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33-1 bantamweight Luis Rafael welcomes tougher opponents, says ‘UFC needs a fighter like me’

Luis Rafael doesn’t want to be known as a can crusher in MMA. In fact, he has changed a lot of things in his life and career since suffering his first defeat.

“Japa” compiled an impressive 31-0 record in three years as a professional between 2012 and 2015, finishing 28 opponents at both bantamweight and featherweight divisions. In 2013 alone, he fought and won 21 times. However, many of those wins came against newcomers or opponents that were below .500.

Kicking off his fourth year in the sport in 2016, Rafael was stopped by Fabricio Sarraff by knockout just seconds into the second round. From that moment on, he wanted a change.

”I didn’t have much voice in my career, all I did was train,” Rafael told MMA Fighting. “I didn’t feel ready at that time because I felt something was missing, my striking wasn’t on point, but now we have a new coach in the team and now I know I can fight anyone at a higher level.

”Even if people talked about my record, it was good because I got so much experience. (My coach and manager Marcelo) Brigadeiro didn’t match me up against tough fighters because I was too young. After my loss, I said I wanted time to evolve and become who I wanted to be and get to the biggest promotion in the world. That’s my goal.”

After spending 16 months off from the cages to evolve in the gym, Rafael returned with a win over Carlisson Diego Santos (11-4 at the time) at Aspera FC 55. Fourteen months later, he improved to 33-1 with a title win over fellow Brazilian bantamweight Cleverson Silva in Serbia last month.

Rafael calls his recent win “the biggest challenge of my career”, and looks back at his first defeat in 2016 as a blessing in disguise. “I had 30 fights, but I’ve evolved a lot since my loss. That loss made me evolve more than 30 wins. I see no limits for my growth now,” he said.

At only 26 years of age, Rafael wants bigger tests to prove he can hang with the best in the UFC.

”I needed that loss to reveal my true potential as a fighter,” Rafael said. “I wasn’t fighting high-level opponents because I also wasn’t a high-level fighter, I wasn’t a well-rounded fighter. But I told Brigadeiro, ‘we could do that for some time, but now I want to fight whoever there is out there. Even if I lose, I’ll come out better than I came in.’ This fight with Cleverson made me evolve 10 years in my career because it was a three-round war. I don’t want easy fights. I never did, actually.”

Victorious in his first bout outside of Brazil, “Japa” vows to do anything to earn a contract with the UFC because “the UFC needs a fighter like me, and Brazil needs new idols.”

”It doesn’t matter how, even if it’s on a week’s notice, I’m ready. I’m always training,” Rafael said. “If I have to get there through the Contender Series, put me against any other Brazilian bantamweight or featherweight. I’ll fight anyone and I’m sure I will get in (the UFC). I’ll fight anyone on short notice, even Khabib (Nurmagomedov) [laughs].

”I’m confident against any bantamweight in the UFC. I’m sure I would be fighting a top 10 after two wins in the UFC.”

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