Unbeaten in six professional bouts with a 100 percent finishing rate, UFC middleweight Rodolfo Vieira is still improving as a mixed martial artist.
A five-time world champion in jiu-jitsu, ADCC gold medalist and one of the best grapplers to ever make the transition from gentle art mats to MMA cages, Vieira returns to the Octagon at Saturday night’s UFC 248 in Las Vegas against Saparbek Safarov following a victorious debut against Oskar Piechota last August.
Vieira won’t waste time trying to mislead his opponent about what he’s going for when he enters the cage.
“I want to become a complete fighter, one that imposes respect,” Vieira told MMA Fighting. “But, while I don’t have that much of experience on the feet, I’ll keep doing what I do, which is use my boxing to close the distance and find the right moment to take him down and go for the submission. But I don’t want to ‘show my evolution’ to no one, proving people that I have evolved. I’ll always go there and try to do the safest fight possible without exposing myself too much, and hopefully win before the end of the their round.
“The day it doesn’t work and I can’t impose (my jiu-jitsu) — and I know what they will come, and it could be now or maybe in my third (UFC) fight —, I will have to stay on the feet and fight. And I’m ready for that.”
At 30, Vieira still has a long way until he’s a complete, well-rounded fighter that can stand and trade with any other middleweight in the UFC, and looks up to 155-pound king Khabib Nurmagomedov as inspiration for the best way to mix up his grappling skills with an effective ground and pound, and Octagon veteran Demian Maia for adapting his grappling skills to a different ruleset.
“I try to work on that in training. It’s hard,” Vieira said. “I’m always trying to get better in everything, I don’t want to be the jiu-jitsu guy only. I try to work my ground and pound in training. It’s not very effective yet, but I’ll be like Khabib soon [laughs]. Khabib is someone I really like to watch fighting, his volume is fantastic. It will take a lot of time to achieve that, but he’s someone that dominates so much, is very strong, his game is so tight, and I really enjoy watching him fight.
“Many people don’t like it, think it’s boring, but it’s his game and I like it. The same thing with Demian Maia. Everybody knows what he’s going to do, everybody always knew, but he still goes there and imposes his game and submits most of his opponents.”
“The Black Belt Hunter” looked comfortable during his first UFC fight in Uruguay, but admits he was “afraid” every second of it. That feeling isn’t something new for the 30-year-old fighter, though.
“I’m always nervous, ever since my debut,” Vieira said. “I’m getting more experience. I’m always tense, really afraid, but this is what I chose for my life. Even though I was afraid, I have to go there and give my best. I train really hard to become a better fighter. All I ask from God is to be able to get there and put on a good fight, regardless of the result, and be able to perform what I’ve trained. And that’s what happened, I fought a tough and experienced opponent but imposed my game and got the submission.
“Entering the Octagon and fighting MMA is a huge challenge. I was always afraid in jiu-jitsu, which is a (less-aggressive) sport, and was able to have a great career despite the fear. MMA is even worse. Every day I ask God for strength and courage to face my fears head on. All I do is train every day to get better. I simply go there, you know? I try to do my thing and use my jiu-jitsu.”
The only difference between him and other middleweights, Vieira says, is that “I trained (jiu-jitsu) longer than most in the UFC, competed much more, and I achieved more important titles than everyone there — except for ‘Jacare’ (Souza), of course”.
“I have a lot to get better at,” Vieira said. “The sky is the limit. I want to become a complete fighter. I want (my opponents) to worry all the time about my hands, kicks, jiu-jitsu, ground and pound. That’s what I want to become, a fighter that imposes respect on others.”
Safarov, his second foe under the UFC banner, is 9-2 as a professional and defeated Nick Negumereanu via decision in his last appearance a year ago to improve to 1-2 in the company. After studying a lot of tape, Vieira sees the Russian product as a good match-up style-wise.
“I don’t know how good his takedown defense is,” Vieira said. “I’ve seen him on the ground and he doesn’t have good jiu-jitsu. Regardless of having good jiu-jitsu or not, I believe in what I do and I believe in my jiu-jitsu, and I will try to impose that no matter what he tries to do. I’ll always try to impose my game first.”
“[Safarov] stayed on the feet, throwing overhands and shooting for a takedown [in his last fight], but I don’t know if he will try to take me down, right?” Vieira continued. “I see myself finishing him with a rear-naked choke. But if I tap him with a different technique, I’ll be happy the same way [laughs]. I never liked winning by points. I always fought for the finish since my jiu-jitsu days and it’s the same thing in MMA. I won’t always get the finish, but I’ll always try.”