NITEROI, Brazil — Maria Oliveira is not the favorite to win the Rizin women’s atomweight tournament on Dec. 31 in Saitama, Japan. Reality is, no one will ever be a favorite to win a grand prix if Rena Kubota is in it. Don’t expect Oliveira to believe that, though.
Oliveira racked up an 8-2 record in two years in the Brazilian MMA circuit before signing with Rizin to compete in the tournament. After a 33-hour flight to Japan in October, Oliveira introduced herself to the international audience with a decision victory over Alyssa Garcia.
"It was an unexpected experience,” Oliveira told MMA Fighting. "I imagined myself fighting in international promotions, but I didn’t think it would be in Japan right away. The travel wasn’t that pleasant, I wasn’t used to such a long flight, the time difference and all that, so I didn’t feel that well, but it was a great experience overall. What a cool event!”
The Brazilian atomweight, who turned 21 earlier this month, was too young to watch Pride events when it was still around. The aura of those events seems eternal, though, and she made sure to watch all the tapes ahead of her debut in Japan.
"I didn’t know what MMA was back in Pride days, but when I started fighting I did some research and found out about it,” she said. "I fell in love with it right away. I always loved street fights and MMA has a lot of rules, but over there you can kick them when they are on the ground, and when I was told that I could do all that I was like, ‘wow, I love this.’”
Oliveira really loves to kick people in the face, but she had to go through a long road before being able to do it in a legal way.
Oliveira was just a small kid from Sao Joao de Meriti, Rio de Janeiro, when she started leaning capoeira in a social project inside her school. She wanted to become someone important, but being from such a humble family cuts your opportunity in half — if not more — in places like that.
Her life was about going to school and training capoeira, and that was it. With so much free time on her hands, Oliveira often found trouble in the streets of Sao Joao de Meriti. On one of those days, Oliveira learned she wasn’t as tough as she thought.
"I liked fighting,” she said. "I like arguing with other people, actually, but I always got beat up when I tried to fight. My cousin and I tied to beat this chick up one day, and we got beat up by her [laughs]. This one girl beat us both. I said ‘I’ll start training so no one can beat me anymore.’”
A jiu-jitsu project was about to start in her school, too, so that was the perfect opportunity for Oliveira to add some martial arts knowledge to her life. They gave her and other students a gi to train, but the projects was off because it even started.
Jiu-jitsu would return to Oliveira’s life shortly after, as her cousin started dating a guy that trained BJJ and she was invited to join the team.
Oliveira fell in love with fighting — inside a gym this time — and decided to compete in jiu-jitsu tournaments. She was training three times a week, but that wouldn’t be enough to win tournaments. She knew she would probably lose fast against girls that trained every single day, so the 17-year-old decided to train from Monday to Friday.
“I went to the gym to train the other days, but there was this kickboxing class going on,” she said. “I watched them train and thought to myself ‘I don’t want jiu-jitsu anymore, I want kickboxing.'"
“You're too skinny, I don’t have a fight for you," a coach said when Oliveira signed up to compete in a kickboxing tournament inside the Parana Vale Tudo gym in Duque de Caxias, Rio de Janeiro. Oliveira had already paid to compete, though, so they had to figure out a way to solve the problem.
"I had this fight spirit, I wanted to compete, but he said I was too skinny so there was no one there to fight me, so I would win by W.O.,” she said. "I said ‘come on, man, I can fight anyone. Put a man against me, whatever, I’ll fight anyone.’ I said my mom was there and she would authorize me fight anyone. Bullsh*t, she wasn’t there, but I wanted to fight [laughs]."
Her mother wasn’t against the idea of her fighting, but didn’t believe she would succeed in it. "My mom said ‘you're going there to lose because these girls from Caxias are great,'” Oliveira said with a laugh.
Oliveira insisted. She wanted to fight. The coach was getting annoyed by her, but she was right: she had paid, so she had to fight.
The coach started to walk around the gym to find someone to compete — and pretty much beat this skinny girl up, he thought —, until he found three girls sitting next to the ring. One of the girls had already fought that day, another one said she didn’t want to do it, and the third one agreed to step in the ring.
“She asked who she had to fight, he pointed at me, and this other girl said ‘oh, I’d fight if I knew that she was the opponent,’” Oliveira laughs. "They thought it would be an easy fight."
Oliveira’s opponent was a PRVT fighter, and they were fighting inside the PRVT gym. Rafael Rec, one of the trainers at PRVT, was the referee, and the judges were also from the same team.
Oliveira had everyone against her.
“You have to really beat her up to get away with the win,” she was told by one of the other trainers before entering the ring.
"I went there and knocked her out,” Oliveira said, "and the girl that didn’t fight was all like, ‘I'm glad it wasn’t me’ [laughs]. It was funny. I saw a tape of that fight once, and Rec told one of the guys from his team between rounds to get all the info he could about me because he wanted me on his team. All it took was one round for him to see I had talent."
Oliveira started training kickboxing, but quickly realized that everyone at PRVT was focused on training kickboxing to become mixed martial artists. Oliveira didn’t know much of jiu-jitsu, but was already making her MMA debut a year later.
She lost that fight via first-round submission.
“I knew that was what I wanted for my life even though I lost,” Oliveira said. “I was too crazy, I only trained once a day, but I wanted that for my life. I was studying to become a nurse, but I dropped everything and came to Niteroi to train and become a professional fighter.
"I started training kickboxing five years ago, I only started in MMA two years ago, and I already have a badass record."
Being so close to win a tournament in Japan two years into her MMA career is “too surreal,” Oliveira says, but she almost dropped everything days before her quarterfinal bout with Garcia in October.
"A week before the my fight in Rizin, I thought about quitting,” she said. "I was about to quit. I had some personal issues and ended up involving some other people that had nothing to do with it. It was upsetting. I was upset with some people in the team because of mistakes I made, that I allowed to happen.
"I gave up. I went back my mom’s home, said I didn’t want it anymore. Jessica Andrade went there with her fiancee and spoke with me. It’s good to have someone you can look up to. Jessica went through a lot to get where she is now, so she opened my mind and I decided to come back, talk to my master and move on."
The UFC strawweight contender convinced Oliveira to return to Niteroi and then fly to Japan to compete, and that paid off. Now, she’s one win away from a potential clash against one of the best atomweights in the world later that night, Rena Kubota, who takes on Irene Cabello in the other semifinal.
"I want to be the best,” Oliveira said. "I want to show that no one has a chance against me, not only Rena. I trained for this fight, but I got my eyes on Rena already. A win over her puts me as the best in the world.
"She’s great in shootboxing, but I believe I have a good chance against her. She’s great technically, but I believe I’m going to be the toughest fight she’s ever had. It’s going to be a great fight and fans will ask for more.
"I want to prove to myself that I can do this. We’re becoming one of the best women’s teams in the world, and winning this GP proves it one more time. Rena is a great athlete, she’s good standing and on the ground. It’s hard to take her down, but I don’t want that anyway. I want to trade with her."