Pedro Carvalho will challenge Patricio Freire for the undisputed Bellator featherweight championship on Thursday night at Bellator 252 in Uncasville, Conn., and he wouldn’t get there if it wasn’t for UFC Unleashed.
Born in Guimaraes, Portugal in 1995, a 12-year-old Carvalho was sitting on a couch and watching television with his mother when an ad aired and immediately caught their attention. They were advertising another episode of UFC’s TV show, airing Georges St-Pierre’s submission win over Frank Trigg and the Forrest Griffin vs. Stephan Bonnar classic.
“I was immediately curious about it, because for the first time I was watching two fighters inside a cage, with small gloves, fighting on the feet, on the ground, grappling each other,” Carvalho said. “When UFC Unleashed started and I saw the first fight, it was love at first sight.”
The teenage Carvalho had no idea if Portugal had any traditions in MMA. In fact, it had close to none. Yet he would stumble across the sport not that long after when he called friends to chat and his buddy was about to start his training session of the day. It had to be soccer — of futebol, as it’s called in Portugal, Carvalho thought. But he was actually going to Rafael Silva’s MMA gym.
“My world completely stopped,” Carvalho recalls.
Convincing his mother to let him train in a violent sport wasn’t hard, since she was also hooked by that UFC Unleashed ad. Raising him alongside an aunt after Carvalho’s father abandoned them three months before he was born, she would later become his No. 1 fan.
Carvalho signed up to train at Silva’s RS Team in Guimaraes three days after that phone conversation, “and the rest is history.” That history was no bed of roses, though.
Carvalho kicked off his MMA career a month after turning 17, and he was thrilled by a submission victory over Edi Vicente in Viseu, a 100-mile drive from his hometown. It didn’t appear to be that profitable of a career at first, but Carvalho had faith.
“I always believed it,” he said. “I remember I was a teenager at school and said to whoever wanted to listen, teachers and everyone around me, ‘I’ll be a professional fighter and become the best in the world, pay my bills and make a living through MMA.’
“I remember them — some with good intentions and others not that much — telling me that MMA wasn’t a sport and there would be no future. Other said, ‘There are millions of athletes in the world, why are you the one?’ And others asking for an example of a Portuguese fighter that made a living with MMA. There was none, but I told them all that meant nothing, that I would be there, that I would make it happen. I simply believed it and trained.”
To this day you still can’t make good money as a MMA fighter in Portugal, Carvalho said, and that’s one of the reasons why he decided to move to Ireland. John Kavanagh helped Conor McGregor go from welfare checks to multi-million dollar deals in the UFC, so he appeared to be the perfect mentor to drive Carvalho to a successful path.
“If I wanted to be the best in the world I had to be in the best place possible, and SBG is the best place to be,” Carvalho said. “I always believed in me and that it was all meant to be. I believed it since day one. I could see it. That said, I obviously had many, many difficulties.
“First of all, I came from a poor background. My mother and my aunt sometimes had to have two jobs, but we never lacked power in our house and never starved, always had clean clothes. We had the essentials. If I wanted something, it could take a while, but they would eventually give me. That was a huge lesson for me, it made me the man I am.”
Moving from Portugal to Ireland was no easy task either. Carvalho had to step away from the sport for a year to make enough money to pay his bills in a foreign country, so he got a job in a textile factory. His routine would involve washing and coloring clothes using “super corrosive acids” in a “gigantic machine” for almost one year. No matter how cold or hot it was outside the factory, the workers would be have to deal with 100 degrees Fahrenheit inside those walls.
“I remember vividly that my first week of work there, I went home and cried every single day,” Carvalho said. “Every day I would tell my mother I didn’t want to go back, and she said, ‘Pedro, you’re doing this for your dream. You’re taking one step back to walk four steps forward, so hang in there because it’s just temporary.’ I held on to those words and fought through it, but it was complicated.”
Carvalho and his girlfriend finally had enough cash to make the journey to Ireland in November 2016. She got a job after some time, but he wasn’t so lucky. Three months later with no savings, he couldn’t get a fight or a regular job, so they had to go back.
