RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Paulo Filho was on the top of the world. Unbeaten in mixed martial arts fights, the Rio de Janeiro native dominated everyone he faced inside the PRIDE ring, cementing himself among the best 185-pound fighters on the planet after winning 13 straight bouts until 2006.
Unfortunately, the memories of Filho shining inside a ring began fading away a long time ago.
Since PRIDE collapsed, Filho has racked up a modest 9-6-3 record competing at ports across the globe, never coming close to duplicating those glorious days in Japan. It’s been a hard stretch. Now a decade removed from his heyday, Filho has decided to open up, and — in his own words — help others who are battling drug addiction.
"I could have been a lot more than I was, for sure,” Filho says, calling PRIDE “the best promotion that ever existed, with the most dangerous rule set."
“But when I was at the top of the game, I slipped."
Filho’s issues began the very first time he fought in Japan, back in 2001. The jiu-jitsu ace used the supplement Ripped Fuel, which contained ephedrine, and his usage was way over the normal amount. It got worse. At one point, Filho — who was having a hard time sleeping — was taking three pills a day. That's when he was presented with the “solution," a drug called Rohypnol.
"One turns you on, and the other turns you off again,” Filho says. "When I took too much of one thing, I had to take more of the other to turn me off. I didn’t pay too much attention to it for a long time, I was living with it. When my performances began to drop off — I’m obviously not made of iron — I decided to seek help. If I had met my doctor eight years ago, maybe I would still be at the top. Maybe even with a belt."
Unlike some of the top fighters around him at Brazilian Top Team at that time, Filho wasn’t into training during the day. Living in Niteroi some miles away from the gym, he began to train his own way. At first there wasn’t a drop off. He was still winning fights, despite his unorthodox training method, but he was quietly damaging his own health.
"I was always a night owl ever since I was a kid, and that facilitated things going down faster,” he says. "Human beings are made to live during the day and sleep at night, but I had this problem. Combine that with depression, sleeping problems, the need of having someone around you...you end up not choosing well. You welcome anyone who shows up in front of you as a friend, and that compromises important things in the future.”
Away from his parents, who lived in Copacabana, Filho was surrounded by new "friends." He didn’t realize it back then, but that also contributed to his downfall.
"Depression,” Filho said, “the wrong people around you, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, forgetting my roots....it didn’t work out well.”
When PRIDE collapsed in 2007, Filho signed with WEC. His teammate Anderson Silva, who was managed by Jorge Guimaraes and Ed Soares — the same duo that managed his career back then — was already the middleweight champion in the UFC. Filho gave himself a mission to work his way up, and one day hold the belt inside the blue cage.
It didn’t take long for Filho to reach the top of the division. He was matched up against 48-fight veteran Joe Doerksen for middleweight gold right out of the gate, in his WEC debut, and won by first-round TKO. Four months later, Filho was set to defend his belt against Chael Sonnen, but — little did everyone know at the time — he wasn’t the same fighter anymore.
That’s when he dabbled in cocaine.
"I was at this party in Mexico,” Filho says, remembering the first time he used the drug. "I got wasted there, completely drunk, and couldn’t even speak. So this Mexican guy came up. … I don’t even remember how it was, but I know that I used it and felt new again. Everyone likes it the first time they use it. I was back up. At first, you don’t think about the consequences.”
As the common refrain goes, the euphoria he experienced during his first use made him want to try it again. And again. And again.
"When I came back to Brazil, I started to use it more consistently,” Filho remembers. "From once a month, I started using once a week. I was on for three days, and then I’d sleep the next three days. But I still never missed a fight despite the fact that I was the way I was. Naturally, like it happens with everyone who uses nonstop, I eventually hit rock bottom.”
Filho says he was never truly addicted to cocaine, but using it all the time — combined with his use of Rohypnol and Ripped Fuel — plagued his health. And when he was “hit” by a recurrence of depression, he went down for good.
