his expectations.

Hell in Germany

"I had just got my black belt and was completely broke," dos Anjos recalls. He had 300 Euros in his pocket, maybe enough for a week or so in Europe, but he stayed much longer than he expected. "It was tough. I had to make some money to survive. I was going to compete at the European Championship and ended up staying there for six months. I started teaching jiu-jitsu, but didn’t have any time to train myself."

Being a "carioca" in Germany’s cold winter can be difficult, especially in a situation like dos Anjos'. Splitting time living between gyms and friends’ houses, he never knew where he would end up by the end of the week.

"If you’re used to the weather in Brazil, Germany is freaking cold," he says. "I didn’t know how to speak German, or even English. I only knew a few key words. I communicated with gestures, mostly, and that was it. The difference in the culture, and everything else, it was too much for me. I slept in a tiny little room. Sometimes I didn’t even have anywhere to sleep. It was complicated."

"I slept in a tiny little room. Sometimes I didn’t even have anywhere to sleep. It was complicated."

Life got a bit better when he moved to Hamburg, a three-hour train ride from where he first stayed. Dos Anjos spent three months there, living at a friend’s house, but it wasn’t working for him. His ultimate goal was to become a high level jiu-jitsu player or a well-rounded MMA fighter, and jumping from different cities in Europe was only delaying the process.

Now 21 years old, dos Anjos returned to Brazil, only this time he was headed back to Rio de Janeiro rather than Belo Horizonte. "Caveirinha" understood and agreed with his decision. He told RDA to contact Roberto "Gordo" Correa once he arrived, to train and learn from one of the best jiu-jitsu trainers in the world. Besides, Correa also happened to coach Gracie Barra Combat Team’s MMA team, which was what dos Anjos was seeking.

"Gordo" first saw dos Anjos compete when he was just a purple belt during one of the tournaments in Rio de Janeiro.

"You could see at the jiu-jitsu tournaments that he didn’t have that beautiful style, but he always worked hard to win, and gave everything he had," Correa says. "A man with those characteristics can be champion in any sport. He didn’t only have the skill, but he also had it in him to want to win more than anything."

What dos Anjos really wanted was to become a well-rounded mixed martial artist, and "Gordo" knew he would need to make a lot of improvements to get there. Gracie Barra Combat Team was full of great talent back in 2006, and a 2-2 guy definitely wasn't going to become a top priority.

"Rafael was really raw when he moved to Rio," Correa recalls. "We had some experienced guys training MMA with us, so Rafael was just one guy in the gym at that time. The difference is that the guys from Marco Ruas’ team weren’t that good on the ground and had great Muay Thai skills, and Rafael was the opposite. He was only starting to learn the stand up, but had great jiu-jitsu."

To his surprise, "Gordo" says Dos Anjos evolved faster than expected, as he quickly found his way back into the win column. He tapped out Johil de Oliveira in 2007, which was a great feat, even though the Pride veteran was coming in on a long losing streak. That victory catapulted dos Anjos into an opportunity with XFC Brazil, which invited him to partake in its lightweight tournament two weeks later. That tournament was the next life altering step in dos Anjos' career.

A special ring girl

Correa's protégé would compete against Thiago Meller in the grand prix semifinal. Meller, who had a 7-1 record with his only loss a decision against Jose Aldo, was another blue chip prospect. And more than that, Meller caught the attention of the ladies holding the rounds cards. All but one XFC ring girl, that is — Cristiane Gurgel. Gurgel had her eyes on the man Meller was going to face.

"It was love at first sight," Gurgel says. "The other ring girls were interested in Thiago Meller, but he was not the type of guy that I liked. I liked Rafael better, he was my number [laughs]."

Gurgel, who also worked as a producer for XFC, had saw dos Anjos earlier that week, but only had the chance to speak with him for the first time a few hours before the fights at the Grajau Tenis Clube. It wasn’t a Hollywood-like romantic encounter. Gurgel had a list of names, and it was her job to call fighters and inform them where they would stay. But there were two people with "dos" in their name, which got her a bit confused. Junior dos Santos, who scored one of his last wins before heading to the UFC, was fighting in the main event.

