Last-minute fight cancellations are a nightmare for MMA promoters. Injuries and weight issues are at the top of the list of most common reasons why bouts are cancelled in major promotions these days, but it’s unlikely that anything ever comes close to PRIDE 9’s Matt Serra vs. Johil de Oliveira bout.
Oliveira and Serra were both set to make their PRIDE debut that night, June 4, 2000. The Brazilian signed with the Japanese promotion after winning multiple one-night tournaments in Brazil and capturing the IVC championship, while Serra, a 26-year-old talent under Renzo Gracie, was 3-0 in the sport.
It was far from PRIDE’s most stacked events, especially if you compare it to the openweight tournament that took place months before in Tokyo, but what happened that night at the Nagoya Rainbow Hall was unforgettable.
Oliveira was about to walk out to the ring when a huge mistake led to him having most of his body burned.
"You're at the top of a stage, waving to the crowd before you start to walk to the ring,” Oliveira recalls. "In this stage, there were six flamethrowers for their pyrotechnic show. But they hit the button to activate the flamethrower when I was right next to it, and they burned 70 percent of my body."
"It was live. I was burned on live television,” he continues. "There was no adrenaline because I was used to fighting, so I wasn't nervous or anxious. I was used to competition, and the pain was unbearable. Ricardo Liborio, the first to rescue me, saw how my skin was. It was coming off, and I still had fire on me. It was terrible. Until I got to the hospital and they put me out with anesthesia, it was the worst moment of my life. Being burned is no joke. There’s nothing worse than that."
“I guess the pyrotechnics went wrong, and Johil was right in front of it to walk out to fight so the fire went all over him and burned him,” Liborio says. “I was one of the first ones to get there, with Renzo and Mark Kerr. I guess the Japanese didn’t understand what was going on, it took a long time before the doctors got there. They didn’t realize it was for real. (Johil) tried to stand back up but I told him to stop moving until the doctors got there. It was a horrible accident."
Serra found himself without an opponent that night, and ended up never fighting in PRIDE. “The Terror” scored another win in a small promotion in New York before he started his nine-year run in the UFC, but Oliveira’s road wasn’t as glorious as his.
That night in Nagoya, the Brazilian was rushed to a burn center in Nagoya, and stayed there for two months. When he was finally cleared to return to Brazil, Oliveira had a list of things he couldn’t do for a long time, including shaving or sunbathing.
As soon as he landed in Rio de Janeiro, Oliveira realized he has made a big mistake.
"When I came back from Japan, there were a lot of reporters at the airport, and they weren’t really worried about me, they just wanted to know how much PRIDE paid me,” Oliveira recalls. "They thought PRIDE paid me a fortune. Everybody asked how much I made.”
In times where seven-figure pays in MMA were rare, everyone thought Oliveira had at least a million-dollar check in his pocket.
"Everybody thought they paid me one or two million dollars,” he says. "They screwed me up with that, too. They only gave me $70,000, and that's it. I was pretty much robbed.”
Oliveira used part of the money to buy a house, and invested the rest in a gym and other businesses, but his ventures collapsed soon after.
“$70,000 were good money back then,” Oliveira says, “but that's way less than what I could've made. Many people said that if I had sued PRIDE I’d be rich and wouldn’t need to fight anymore, but I didn’t want to do that because I respected them.
"Thinking about the money, yes, I regret (not suing them), but I love the promotion and I love Japan. I love fighting there. They treat you as an idol, something that doesn't happen in Brazil. But I do regret (not suing them) for the money because my life would be way better than it is today."
The freak accident didn’t stop him from fighting, though, but walking to a ring wasn’t as easy as it once was.
"Every time I stepped in there and saw those flamethrowers, that big show, I was shaken,” Oliveira says. "It took a while, four or five fights, before I was really over it. My coaches had to push me to the ring because it was hard for me to go there."
It wouldn’t be a smart decision to go back to the ring right away, but Oliveira recalls being advised by his manager and trainers that turning down opportunities to compete in PRIDE could mean the end of his career in Japan.
"PRIDE did a new contract with me, they said they would give me three easy fights so I could make a good money,” Oliveira says. "Some kind of reward besides the indemnification."
