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Diego Ferreira moved to the U.S. to become the next ‘Jacare’ Souza; a decade later, he seeks UFC gold

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Diego Ferreira returns to action against Mairbek Taisumov at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi on Saturday
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Diego Ferreira and Mairbek Taisumov will kick off the action on the pay-per-view portion of UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, and being in a such position is something Ferreira never truly anticipated when he joined mixed martial arts.

A decade ago, Ferreira was just another Brazilian who wanted to make a name for himself in the jiu-jitsu circuit. Hoping to move up the ladder in competition and be considered one of the best in the world, Ferreira left Manaus to try his luck in the United States, but turning his dreams into reality proved to be tougher than expected.

“I really went to the United States to compete and become world champion in jiu-jitsu,” Ferreira told MMA Fighting. “I competed in several tournaments, won some, lost some, but never conquered a world title. I wanted to be like ‘Jacare,’ but that didn’t happen.”

By that time, “Jacare,” a.k.a. Ronaldo Souza, had already left the grappling world after claiming multiple IBJJF world titles and an ADCC gold medal to focus on being a full-time MMA fighter. Jacare made his Strikeforce debut after a career under the Dream banner in Japan, while Ferreira reached his biggest accomplishments in jiu-jitsu, silver and bronze medals at the IBJJF Pan-Ams and World No-Gi championships in 2008 and 2009.

It wasn’t the golden path he was hoping for, and didn’t mean more dollars in his pocket either.

Ferreira was doing great in no-gi tournaments, but came up short when facing some of the world’s best like Kron Gracie and Lucas Leite. It was getting harder and harder to pay bills just as a jiu-jitsu competitor, so Ferreira had to start teaching jiu-jitsu in the United States to be able to send money to his family back in Brazil.

Tired of just teaching the gentle art, Ferreira didn’t think twice when a friend asked if he was interested in competing in mixed martial arts. Money wasn’t great, he would only be paid $300 to step inside a cage, but that check seemed better than nothing at that point.

“I probably trained pure boxing for a month and went there to fight,” Ferreira said. “It was a brawl and I won. That’s how it started. I wanted to fight every two or three months to make some money and send it to my family.”

A father of three—his older son, Carlos Felipe, already trains and competes in wrestling and jiu-jitsu in the United States and mentions his desire to fight MMA one day—the Manaus native eventually stopped working as a salesperson at a mattress store to focus full-time on his promising MMA career. With nine wins under his belt, 3-0 at Legacy FC, the UFC call came.

“It never crossed my mind before, that wasn’t in my plans,” Ferreira said of being in the UFC roster. “I got into this for fun, to send my family some cash, and all of a sudden I was in the UFC, the biggest promotion in the world. It came out of nowhere.”

Ferreira returns to the Octagon against a tough Taisumov at UFC 242. It’s his first appearance since withdrawing from UFC 237 a day before his fight with Francisco Trinaldo due to kidney stones.

“It was really tough for me because I was only three pounds away from making weight and felt this excruciating pain,” Ferreira said. “I didn’t know what to do, I never felt such intense pain. I was disappointed with myself, but it really wasn’t my fault.”

After returning to the United States and finally expelling the kidney stones, Ferreira flew to Las Vegas to visit the UFC Performance Institute and get an idea of what he could change in his diet, which he says has helped a lot ahead of his return at UFC 242.

Looking to go 5-0 since 2015, Ferreira used his last defeat, a TKO at the hands of future interim 155-pound champion Dustin Poirier, as inspiration. Poirier will attempt to become the undisputed king in the main event of UFC 242, taking on undefeated Russian superstar Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Ferreira looks up to him as he tries to climb the rankings and one day get his shot for redemption.

“To see him with the belt, that motivates me even more to get where he is,” Ferreira said of Poirier. “That’s extra motivation for me, especially because I’m fighting some of the best in the division. That’s what I want. That’s my focus now.”

Will Poirier be the one to dethrone Nurmagomedov, though?

“It’s gonna be a good fight,” Ferreira said. “I never imagined him fighting Khabib, but I would also like to fight him. He’s on a completely different level now, fighting money fights, but I think he can win this. He’s a tough guy who knows what to do in the Octagon. I think it’s either a decision or a submission, but I think it’s gonna be a good fight.”

A win over the No. 15-ranked Taisumov could earn Ferreira a spot in the lightweight ranking, and he sees Taisumov as a good match-up for him style-wise. The Brazilian expects the Russian talent to go for the knockout and get frustrated as time goes by, giving him openings to use his jiu-jitsu in Abu Dhabi.

“He’s talking a lot about wanting to avenge his friend’s loss to me,” Ferreira said, referring to his win over Rustam Khabilov in February. “That makes me hungrier to go there and do my best. He’ll try to knock me out and won’t succeed, so he’ll start to make mistakes. That’s what I want. I’m letting him talk all he wants. He’ll make a mistake and I’m gonna impose my game.”

“He’s going for the knock out, so I have to use my jiu-jitsu,” he continued. “I’m focusing on that, but we never know, I always tell my coach I don’t get in there with one gameplan only, I have four or five different gameplans and one will work. That’s the type of fight I’m expecting.”