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When a rare syndrome put Gabriel Silva in a wheelchair, he refused to give up

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MMA: UFC Fight Night-San Antonio-Borg vs Silva
Brazilian bantamweight Gabriel Silva meets Kyler Phillips at Saturday night's UFC Norfolk.
Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

When Gabriel Silva joined the UFC, most people knew him as a Brazilian bantamweight prospect who followed the footsteps of his older brother Erick Silva. But there’s way more to that in his remarkable life story.

“Gabito” Silva, who looks to score his first Octagon victory against Kyler Phillips at UFC Norfolk, was diagnosed with a rare syndrome at age 9. He had no idea at the time, but the kid that wanted to become a soccer player would be forced away from all physical activities for five years.

Like every inspirational story, Silva’s began with a scare.

The young kid was coming back from his uncle’s house with his family when he started feeling some pain in his left leg. His mother, Deisi Nunes, thought he was just tired after playing with other kids for hours, but the pain just wouldn’t go away.

“We went to four or five different doctors before we finally found out what it was,” Silva said. “The other doctors had no idea what it was. We were worried because I was in pain, but one doctor finally identified this syndrome. From that point on, I went through difficult times.”

As it turned out, Silva was suffering from Legg-Calve-Perthes, a hip disorder that causes lack of blood flow to the head of the femur. It basically kills the bone until new blood vessels infiltrate — and that can take years. The only cure for the disease is time.

A young Silva soon learned his life would not be same.

“I had to stop playing every contact sport,” he said. “It was a very complicated phase for me, because I couldn’t do anything at school. I loved playing soccer, and I couldn’t even run. It was complicated, man.”

Silva had to use crutches, but admits he was too stubborn to carry them around, and he was embarrassed to be seen with them.

“I didn’t leave home for school for two months,” Silva says. “I had to use crutches but, honestly, I didn’t like it because I was embarrassed. I just stayed at home. I got a video game at the time, and that was it; I stopped leaving home. I would go to school and go straight back home to play video game, so I got fat.”

To make things worse, Silva had to undergo a procedure that resulted in casts for both of his legs and a wheelchair to move around. Silva loved playing FIFA on his video game, but what served as a distraction also messed with his head. He still dreamed about being a soccer player one day.

Silva’s father, Jose Nunes, was a player for some clubs in their home state Espirito Santo, Brazil, and he always took “Gabito” to the stadium to watch him play every Saturday.

Two years into this condition, Silva kept talking about his soccer dreams.

“‘Doctor, he said he wants to become a soccer player,’” he remembers of his mother’s inquiries to doctors two years after the diagnosis. “‘What do you think?’”

“‘Mother, your son will never be a Ronaldinho,’” he said of the doctor’s reply.

“He was joking, of course, but saying with other words that I would lose a lot of time until I was fully recovered,” Silva said. “He crushed my expectations right there, destroyed my dreams. My mother even cried, but I didn’t really understand.”

Four years after the diagnosis, Silva was finally cleared by his doctor to resume activities. He still had to be careful since his left leg wasn’t as strong as his right one. But he had no reason to avoid soccer – or any other sport.

By that time, his older brother Erick Silva was already making a name for himself in the MMA scene. Instead of playing with a ball, the 13-year-old opted to train jiu-jitsu.

“I went back to the doctor’s office two or three months later saying I was training,” Silva said. “He said, ‘Look, that’s not something I would advise you to do, but I won’t say you can’t. You can do whatever you want. You have that limitation in your leg, and it will hurt sometimes.’ And he wasn’t wrong. Sometimes I feel some pain, but nothing that stops me from doing what I do every day.”

After four years between crutches and a wheelchair, a video game his sole company, Silva wasted no time. He began to study boxing, which his doctor believed was a better idea than jiu-jitsu. Little did the doctor know, it was all just a way to get to MMA.

At 17, a minor under Brazilian law, Silva received the clearance from his parents and doctor to fight MMA for the first time.

“If he was just like the other doctors and said I couldn’t fight, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten this far,” said Silva, who won three bouts before he turned 18 and made his debut at Jungle Fight, where his brother won a title in his pre-UFC days.

Eight wins later, the undefeated bantamweight Silva was signed by the UFC.

Silva, who was outpointed by Ray Borg in his Octagon debut, is not free from the pain, and he might never be. His conditioning coach Rogerio Camoes works every day to get his left leg as strong as the other, but it’s not something that stops him from training, fighting and winning. His mother still calls him every now and then to check on him.

For the other kids who made Silva uncomfortable for being on a wheelchair more than a decade ago, being a UFC fighter is the best answer.

But it isn’t enough.

“I dove head first into this sport kind of proving everybody wrong, those who didn’t think I would be able to achieve my goals,” Silva said. “It still is a long road ahead, but I’ve come a long way. Being in the UFC is an achievement. People say that being in the biggest promotion in the world is a new start, but I believe I have the potential to increase my knowledge and technique to get to the highest level in this division.

“I’m going after this until the end. We’ll work hard to reach the top of the division. I look back at those difficult moments as something I was able to overcome. It’s fuel for me.”