Meller caught the attention of the ladies holding the rounds cards. All but one XFC ring girl, that is — Cristiane Gurgel had her eyes on the man Meller was going to face.

"I got the list and started calling the fighters," Gurgel says. "I started with Junior dos Santos, and when I had to call Rafael dos Anjos, I said Rafael dos Santos. I repeated that name three times and nobody answered. Everybody looked at me thinking, ‘who is this crazy girl talking to?’ Rafael slowly came from behind, put his big head in front of me and asked if I was looking for Rafael dos Anjos. He was pissed off. I looked at the paper and saw his picture, and got embarrassed. ‘Oh, dos Anjos, dos Santos,' I said, 'it all comes from God, so it’s all good.’"

After an awkward few moment and some timid laughter, dos Anjos made his way to his locker room to prepare for his fight.

When he entered the gymnasium to fight Meller, Gurgel was the one circling the ring carrying the cards. She didn’t have much work that night, since all the fights had a 10-minute round only. Dos Anjos beat both of his opponents with rear-naked chokes to become champion. It was a star-studded show. Junior dos Santos, Antonio Braga Neto and Rafael Natal — all of whom are in the UFC today — also won their respective tournaments that night.

As soon as the event was over, dos Anjos approached Gurgel and asked for her phone number. He invited her to go to his next fight. XFC announced that all tournament winners would compete on July 30, at the next event, though that card never ended up happening. Still, dos Anjos and Gurgel met a few days later in Rio, and went to grab a bite at Bibi Sucos after he got a new tattoo done.

"From that day on, we were dating," she says.

Gurgel lived in Grajau, close to where dos Anjos fought that night at XFC, and worked in Barra. Dos Anjos was back at his mother’s house in Fonseca, and spent hours in traffic every day on his way to Gracie Barra Combat Team. Gurgel’s house was halfway to Barra, and he spent more time at her place before eventually moving in with her, living in a small house behind an automobile repair shop. It was far closer to the gym.

"He liked riding his motorcycle from Fonseca to Barra, but it was dangerous," says Gurgel, who already had a son, Gustavo, from a previous relationship. "After we moved, everything started to get better in our lives."

Gurgel had a love for mixed martial arts. In fact, she even trained capoeira and jiu-jitsu when she was younger, but being in a relationship with a professional MMA fighter gave her a different perspective on the sport. Her family didn’t share her love for fights, but saw no reason to object of her living with a fighter. Dos Anjos didn’t know any of that. When he met her father, Max, the tough MMA fighter got a little intimidated.

"My father always wanted to know where I was, and who I was with," she says. "I told him I was dating someone, and he said, ‘well, let’s meet this big guy.’ He came over to our home to meet Rafael. He asked Rafael what he did for a living, and Rafael said he was an MMA fighter. My father responded, ‘oh, you’re a fighter. Okay, keep swindling.’

She laughs at the memory.

"When he said that, Rafael thought he was crazy," she says. "My father is a funny guy."

"I will quit fighting"

Life was getting better for Gurgel and dos Anjos, as he picked up some momentum with a couple more wins in 2007 in Fury FC, but the overall lack of opportunities, at one point, almost convinced him to walk away from the sport. Dos Anjos kept going to "Gordo’s" gym to train every single day, but watching some of his training partners work full-time jobs, due to a lack of fights, made him consider giving it up.

"One day I went over to my grandmother’s house in Fonseca and [dos Anjos] was upset," Souza remembers. "He explained his situation and asked for a job. He said, ‘Find me anything, I need to help my mother. I will quit fighting. I haven’t made anything yet and I don’t know what else to do.' I told him I wouldn’t get him a job because he’s talented as f*ck, and he wouldn’t be able to train properly if he had to work at night as a security guard as I was. Rafael didn’t didn't have experience, he didn't even know how to replace a lamp. Nothing. He only knew how to fight."

