Murilo Bustamante was one of the best middleweights of his era, but his run as a UFC champion didn't last long.
A black belt under the legendary Carlson Gracie and a world champion in jiu-jitsu, Bustamante moved back to 185 pounds following a controversial decision loss to Chuck Liddell in 2001. He was immediately awarded with a fight against inaugural middleweight champion Dave Menne.
Bustamante stopped Menne less than one minute into the second round, claiming the belt that would years later return to Brazil with Anderson Silva. His first title defense was scheduled four months later opposite unbeaten wrestler Matt Lindland in the main event of UFC 37 in Bossier City, La. Little did he know his camp would be full of drama.
Then 2-1 under the UFC banner, the Brazilian fighter had only had one fight left on his contract when he stepped into the octagon. Today, it would be unthinkable for the company to let a champ fight before signing another deal. But back then, it was a different story.
Win or lose, Bustamante’s future was up in the air. The stakes were high, and it got even worse less than one month before the event. A finger infection kept him out of training for 10 days, and he couldn’t close his fists. Consequently, he couldn’t work on his jiu-jitsu or boxing, which were his main weapons.
“I was the champion, (and) it was my last fight, and I tried to re-sign, but it didn’t work,” Bustamante said in an interview with MMA Fighting. “I was a bit worried leading up to the fight, not knowing what would happen, not (being) properly trained. The guy was tough, undefeated, a world champion in wrestling, and (an) Olympic silver medalist, so I was expecting a tough fight while not being properly prepared for it.
“I came back to training 15 or 16 days before the fight and only trained for one week before traveling. I was very insecure about my performance in the fight. I was coming off two great performances against Chuck Liddell and Dave Menne. But not being able to train before the fight gives you feeling.”
Still, with his background in judo and jiu-jitsu, and with wrestling sessions alongside coach Darrel Gholar at Brazilian Top Team, Bustamante got ready for the task. It worked so well that he got the tap in just one round.
“I took him down in one minute, passed the guard and already was in great position to go for an armbar,” Bustamante says. “I went for it, he tried to spin but it was in, it was perfect. His arm was so tight that his shoulder went up. F*ck, 100 percent in.”
Veteran referee Big John McCarthy saw several taps and stopped the bout to declare Bustamante the winner. But Lindland immediately protested that he never tapped. McCarthy had to think fast, so he decided to simply resume the bout.
“In a fight like this, for a world title against a super tough guy, catching the guy, and then having to re-start – brother, it was a huge physiological test for me,” Bustamante said. “I did not see him tap, and I didn’t stop because of that – I stopped because Big John told me to. He put his hands on my chest and indicated he was stopping the fight, so I let the arm go.
“I won the fight right there. The fight was over. There’s no way out.”
According to Bustamante, he had friends in common with Lindland who years later told him the truth: The Team Quest product had tapped twice.
“It’s only natural that he tapped,” Bustamante said. “The position was so tight. There was nowhere to run.”
The fight wasn’t over, though.
Bustamante lost focus.
“(I was) very dismayed, I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t do anything,” he said. “I went back to my corner between rounds. Dana White was sitting on a chair behind my corner, and I opened my arms to him like, ‘What’s up, won’t you do anything?’ He opened his arms like he’s saying, ‘I can’t do anything.’”
Bustamante sat down in his corner, and his team immediately tried to calm him down. He recalls feeling better in the second stanza. But he still wasn’t 100 percent.
“I came back completely concentrated and very angry to the third round,” he said. “My boxing was very sharp, and I went back to knock him out. I broke his nose with a jab and then I knocked him down and kept pounding. He started to throw some upkicks, but I wanted to beat him so much. I wanted to knock him out (so much) that I almost got hit by an upkick. I was too anxious to hit him.”
Being angry isn’t common for the middleweight champion. In fact, he’s never experienced that feeling before or after that night.
“I never fought with anger,” he said. “I never had any feeling in the ring. I was actually worried that I lacked emotions in the ring many times; I really felt nothing. It was just work. Let’s work, no anger. That day I got so mad with the whole situation. I felt wronged in there, and really wanted to beat that guy up.”
The Brazilian Top Team leader did not get the knockout he was hoping for, but once again used his high-level jiu-jitsu to secure a finish.
Lindland tapped to a guillotine choke, and there was no controversy the second time. Bustamante officially was a free agent.
The UFC subsequently “made an offer that wasn’t bad, but I had the right to look out in the market,” he said. “I took some time, looked around in the market and didn’t see anything better. PRIDE was the best promotion in the world at the time, but they didn’t want to clash with the UFC for some reason.”
With no great options outside the Octagon, Bustamante went back to Dana White to negotiate a new deal. But things had changed.
“They lowered their offer when I came back to re-sign, so it was unfeasible,” he says. “They offered me the same I made in the Matt Lindland fight, so it made no sense. So I decided to find my luck someplace else.”
The jiu-jitsu ace eventually signed with PRIDE, and he returned to the Japanese rings in 2003, signing a deal he says was financially better compared to the ones offered by White. In the end, he sees this whole story as an important lesson learned by the UFC.
“Truth is, they placed all their bets on Matt Lindland, and it backfired,” Bustamante says. “They still don’t forgive themselves, don’t forgive me, and learned with this lesson. A champion will never enter the ring without a contract anymore.”
Bustamante’s run in PRIDE started with a controversial split decision loss to Quinton Jackson, followed by defeats to Dan Henderson — Bustamante always complained that a headbutt led to the knockout loss — and Kazuhiro Nakamura.
The Brazilian returned to the win column with a win over Ryuta Sakurai before a pair of stoppages versus Masanori Suda and Ikuhisa Minowa put him in the grand prix final against Henderson. Bustamante was once again on the losing end of a controversial split call.
A win over Dong Sik Yoon was his last appearance inside the PRIDE ring before the company was acquired by UFC parent company Zuffa. Eighteen years after his last UFC bout, Bustamante “regrets nothing.”
“I was very happy in Japan,” he said. “PRIDE was the biggest promotion at the time. If it was up to me, I would have stayed in the UFC. But I think it was a mistake we all made. I think they made a mistake not re-signing me when I wanted, and then made another mistake by lowering their offer. I hold no grudges or anything. Life goes on.
“I met Dana White once in Japan, during the PRIDE middleweight grand prix in 2003, and he was polite, said he was cheering for me. I’ve always had a great relationship with him, I have nothing to say about him. They were always very kind to me. … There was this professional disagreement. I think it’s just sour grapes on their part and, I don’t know, I think they didn’t get over that.”