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Polyana Viana faces JJ Aldrich at UFC 227 in Los Angeles.
Guilherme Cruz, MMA Fighting

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Polyana Viana shaped by rocky road to the UFC

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Polyana Viana impressed UFC president Dana White with her Octagon debut in February when she submitted Maia Stevenson in less than four minutes. Now, set to return against J.J. Aldrich at Saturday’s UFC 227 card in Los Angeles, Viana reflected back on everything she’s been through ahead of the biggest fight of her life.

Born and raised in a tiny little city called Sao Geraldo do Araguaia in Para, Brazil, Viana was a sports fan since her early days, but never thought about training any type of combat sport. She was a soccer fan, and was “found” by a jiu-jitsu coach in one of those soccer matches, she says, because she was a bit “brutal.”

Viana’s coach asked if she wanted to fight MMA just three months after she started grappling with a gi, and that’s when everything changed for her.

The young talent won four of her first five bouts before signing with top Brazilian promotion Jungle Fight. All it took was one win, a first-round submission over Karol Silva, to earn her a shot at the vacant strawweight championship against the favorite Amanda Ribas.

Viana captured the belt with a first-round knockout, successfully defended it once with another first-round stoppage, but then her career started to fall apart.

Jungle Fight, after promoting an average of one card a month in previous years, only staged six shows over the ensuing two years, and Viana thought her run in mixed martial arts could be over right when she finally reached the top of the division in Brazil.

“I have a 8-year-old kid, and since I started fighting, I’ve only been with him for one of his birthdays. I stayed away from him for a long time,” Viana says. “After I won the Jungle Fight belt, Wallid (Ismail, Jungle Fight president) booked my title defense for right after, on short notice. I was on weight, but he kept postponing the fight. He did that several times. I thought, ‘I’m not going to fight again.’

”I hoped that Wallid would be the one to put me in the UFC, like he did for many others, but since he was cancelling fights, I thought he just wouldn’t do that anymore. I decided to just wait for my contact to expire. When my contract expired, I went back home and thought I wouldn’t fight anymore.”

Viana moved back to Para to live with her son at her mother’s house, and barely had money to pay her bills. With her sponsors backing out one by one every time she had a fight cancelled, Viana needed to make money.

Polyana Viana (left) worked at a gas station before returning to MMA.
Photo courtesy of Polyana Viana.

As a result, Viana, who became a celebrity in her small hometown after winning the Jungle Fight title, started pumping gas at her uncle’s gas station. Those who once watched her win a title on a cable network were surprised to see her work in a gas station around the corner. Being popular is nice, but being asked the same question over and over again — and not having an answer for it — was frustrating.

”It wasn’t bad for me to have to work because I’ve been doing it since I was 15,” Viana says. “People would always ask me when I was going to fight again, but I didn’t have an answer for them.”

Viana spent months away from the sport until a friend suggested that she add longtime MMA manager Alex Davis on Facebook and send him a message.

Davis, who manages a long list of UFC fighters, already knew who she was.

”He put Amanda Ribas in the UFC, and I beat Amanda,” Viana laughs, “so I decided to give it a try.”

Davis connected Viana to MMA coach Tata Duarte and suggested she moved to Rio de Janeiro to train at his TFT gym.

Viana’s mother gave her daughter some cash, a friend paid for the flight ticket, and Viana flew 1,500 miles to visit the camp at Barra da Tijuca.

”It was hard at first because I had no sponsors, no one helped me besides my family, and everything is expensive here in Rio,” Viana says. “I was away from my family, away from my son, and had no money, but I made it. My mom sent me some cash until Tata got me a sponsor.”

“Dama de Ferro,” which means “Iron Lady” in Portuguese, finally was back in action in Oct. 2017, scoring another first-round finish at WOCS 47 that earned her a shot in the UFC. Conveniently enough, the Octagon was set to make its first trip to Viana’s home state on Feb. 2018, and so the local fighter was booked to make her Octagon debut at UFC Belem.

It didn’t take long for Viana to take Maia Stevenson’s back and finish with a rear-naked choke. “Very impressive,” UFC president Dana White posted right after.

Now six months later, Viana will return to the Octagon on Saturday night against JJ Aldrich.

Her opponent has more experience in the big leagues, having competed on the UFC’s reality show The Ultimate Fighter and under the Invicta FC banner prior to her 2-1 run in the Octagon, and has gone the distance in most of her fights.

”I don’t think it’s an advantage for her that she has more cage experience, because I’m always training three or four rounds,” Viana says. “I can fight three rounds, but I think it’s an advantage for me that I’m always finishing my fights in the first round.”

”She’s a good fighter,” Viana adds. “She’s a striker and a brown belt in jiu-jitsu, but I believe her jiu-jitsu is not that good because I haven’t seen her go for takedowns, and her takedown defense is not that good.”

Viana’s international debut will also mark her first time facing a southpaw in MMA. To prepare for a southpaw opponent, Viana trained with former foe Pamela Ferreira.

”When I fought her, she was on orthodox stance because her ex-coach said her stance was weird and made her fight as an orthodox,” Viana says, “but I said, ‘no, it’s harder to fight a southpaw,’ and she went back to her original stance and got used to it. When they booked my fight, it was perfect.