"Rafael didn’t have experience, he didn't even know how to replace a lamp. Nothing. He only knew how to fight."

"He always denied me the job when I asked, saying that I had talent and that everything would be alright," dos Anjos says. "I was training and training, but nothing was happening. I was discouraged. I didn’t come from a rich family, so the little money my mother and grandmother provided me helped put gas in a motorcycle. But every time I thought about quitting, God put an angel forth to give me strength and say the right things."

Rodrigo Souza said the right things that day, and Gurgel echoed the sentiment. Dos Anjos barely had enough money to buy food, and Gurgel realized just how rough things were when RDA relayed a story about a police officer approaching him in the street, only to let him go after realizing he only had five reais (two dollars) in his pocket.

"It was hard for everyone in Rio at that time," she says. "He was discouraged, for sure. I believe his family was pressuring him because MMA was too aggressive — I guess they were worried that MMA wouldn’t provide him any kind of future. He even considered leaving MMA to go to work as a garbage man, because he didn’t go back to school.

"I said ‘honey, you didn’t graduate in school or college, but your diploma is that picture at your grandmother’s wall, your black belt in jiu-jitsu. You are a black belt. Are you going to throw everything away? I just saw your beautiful fights, those amazing submissions. You have a huge potential, you have to continue in this war. You know you can count on me for anything you need. I don’t have much, but we can work everything together.'"

He didn’t quit, and after a couple of wins in 2008, improving his overall record to 11-2, dos Anjos got a fateful call from the UFC.

Sparring with the janitor

With nine straight victories under his belt and a fresh, multi-fight deal with the UFC, dos Anjos had finally realized his dream. The road was full of highs and lows, and his Octagon debut was a plummet to the lowest of the lows. While superstar Brock Lesnar was fighting Randy Couture in the main event at UFC 91, dos Anjos battled Jeremy Stephens on the preliminary card. After two solid rounds, the Brazilian ate a vicious uppercut that left him unconscious.

"Every athlete wants to be in the UFC, but sometimes you’re not prepared when you get there," Correa says. "Sometimes you think you’re at a higher level, but you’re not. That’s also what happened with Rafael. He had a good debut, he was winning for 13 minutes, and unfortunately got knocked out."

"Gordo" remembers it being an uphill battle at the time.

"A lot of people think that someone becomes a millionaire because he fought in the UFC. You can’t even live properly while waiting for your next fight with $3,200. Rafael always believed he would get there though."

"We had 25 guys training everyday at the gym, but it was a bit amateurish," he says. "Most of the fighters in Brazil have full-time jobs, so sometimes they can’t train. That’s one of the reasons why I closed my MMA team in Brazil. I worked hard, Rafael worked hard, but the other guys didn’t. We didn’t even have someone to carry the bucket for him. It was only the two of us in the beginning."

Dos Anjos was a UFC fighter, but his financial problems were far from over. While Stephens pocketed $76,000 with his "Knockout of the Night" bonus, dos Anjos went back home with only $3,200 after taxes. It was more money than he made in his previous bouts, but it wasn’t enough.

"A lot of people think that someone becomes a millionaire because he fought in the UFC," "Gordo" says. "You can’t even live properly while waiting for your next fight with $3,200. Rafael always believed he would get there though."

Yet, it would take awhile for dos Anjos to actually "got there."

Five months after losing his debut, dos Anjos returned against longtime veteran Tyson Griffin at UFC Fight Night 18. Fighting live on Spike TV, the Brazilian had a better performance, but still returned to Rio with another loss on his record. This time he won a "Fight of the Night" bonus, adding $30,000 to his check, but the loss hurt.

Back-to-back losses to kick off his career in the UFC wasn't how he drew it up.