“Looks like our plan to move to Ireland is going down the drain,” Carvalho thought at the time. The heartbroken couple hopped on a flight back to Portugal. But before they landed in their home country, they looked at each other and decided to buy a one-way ticket to Ireland to give it another try. They just wouldn’t give up that easily.
It was Jan. 13, 2017 when Carvalho and his girlfriend returned to Dublin. They still had no job and no place to crash, but felt it was meant to be. He eventually landed a part-time job cleaning bathrooms in a hospital near the place they lived.
That’s how he spent his first year in Ireland, working his skills at SBG whenever he wasn’t cleaning toilets. The alarm would go off at 7 a.m. to wake him up, and he would go to SBG for a morning practice before grabbing something to eat and going to the hospital. The Portuguese fighter would return to the gym for a late-night workout, grab dinner at 11:30 p.m., and then get six short hours of sleep before starting it all over again.
It paid off.
Carvalho was only 5-3 in MMA when he landed in Ireland, having lost his last couple of fights in Portugal, and his teammates were “the best people in the world, but you have to earn their respect.” Carvalho says he earned it by putting on the gloves and sparring whenever he was called in, never turning down an opportunity to help. Victorious in two MMA bouts in Drogheda, Ireland, Carvalho landed himself a deal with Bellator.
“I think I have a strong mind today because my life was full of challenges and difficulties,” Carvalho said. “I would never find excuses, I’d find solutions. Have a strong mind and embrace the process regardless of the difficulties that might show up.”
It took less than three years for Carvalho to go from cleaning toilets to challenging Bellator’s greatest champion inside the circular cage. He never envisioned it happening so fast for him, but simply knew it would.
“Even though I wasn’t an option for this tournament, I knew I had to find a way in, and things fell in place,” said Carvalho, who got the call for the promotion’s 145-pound grand prix after knocking out Derek Campos in Birmingham; he later tapped veteran Sam Sicilia months later in the opening round. “Me being the world champion, that’s meant to be. That’s what I envisioned, and I have no doubt I’ll make history this week.”
“Pitbull” Freire hasn’t lost a featherweight bout in five years, but Carvalho believes he’s the one to change that. It’s all meant to be, as he likes to word it.
“I can win this fight in every single way – knockout, decision, submission,” Carvalho said. “I don’t like to limit myself, because I’m capable of ending this fight whatever way I want, and I think it’s a mistake for fighters to say, ‘I’ll do it this way,’ because this idea will always be in the back of your head, and the fighter will get a bit lost if it doesn’t happen that way. I’m an open book, always. I know what I’m capable of, I know my game plan, and Patricio will show if the fight will end by submission or KO, or if I’ll eventually win by decision.”
The 145-pound championship bout was originally scheduled for March, but Bellator pulled the plug on the whole card hours before it started due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Carvalho had the chance to hold the belt that week for a promotional photoshoot, and it felt “just right.”
“It was on the right place – I felt I deserved it,” Carvalho says. “After everything I went through and sacrificed my whole life. ... Even though I’m a 25-year-old guy, I’ve sacrificed my whole life. I sacrificed being a normal boy to be what I am today as an athlete. Everything I’ve been through until today, to fight for what I’m about to fight, I deserve it. I deserve it.”
Finally able to put foot on the table for his family, Carvalho is about to fight for a major title. His dream, however, won’t be complete until he shocks the world and dethrones “Pitbull” at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
“Patricio is one of the five best featherweights of all-time, so, after I beat him, it’s only logic that I’m automatically in that place, but I know it won’t be the case,” Carvalho says. “I know that beating Patricio will only be the first step. I’m in a battle. My goal is to prove I’m the best in the world but not only by winning belts. I want to win belts and have everyone say I’m the best in the world.
“This is just the first step. I still have two more fights in the tournament, and people will say someone else will win. There’s A.J. McKee and Emmanuel Sanchez, they are the favorite, and I’m sure I’ll be the underdog no matter how impressively I beat Patricio. I was the underdog my entire life. People never believed in me, that I was capable of doing this — except for those around me — but the fact that I am where I am, I’ll continue doing it. Only when I have my name on the top is when I’ll take 15 minutes off.”