Back in July 2015, Antonio Braga Neto pulled out of his UFC welterweight debut due to an injury. Now, years later, he finally is returning to the Octagon.
But why did it take so long? Well, it’s complicated.
MMA Fighting reached out to Neto multiple times for the past few months, however the fighter was constantly changing his phone number. Calls and texts were sent to each new number, but he still never responded.
One last attempt was made recently, and Neto finally answered.
"I disappeared because I had some problems, I was a bit upset and didn’t want to talk to anyone,” Neto said. "But I’m fine now, thank God.”
Neto wouldn’t delve into the details of it, but he explained that he “disappeared" to take care of money issues.
"I couldn’t train with my head worried about those problems I had to solve,” he said.
After spending years away from the UFC Octagon, Neto — who hasn’t competed since a decision loss to Clint Hester in June 2014 — had to find other ways to make money. He opened a gym in Manaus, his hometown in the North area of Brazil, but being injured most of the time wasn’t helping his business.
The two-time jiu-jitsu world champion then decided to change sports — and found a new passion in poker.
"Poker was a way I found to make money,” Neto said. "That’s what saved me in those years when I haven’t fought."
Neto was making good money with poker, yes, but it’s hard to abandon what an individual really loves doing. And Neto wanted to fight, but he was always pushed away from the mats due to injuries.
First, he blew out his knee in his final regional fight before signing with the UFC. After months of recovery, Neto won his Octagon debut in less than two minutes, but fractured his nose and hurt his ribs in the process. That was only the tip of the iceberg.
"I had a knee injury, a shoulder injury, and then I had a groin injury right before the fight I had to pull out,” Neto said. "I tried to train eight or nine months later, and suffered the same groin injury again, and that kept me sidelined for more time.
"When I was returning to training, I thought I injured my knee again, had to do an MRI, go back to the doctor again, but thank God it wasn’t anything so serious. I’m an intense guy, so I always got injured when I was trying to come back."
Not making any money wasn’t the only problem, Neto said. "I (had) never stayed away for so long, and that messes with your head. I always wanted everything. I never dreamed about small things, so you start to question everything, doubting everything.
"I remember that when I injured my knee and underwent surgery, ‘Mutante' (Cezar Ferreira) won The Ultimate Fighter and Maiquel Falcao won at Bellator, and I’m here thinking, ‘I beat those guys, but I’m sitting here and I have no idea what’s my future in MMA.’"
The young talent who once thought he was unbeatable finally understood what Evolve’s Chatri Sityodtong had told him years before.
"Chatri told me once that life is made of ups and downs,” Neto recalled. "When he told me that, I questioned him. 'Ups and downs? I wanted a medal at the IBJJF Worlds and I have a bunch of them. Every year I make plans, and I surpass them. Where the f*ck is the down? My life is all about winning.' I was 19, 20 years old. Now I see what he was talking about. Life really is about ups and downs, and we have to be ready to go through the downs, and not everyone is ready for it."
It took some time, but Neto finally realized he was just human, and would need to focus on his career in order to be a fighter again. The thing is, he was facing so many issues outside the cage that, at one point, he simply gave up.
"Until last week I think I didn’t want to fight again, I even lost my reason to live,” Neto said. "I even questioned why I’m alive today. Not only about MMA, but questioned why I’m fighting at all. I thought about teaching jiu-jitsu around the world, I thought about many things, but I think I still have this fighting blood running through my veins.
"I still feel I have so much potential, I never reached my limit. I never trained that much to fight. I’ve competed since I was 18 years old. When I won my first world title in 2008, I already had six MMA fights, so I never focused only in one thing only. Now I’m willing to do something I’ve never done in the next 10 years of my career. It’s only up to me now."
Neto decided to come back to MMA just days before answering the phone for this story.
The jiu-jitsu ace had previously decided to move down to welterweight before suffering the series of injuries that kept him sidelined for so long, but those plans are in the past now.
The Brazilian fighter, who turns 30 in October, has two fights left on his contract with the UFC, however he still needs to lose all the weight he has gained over the past three years. Neto weights 247 pounds now, so he won’t even consider going down to 170, especially considering he’s already competed twice as a middleweight in the UFC.
In fact, the idea of becoming a welterweight didn’t come from him or his team.
"I remember that before my last fight, (UFC) commentator Brian Stann came to talk to me and ask a few questions before the event, and asked me how was my fight week, the weight cut and all that,” Neto said. "I told him it was better than staying at home because I continued eating anything I wanted, no diet at all [laughs]. My adrenaline was so high I made weight with no sauna, nothing."
"He was shocked,” Neto added. "He told me, ‘I'm a 185er. If you did that with no sauna, you’re a 170er.’ He was way bigger than me, so that’s when I realized I could go down to 170 to have an advantage over my opponents, or at least stop giving them the advantage.”
Neto now needs to lose 62 pounds to compete at middleweight, but he doesn’t see it as his biggest roadblock.
"I wasn’t doing any physical activity, so this weight is actually easy to lose,” he said. "I’m not that worried about the weight, actually. I’m worried about the cardio, adapting to the routine again, not getting injured, getting used to get beat up in training again, kicked in the left leg. That’s what worries me the most."
After leaving Manaus for Sao Paulo for a while, Neto moved to Rio de Janeiro to train at Roberto Gordo’s jiu-jitsu gym and at Tropa Thai. He’s been training for a few weeks now, slowly getting back to rhythm, and he says he’s “doing everything I can to be in shape again and come back as quick as possible.”
For now, Neto is eyeing a late-2017 return to the Octagon and is considering competing in jiu-jitsu tournaments before accepting an MMA fight.
Years after his two UFC bouts, though, Neto — who has yet to compete in the Reebok era — didn’t list the current state of the sport as one of his potential issues.
"I won't lie to you, I was discouraged,” Neto said of his first UFC fights. "After my first UFC fight, I only received 33 percent of my purse after taxes and what you spend in training and manager. I was living in Rio and paying R$ 2,200 (approx. 700 dollars) a month in rent.
"I was desperate and anxious,” he continued. "If I’m using all the money I’m making now to survive, when I stop fighting I’ll be f*cked. I decided to do other things to make money and don’t depend on that money to survive, but I realize now that fighting is what I love to do, that’s what makes me happy.”
Neto said he just wants to be happy. And before hanging the phone and going back to the gym for his last training session of the day, he was asked a simple question: if he wants to send a message to his fans.
"I don’t have fans, I have friends. And family, people that believe in my work,” Neto said. "I didn’t have good news to share, I had nothing good to say, so I stayed quiet.
"I want to apologize to those who were worried about me. I left home too young and went through everything in my life by myself. Being alone doesn’t help me, I don’t open myself, and that’s the way I am. I tried to change, but that’s who I am. I want to apologize, and say that I’m back. I’m training. I’ll have more news soon."