"[Depression] is complicated because it is considered a rich people’s disease, but it drags you down,” he says. "So you try to find ways to beat this disease, medicine, drugs, alcohol. People with depression will do anything to get out of this misery, and cocaine turns you into a slave. Cocaine slowly brings you down, and it’s so dangerous.
"At first it lifts you up, but then when you go back down, the depression becomes tougher and stronger to a point that you consider taking your own life. It wasn't easy, but everything I went through here [at Carlson Gracie gym] made me stronger to overcome it all."
The beginning of the end
Filho defended his WEC belt for the first time with a second-round armbar against Sonnen, but the “carioca" fighter was already losing a battle with his demons outside the cage.
"I wasn’t the same person anymore,” he says. "I was already buried in problems. Let’s say I was in this phase of the first love with [cocaine]. I thought everything was fine, and that’s when users tend to fool themselves. You don’t realize it has completely began to dominate you."
Even though he was already using cocaine, and didn’t have a proper training camp for WEC 31, Filho was confident he had what it took to defeat a veteran like Sonnen.
"I believed a lot in myself,” he says. “I knew I would finish the fight eventually. The first fight with Sonnen was in the beginning, when things weren’t going well, but I didn’t have enough wisdom to realize it. I was bewitched. I had money, fame. I didn’t become a jerk, but I damaged myself partying, enjoying life in a way that I never was able to thanks to the training I had at Carlson Gracie."
Filho’s poor performance, and Sonnen’s complaints that he never tapped, led to a rematch. Sonnen, who beat Bryan Baker three months later, returned to the cage later in 2008 to rematch the middleweight champion in one of the strangest fights in the history of the sport.
Filho, who at one point weighed almost 245 pounds leading up to the fight, spent a whole day in the sauna in a desperate attempt to cut every ounce he could. All the effort wasn’t enough, and he missed weight by four pounds.
WEC turned the five-round championship contest into a 15-minute bout, and Filho’s 185-pound title was no longer on the table. When the referee started the contest, Filho was unrecognizable.
"I don’t regret fighting [at WEC 36] because ultimately it was my fault,” Filho says. "If it was my fault, I was the one who had to deal with the consequences. And I paid for it, with everything I had. The way I did, I think it was kind of noble. I didn’t hide behind my problems. Instead, I faced them. The one that worked hardest would deserve the win, and that was Sonnen. He deserved more than anyone to win that fight.
"I believed that with time I would get him tired and win, and he did the right strategy. He wouldn't come closer. He took me down, hit me a few times, and came right back up. He wouldn’t attack me much standing as well. Maybe he would have finished me if he were more aggressive. I cut too much weight, 35 pounds, and I wasn’t training before the fight. Everything was a complete and total failure.”
Filho admits he deserved that stretch of hell.
"I don’t remember anything in that fight,” he says. “My brain was too dehydrated, I couldn’t recover from the weight cut. But I don’t regret fighting because I had to go through that. I deserved going through all that. I couldn’t take anything away from Sonnen, a guy that trained for two months, because it was me that partied instead of training. I’m comfortable with that. I had to pay for that; I paid for my sins."
For Filho, it was his first lost in an MMA fight, and he was fined a percentage of his purse. From a big picture sense, it wasn’t all bad because he still left the cage with the WEC belt. However, he didn’t feel like a champion anymore.
"When the fight was over, and I lost the decision, I went to the hospital and stayed there for a while,” he says. "When I woke up and looked at the belt, I said, ‘this belt doesn’t belong to me anymore.’ I called Ed Soares, who was my manager alongside ‘Joinha' back then. Sonnen's father had just passed away and his dream was to see his son win a belt, and I felt it was fair to give it to him.
"That belt didn’t belong to me anymore. He won the fight. That was his belt. We should have done a third fight, but he went to the UFC, did some good fights. He’s a smart man and he did a good job."