"I always had ‘Gordo’ with me, but sometimes the training wasn’t that good," dos Anjos says. "‘Gordo’ was always by my side, but I had no one else to train with. For example, I had to train with the gym’s janitor in my camp for Tyson Griffin because I had no one else to train with. I got to the gym and no one was there. Sometimes Ze Mario [Sperry] was there to help me a bit, Cesario [Bezerra] was there to teach me a few things in boxing, and that was it. I didn’t have that every single day."

"Rafael traveled to fight in the UFC with no money in his account," "Gordo" says. "That was extra motivation for him to win, but also a responsibility, because he really needed the money. He depended on the win. Rafael always invested all the money he made with his fights in training. He never cared about fancy clothes and stuff like that. He won a fight and saved money for the next one. That was his life."

California dream

Losing your first two UFC bouts usually means an unceremonious set of walking papers by the promotion, but that didn’t happen with dos Anjos, who had just become a father. Coming off his Fight of the Night performance, he got another chance against Robert Emerson, and this time he broke through. He scored his first win in the promotion, and followed that up with victories over Kyle Bradley and Terry Etim. UFC 117 in Oakland, famous for Anderson Silva's comeback win over Chael Sonnen, was a nightmare for dos Anjos. He suffered a fractured jaw in his fight against Clay Guida, which sidelined him for almost a year after undergoing surgery.

Then dos Anjos got a call that would change his career.

Frankie Edgar, the reigning UFC champion in his division that time, was getting ready to defend the lightweight title against Gray Maynard, and he invited dos Anjos up to help him with his camp. The Niteroi native spent a few weeks training in the United States, and, seeing how professional fighters trained overseas made him rethink his entire life.

Dos Anjos came back to his gym in Rio de Janeiro, and in his subsequent bout scored another win over George Sotiropoulos at UFC 132, needing under a minute to get the job done. But his herky-jerky career to that point rolled on, as he dropped a decision to fellow Brazilian Gleison Tibau later that year.

That was the last straw.

"His loss to Tibau was the decisive moment," says Gurgel, who married Rafael in Rio a couple of weeks later to become Cristiane dos Anjos. "We had our honeymoon set, and he loses due to a training error. He had a weak camp. That’s when we decided to move to California."

Dos Anjos told Cristiane to sell everything they had, including their nice car, so they could move to the United States. He was managed by Ed Soares and Jorge Guimaraes at the time, so he already had a place to train in Southern California. Leaving family and friends behind wasn’t an easy decision, but that’s what dos Anjos deemed was needed to change things for the better.

RDA left Rio in January of 2012. Cristiane arrived in California with the kids in February of that same year. It wasn’t a very good first impression.

On their first week in the U.S., Rafael and Cristiane witnessed a robbery at a Burger King in Anaheim. They hid inside the car, and she started wondering if moving to a different country was the smartest decision.

"My God, I never saw something like that happen in front of me in Rio, and that’s happening to us here?" she recalls thinking. "I asked Rafael if he was sure that this is the place God had for us, and he said he didn’t know. We were scared. We left Rio looking for safety and a better future, and this happens. We were getting better in Rio, we had a good apartment and a nice car, I was graduating in college, and that made me think twice if that was a good idea."

Dos Anjos had no friends in the United States, so his daily routine included nothing but training in the gym and resting at home. A great grappler, dos Anjos started working with Muay Thai guru and renowned coach Rafael Cordeiro at Black House, and that was the final piece of the puzzle.

"He was always a skilled fighter, and we managed to add a few things to his game that matched perfectly," Cordeiro says. "If he had something missing in his game, we completed it. He really became a wrecking machine. You can’t tell if he’s a striker, a grappler or a wrestler. He’s well-rounded."

Cordeiro could relate to the difficulties dos Anjos encountered in his first months in California, too.

"The biggest problem when you move to the United States is that you depend on a lot of people for everything," he says. "I’ve been through that. You depend on people to sign papers, rent a house, to do your accounting. It’s not easy. People think that you’re rich because you moved to the United States, but life isn’t easy. It’s do or die here. People think, ‘oh, he’s moving to California, next to the beach.’ They rarely go to the beach to relax, man. They train from January to December, and that ends up becoming an advantage because you’re in camp the entire year. You barely have time to relax."