Oliveira would make $30,000 per fight with a $15,000 win bonus in his PRIDE deal.
"I never asked for easy fights in my life,,” he says, "but they said they wanted to give me easier fights so I could make money while I was recovering, and then I’d sign a new deal with ‘regular' fights, but right away it seemed like they wanted to just break me.”
At PRIDE 12, six months after having 70 percent of his body burned, the Brazilian was facing Carlos Newton, who was on a four-fight winning streak — and had the experience of competing against Dan Henderson and Kazushi Sakuraba before in the UFC and PRIDE, respectively.
"They matched me up with Carlos Newton in the first fight, and they called that an easy fight,” says Oliveira, who lost via unanimous decision. "After that I fought 'Nino' Schembri, who was one of the best grapplers in the world back then. And then I fought Daiju Takase, who submitted Anderson Silva a year later. Taking those fights was a mistake. My manager should never have accepted that.”
In his first fight back, that's when he was given his nickname, “Fire Samurai."
"There was a fire extinguisher in the hallway. I looked at it and thought ‘let me grab this just in case I’m burned again, so I can put out the fire myself,’” Oliveira says with a laugh. "The Japanese crew said I couldn’t do that, that it wasn’t allowed, but I said I wouldn’t go to the ring if I couldn't carry that with me, so they let me do it.
"It was a big success, and the Japanese gave me this nickname, ‘Fire Samurai’. I was scared, but I also thought it would be something cool."
Between his PRIDE debut and the return against Schembri, though, Oliveira almost lost his eyesight. The IVC champion was injured in a car accident in Brazil, but decided to go on and face the dangerous grappler, who was making his MMA debut.
"I was blind in one eye against Schembri,” says Oliveira, who faced ‘Nino' six months after his loss to Newton, losing via submission. "I didn’t train once before that fight, but I didn’t pull out because my manager and coaches told me I had to take the fight or I’d be released from the promotion. After the fight, I did the cornea transplant.”
Oliveira’s eye issues continue now. The MMA veteran had to undergo a second transplant in the same eye after being poked in the eye in training, and also needed a cataract surgery. After three surgeries in the left eye, Oliveira recently underwent a right eye cataract surgery as well.
Five years have passed since Oliveira’s last MMA bout, but he’s not done fighting. The PRIDE veteran was actually matched up against Jorge Patino “Macaco" in the main event of a small show in Sao Paulo in 2014, but the promoter left the arena when all the fighters realized they wouldn’t be paid for the bouts.
At 47, Oliveira is still hungry to compete. In fact, he wouldn’t mind signing with his old “boss”, RIZIN president Nobuyuki Sakakibara, for a return to Japan.
“I wouldn’t be skeptical if they gave me a new opportunity,” says Oliveira, who doesn’t feel like Sakakibara took care of him after the accident in PRIDE. “They are signing guys from the old days to compete, so why not give me a fight? I always fought whoever they put in front of me, I was blind in one of the fights.
"Fighters hurt their nails and pull out of fights these days. If what I did was right or wrong, I don’t know, but that’s who I am. I think I could have done a lot better in PRIDE if they were more correct with me. I should have had another chance in PRIDE, but they did me wrong.
"From the bottom of my heart, they hurt me. With RIZIN coming back, they could call me to right a wrong, but I never had any contact with them. I think they owe me that."
A fight with Matt Serra for his debut in RIZIN, re-booking the PRIDE 9 clash that never happened, doesn’t interest Oliveira because "Serra is way heavier, fat, and he's not fighting anymore, so I wouldn’t fight him.” Other than that, the Brazilian would face pretty much anyone at 170 pounds.
"If your head is fine and you can train, you can fight,” Oliveira says. "I feel fine to fight. If you give me enough time to prepare… I usually get calls on short notice. Shooto (Brazil) called me to fight on a week’s notice (in 2011). People call me to lose, and I ruin their plans. (Shooto) called me to fight ‘Cabelinho’ (Haroldo Bunn), and he was training at the best gym, Nova Uniao, while I was running around the block and only hitting pads three times before the fight, and I won.
"I have a huge heart but people don’t respect me. But I think MMA is different now. I think I can fight more even though I’m 47 years old. Age is just a number.”