Filho hit rock bottom, though, losing for the first time and being released by WEC. All of that still wasn’t enough to wake him up from the madness that had become his daily life.
"I was a bit tired of that routine, to be honest,” Filho says. "I think it combined everything, the stress, having to train everyday at Carlson and at Brazilian Top Team, missing my life. Everything got me kind of tired of this. Sometimes when you’re on drugs you get tired of living, so why would I care about fighting? I started to sabotage myself, to think everything is fine, when in reality I knew everything sucked."
It didn’t take long for Filho to return to action, as he next faced Melvin Manhoef in DREAM. After an early scare, the fighter — who once again arrived overweight to Japan, but this time managed to hit the 185-pound mark — scored an impressive submission.
Filho was still battling issues outside the sport, though. One thing he thought about frequently was ending his own life.
"I thought about it not once or 10 times, but more than 100 times,” Filho says. "You get to a point with you’re so miserable deep in your heart that you have no idea what to do. I’m actually surprised to be here. There were times that my parents… I looked them in the eyes and said, ‘no, its not for me anymore, it’s for them.’ I had no desire to live.”
Less than two months after submitting Manhoef, Filho was announced at the historical Bitetti Combat 4 and was matched up against Alex Schoenauer.
Competing alongside popular names like Ricardo Arona, Murilo Rua and Pedro Rizzo, Filho appeared to be in rough shape at the weigh-ins, and only managed to show up at the gymnasium a few hours before the fight. He was wasted on cocaine, but somehow fought to a decision victory.
Filho wouldn’t listen to his parents, who desperately asked him to move away from Niteroi and start living in Rio de Janeiro to train at Team Nogueira, or — short of that — move to the United States for a fresh start. He didn’t take the advice.
Years later, Filho admits that living away from a gym was one of the biggest mistakes he has made in his life.
"Living in Niteroi pushed me away from everything,” he says. "You get used to this life. [Beaches like] Itacoatiara, Camboinhas. You get lazy. You don’t train so hard. Your opponent is there, working hard to accomplish something, and you just want to live your life.
"I had a calm life there, I did what I wanted. My purse was the same. I wasn’t as prepared as I could, but I could go with it. Things got worse with time. You settle. I had better training in Rio, but the long distance. … Time passed and I didn’t see it. My father was right. I was blind back then, and I didn’t listen to the ones that wished me well."
Filho was taking one fight after another in Brazil and overseas, and he clearly wasn’t taking anything seriously. In the midst of the chaos going on, his father passed away. There was no one around to prevent him from signing those contracts.
"It was my fault,” Filho says. "I didn’t open myself, didn’t speak. I made that choice. I always thought it was ugly to hide behind a problem that you caused. The fact that I wasn’t training, it was my fault. I had to go. I’d rather lose a fight than not go because I thought I could lose. I’d rather actually lose than be a coward. I’d rather sleep knowing that I got beat up than realizing I chickened out with the possibility of losing."
Another thing that turned him away from training was his obsession with pitbulls. Filho opened his own kennel, and still is in love with the dogs there to this day, but admits that — especially at the time — it became an added distraction.
"I’m not the kind of person who does many things at the same time,” he says. "When I do something, I’m all in. When I shifted my focus to dogs, going to the beach with my friends, I lost focus. And when I lose focus, it’s for good. But I never stopped fulfilling my obligations with fighting, even if you could see that it wasn't working out.
“I know I didn’t fight the way I wanted, but entering a fight in the shape I was in takes a certain kind of courage. I know what I’m capable of doing, but I was dead. I think it was noble not to run away. I’m not saying I acted right with the things I did. It was my fault, so I had to pay for my mistakes."
The last chapter — for now
The World Series of Fighting signed Filho in its early days. His run with the promotion lasted only one bout — a decision loss to Dave Branch — and was full of controversy.