”It was weird at first, but now and I’m so used to training with her now that it feels awkward when I have to train with an orthodox [laughs].”

”Some people want rivalries, but I don’t”

In an era of fighters building rivalries and talking trash to promote their bouts, Viana walks an opposite direction. The first thing she does on fight week is find her opponent and chat. She couldn’t do that with Stevenson because. she admits, “my English sucks,” but she has done it her entire combat sports career.

“I always go there and say hi, ask if she’s alright,” Viana says. “Most of the people think I’m cocky or something like that. I know that we’re fighting MMA and it’s kind of taking someone else’s money or opportunity, their dreams, but one of us has to win. Friendship remains. Some people want rivalries, but I don’t. It’s a sport and we both want to get to the top.

”In my first title defense in Jungle Fight, I helped my opponent cut weight,” she continues. “She was having a hard time making weight, especially because she had breast implants. I told them to stop her weight cut, that I would fight her regardless. Wallid said it was my responsibility, but I didn’t care. She was only 100 grams (0.22 pounds) over and was almost fainting. There was no need for that.

”You have to be responsible and make weight, of course, but I knew she was trying. She was naked, trying to make weight, and 100 grams wouldn’t make a difference in the fight.”

Rivalries sell more in today’s UFC than being nice, but Viana won’t change who she is.

”That’s unfortunate, but they won’t see me like that,” she says. “I would never act like that, curse at someone, smack someone’s face at the weigh-ins. I think that’s ridiculous. This is a sport and we don’t need that.”

Viana was a shy fighter all fight week at UFC Belem, giving short answers in her pre- and post-fight interviews. She knows it’s important to promote herself even if she’s against talking trash to other athletes, and that’s why she’s forcing herself to talk more on social media. She even started her own YouTube channel.

”I’m a YouTuber now,” she say, laughing. “More and more people came to interview me and I got used to it. I was so shy I couldn’t say my name, but I’ve been posting more videos on social media, and I think this channel gets me more comfortable and also show this other side of me. People know the fighter, but don’t know the real Polyana.”

A post shared by Polyana Viana (Dama de Ferro) (@polyanaviana) on

By showing the “real Polyana” she literally means everything, including her constant trips to the restroom and posting selfies on the toilet.

“I do that a lot because I’m there most of my day,” she laughs. “I have an accelerated metabolism. Everybody here in the gym says I’m like a duck. If I eat something, it’s like the thing I ate before is ready, so I have to go [laughs].”

Going to the restroom many times a day helps her weight cut, Viana says, and it’s one of the reasons why she was only 6.6 pounds over the strawweight limit a week before the UFC 227 official weigh-ins.

Viana said she also gains weight really fast though, and plans to change that for her international debut. At UFC Belem, Viana says she weighed 141 pounds by the time she entered the Octagon to fight Stevenson, but won’t weigh more than 125 this time around.

”I’ll hold my weight down this time,” Viana says. “I was too fat in that fight, don’t know if you saw that. The pictures didn’t look nice [laughs]. I don’t want [the California State Athletic Commission] to think I’m not disciplined. I will fight at the weight they want me to be.”

After impressing White in Belem, Viana hopes that she will be seen as a future star with a win at UFC 227, but doesn’t think it will happen. As long as Mackenzie Dern is winning, Viana expects her to take most of the promotional push at strawweight.

“They already have Mackenzie there, and they are so invested in her,” Viana says. “She won a couple of fights and entered the rankings. Poliana (Botelho) made weight and won her second fight (at UFC Chile) and questioned if she would be in the ranking as well, and they removed Mackenzie from it. For now, I think they see Mackenzie as a future champion, they are trying to make her the next Ronda Rousey.”

Dern is 2-0 in the UFC, but badly missed weight for her last bout in Rio de Janeiro. Viana wasn’t happy about it.

“It does bother me because it’s disrespectful,” Viana says. “If she was going to fight me and missed weight, I would agree to fight only to beat her up. I would be really mad. Or I wouldn’t agree to fight her to show she has to be professional. Every athlete knows how hard it is to make weight, but you have to make 115 — or at least try. What she did, I don’t know I would have fought if it was me.”

Viana has already asked for a fight with Dern in the past, especially after everything that happened in Rio de Janeiro at UFC 224, but doesn’t expect the company to book that matchup anytime soon.

“That fight interests me, but they didn’t give it to me,” Viana says. “It interests me because the UFC is investing a lot in her and I think whoever beats her will have that attention going forward.”

It might take some time until the UFC’s promotional machine gets behind Viana and she becomes a contender in the strawweight division, but everything she’s been through over the past few years gives her confidence that it’s only a matter of time before the UFC strawweight belt travels to Sao Geraldo do Araguaia.

”I don’t think it will take that long,” Viana says. “I want it to happen soon. I want to fight one more time this year so I can bring my son to live with me here in Rio, so I need to fight again to make money.

”I want to start 2019 as a ranked fighter and with my son close to me. I don’t think my mom wants to move to Rio because she loves [Sao Geraldo do Araguaia]. I love it too, but you have to make choices. My goal is to kick off 2019 as a ranked fighter, 3-0 in the UFC, and my son here with me.”

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Belem-Stevenson vs Viana
Polyana Viana celebrates her first UFC victory, submitting Maia Stevenson at UFC Belem in February.
Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

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