"His routine in the United States was to train and nothing else," Correa says. "In Brazil, you have friends and family, you have distractions. His first year in the United States was tough, he had no friends at all. His friends were his training partners."

Rafael dos Anjos moved to Newport Beach to train at Cordeiro’s Kings MMA, which was a game-changer. He went on to win every single one of the challenges the UFC put in front of him from that point on, proving that leaving Brazil was the smartest decision he could have made career-wise. Yet, life wasn’t great for his family. His little son, Rafael Filho, was only three years old when they relocated to California, and Cristiane had trouble adapting to the new city.

"I thought it would be easy for me but harder for the kids," she says. "Gustavo handled it like it was nothing. He was fluent in English in six months. It was harder for Rafael [Filho] because he was too young when we moved, and he couldn’t say a word in English. He couldn’t even ask for water at school.

"It was tough for me because I absorbed all those things in a negative way. I was too lonely at home, I couldn’t even get used to the lifestyle here. Sometimes I understood what people were saying, but I couldn’t express myself the way I wanted."

Cristiane, one of the most important voices in convincing dos Anjos not to give up on fighting, found herself almost giving up. Every single day for over a year, she thought about moving back to Rio de Janeiro. She was afraid to even drive in California. The freeway was too big and crowded, the cars were driving too fast, and she couldn’t understand a word on the GPS.

"I spent a year-and-a-half saying that I wanted to come back, that I couldn’t do it," an emotional Cristiane says. "I was so stressed I ended up with hyperthyroidism. I said, ‘Rafa, I’m sick. I’m not happy anymore. I don’t have the life I had in Brazil.’ In Rio, I woke up early, went to college, worked and helped the kids. I can’t even help my sons in school anymore because I don’t understand the language."

Just like when she said all the right things at just the right time back then, Rafael dos Anjos knew exactly what to tell her.

"He was very supportive, and I was able to overcome that fear," she says. "He lived in Germany before and he knew how tough it would be, but I felt it a lot. It was hard, but I knew it would be better for my family, the ‘California Dream.' It wasn’t easy. But when I visited Brazil the first time, I knew our home wasn’t there anymore."

They helped each other, and it paid off. Despite a hiccup in his run towards the belt — a dominant loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2014 — dos Anjos was in the right place at the right time to become UFC champion. On March 14, 2015, "Jeguinho" became the UFC lightweight champion. He shocked the lightweight division with a one-sided beat-down of Anthony Pettis at UFC 185.

"He’s one of the guys that made it through sports," "Gordo" says. "If you look at the history of sports in general, how many guys really make it to the top? He came from the bottom and became the UFC champion. He’s not at that highest point financially speaking yet, but he has a better house, a nice car, food in his fridge. Yet, he hasn’t changed as a person. When Rafael moved to the California, he wasn’t even a top 15 lightweight in the UFC. If you told me four years ago that he would become the UFC champion, I'd have said, no. Not even in Brazil. But he believed it, I believed it, his family believed it, and his talent and dedication made it happen."

"When we met in 2007, I asked him what his biggest goal was, and he said, ‘sign with the UFC.’ He said his dream was to become a UFC fighter, and I knew he had what it takes to become a UFC champion because he works hard," Cristiane says. "Everyone who trains with him knows that. I knew it, and it would be a matter of time until he won that title."

Fighting a couple of days before the biggest card in UFC history, dos Anjos is all business. He knows Eddie Alvarez is a dangerous man to beat, but looks back at his own history as confirmation that he can overcome any obstacle in his way.

"I have a busy life as UFC champion, interviews and all that, but I can’t complain," he says. "It’s a position that everybody wants to be, and I worked hard for years to get here. It’s a job, and a huge responsibility. And I think it’s only the beginning. This belt will stay with me for a long, long time."

Rafael dos Anjos (EL, MMA F)

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