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Brazilian prospects struggle to chase dreams amid COVID-19 shutdown

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Julia Polastri is the Shooto Brazil strawweight titleholder.
Marcell Fagundes, Shooto Brazil

The vast majority of UFC athletes are openly in favor of the allowing events to happen despite the global COVID-19 pandemic that forced every other major sports league in the world to stop their activities, but the scenario is a bit different on regional shows.

Yes, Brazilian mixed martial arts fighters are still willing to fight for small promotions during troubled times, but they won’t have thousands of dollars waiting for them after the final bell rings. In a scenario where a $150 check is still considered a good show money for most promotions in the country—while several others are still paying athletes with tickets—every penny counts.

MMA events have been cancelled all over the country, leaving hundreds of athletes hanging. They understand it’s a matter of public health, but still suffer from it.

Shooto Brazil strawweight champion Julia Polastri, listed as one of the best Brazilian prospects to watch in 2020, was targeting a fight at SFT in June, and is unsure if the card will go on as scheduled. She continues to train at home, but the lockdown affected her in many different ways.

“That’s what makes everything more complicating because I also sell chocolate truffles on the train and we make money with students in the gym, and now both are stuck,” Polastri said. “The gym can’t open because you can’t have large gatherings, and I tried to go to the train today to sell truffles and couldn’t do it because there were cops there not letting anyone on. It’s a bit complicated.”

Polastri, who improved to 7-2 in MMA with a knockout win over Invicta FC veteran Jessica Delboni last October, her fifth victory in a row, managed to make some money by selling her homemade candy to friends and neighbors over the past few days, but fighting remains her main income.

“We’re scared [of traveling], of course, but I would take all the precautions and travel if I had to,” she said. “That are two things that move fighters: money, of course, and the desire to fight. I haven’t fought in a while and I miss it. … It’s tense, but [staying home] is an unfortunate thing we have to go through for the greater good.”

Light heavyweight prospect Jailton Junior had a fight booked for March 15, but the event got cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Since he had to pay for his own transportation to travel, and he couldn’t cancel the flight ticket, he was left with a debt of hundreds of dollars.

“Malhadinho” Junior feels “like a 7-year-old that only goes from home to school and back” during the lockdown, but in this case the only time he leaves his house is to train with UFC heavyweight Carlos Felipe, who is still scheduled to make his Octagon debut against Sergey Spivak at UFC 250 on May 9.

Jailton Junior hopes to sign with the UFC.
Julio Bomfim

The Bahia native used balance his life between working as a security guard and fighting professionally, but quit that second job to focus 100 percent in his MMA career. Unable to make money as a martial arts instructor, he’s trying to convince his students to pay a few months in advance so he can pay his bills for the next few weeks or months, and then teach for free when the lockdown is over.

“Everything changed with this quarantine. Everything,” Junior said. “I lost my students because they can’t leave their houses, and that affects us because I needed that money to buy food and supplements. This quarantine affected everybody.

“We’re afraid to catch this virus but it’s complicated because we’re athletes. It’s not only about the money… I fight for both money and a chance to get to a big promotion. If safety was guaranteed I would have no problem traveling, but we can’t go out for a fight with our heads relaxed during this pandemic.”

The idea of being infected by the new coronavirus “is a bit concerning, there’s a pandemic going on,” he said, “And it’s a high for everyone to catch it, but we have to take risks to fulfil our dreams and get where we want.”

“We work so hard to get to an international promotion that we don’t even care about the purse sometimes,” said the 11-2 UFC hopeful. “If you give up on a fight and withdraw there are 10 million fighters willing to get in, so that’s why we give up many things.

“I’ve fought for free before — I got there and fought, and then the promoter never paid me, or only paid me enough to get fuel on the car and drive back home.”

Filipe Esteves, who also made MMA Fighting’s latest list of promising Brazilian talents, was booked to fight Edilceu Alves for the Shooto Brazil flyweight title on April 24 in Rio de Janeiro, but the promotion pulled the plug on all scheduled events.

The 7-0 talent, who made headlines in 2019 after winning a belt and donating his entire purse to his opponent, remains active at home by sparring in his backyard with his 53-year-old father, a former professional boxer, while waiting for a cure to put an end to this pandemic.

“COVID-19 screwed me, too,” Esteves said. “The event was cancelled and unfortunately I won’t be able to fight. It was a great fight for me because he was the No. 1 in Brazil some time ago and a win could take me to the UFC. I’m trying to get to the UFC, my manager sent them my record and videos and they liked it, so I’m hoping it works. That’s my dream.”

The coronavirus pandemic would also have affected his other goal in sports, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. The Games were pushed back to 2021, but the Brazilian wrestler is no longer focusing on his Olympic dream since he can’t afford to pay the expenses to compete.

“I kind of gave up on the Olympics, unfortunately,” Esteves said. “The Brazilian wrestling team claims they have no money so they were not taking athletes to compete at the trials. If you wanna go, you have to pay all expenses. They were charging R$14,500 ($2,782 USD) per athlete, which includes hotel, tickets, food, etc. I can’t afford that to represent my country, so I gave up on that option. I left wrestling aside to stay 100 percent focused on MMA.”

Junior, Esteves and Polastri have one thing in common: COVID-19 or not, they will go through hell to enter a cage and perform to catch the attention of UFC matchmakers Mick Maynard and Sean Shelby and change their lives in 2020.

“My dream is to sign with the UFC and I will definitely get there,” Polastri said. “I have faith that it can happen this year. There’s the Contender Series, maybe they call me for a fight on short notice to replace someone. Let’s hope and let’s keep fighting, we can’t stop. I’ll wait for my phone to ring with a call from Dana White [laughs].”