Back in Brazil, Filho continued to insist he was fine. Five months after losing to Branch, he fought to a draw with Rodney Wallace. It should have been a decision loss, but the rules for that particular contest dictated that a fighter could only win if he finished his opponent. Filho added another loss to his resume a few months later, but kept moving on.
In September 2014, Filho was announced as the main event of Fatality Arena 7 in Sao Goncalo, Rio de Janeiro, against UFC veteran and Nova Uniao fighter Amilcar Alves. A few bouts into the event, the promotion revealed suddenly that Filho would not be competing.
At the time, Filho said he refused to fight because the promoters wouldn’t pay him what they had agreed to previously, yet the local commission said Filho had passed out. There was much confusion.
The truth is, Filho suffered a panic attack.
"One hour before the event, I got information that messed with my head and I was in a state where I couldn’t compete anymore,” Filho says. "It was a misunderstanding. I received information that was unfair, but that gave me a panic attack, to the point that I couldn't even move.
"With all due respect, Amilcar wasn’t important for me. He’s a nice guy, and he understood the situation. It happened. It had to be like this for a reason."
A couple of months later, Filho found himself in the headlines again. This time, the MMA veteran was shot in the leg at a party in Joa, a fancy neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. The bullet that hit Filho ended up breaking his femur, and he underwent emergency surgery at a local hospital.
"The head of security shot me,” says Filho, admitting guilt for his part in the altercation, but arguing that shooting him wasn’t necessary. "I had an argument with his son because he didn’t let me get inside the party, and I ended up pushing his face. His father didn’t say a word, just pulled the gun and fired.
"A jiu-jitsu fighter has this stigma, the cauliflower ear, 'Paulo Filho.' People make wrong decisions. I didn’t deserve to get shot in the leg. There were more than 10 security guards there. Three of four guards could have held me. There were other ways of controlling the situation, but that’s in the past. I moved on. I can walk, I can run, I can train. That taught me that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Filho, who was so close to dying many times before — like the three car accidents he been in, all of which can be attributed to his drug use — didn't think he was in danger of dying this time.
"I didn’t fear for my life,” he says. "Everything happened so fast I had no time to think. When I realized, I was on the ground bleeding, but the doctors at the Miguel Couto and TijuTrauma hospital did a great job. I underwent surgery, and here I am.”
On the mend
Finally clean and with his demons in the rear-view mirror, Filho won’t yet commit to fighting professionally again. The 38-year-old jiu-jitsu black belt moved back to Copacabana to live with his mother and is training jiu-jitsu at the Carlson Gracie gym. His focus these days is sharing his story with those who battle drug addiction, and to share his grappling knowledge with the young generation.
That itch never goes away, though, and Filho won’t officially close the door on a return. In fact, there’s optimism in his voice that he just might.
"I’ve done several interviews in the past and said I wasn’t using [cocaine] anymore, but I wasn't well,” he says. “I find myself teaching. If one day I come back to fighting … winning and losing is part of it. I have no plans of being what I used to be again, but I still have that desire of stepping inside the cage one more time. Maybe two or three times more. Who knows? Test myself, at this level I am now. If that’s what I decide to do.
"The first step is teaching, sharing,” he adds. "If I get excited about it, let’s do it, let’s see how I feel. Who knows, maybe I fight one of the old guys at Bellator, the guys from my generation. If not, I’ll stop. I have no problems with it. I know what I felt, I know I’m not a p*ssy, and that’s enough for me. You’re the only one that can change your own reality. You need to want the change and work hard to get out of there.”
Filho says hunger is the key. If his drive and hunger are there, he’s not worried about how many years he took off his life, or trying to return to old glories.
"I don’t believe in age, I believe in mental age, in what you want to be,” he says. “Of course, you need to have a healthy life, train, but I think that the most important thing is to want. Your head, be ready for that, to know that you can do it. Wins and losses are part of the sport, it happens. I’m not worried about what people think about me. If I’m willing to compete, I’m more experienced and mentally better now to do the best I can. What drives me now is myself."