“It’s a long story,” Mohamed Camara says right off the bat. But it’s one worth telling.
A 29-year-old featherweight prospect born in Guinea, Camara grew up in Africa with humble roots and dreams of finding a better future through sports. Watching Ronaldo win the 2002 World Cup for Brazil convinced the then-14-year-old that he had to travel to South America to be like the international soccer star, but such an expensive adventure was nearly impossible to make come to fruition.
“Ronaldo is the main reason that brought me to Brazil,” Camara says. “I loved soccer and, as a kid, I was a Ronaldo fan and wanted to come to Brazil to meet him. I still haven’t met him, but that’s something I have in my mind. My father always told me he’d bring me [to Brazil] — one of those promises parents make just to calm you down.”
Camara’s family was very poor — “something very common in my country,” he says — and it wasn’t unusual to see people trying to sneak onto cargo ships to look for a better future overseas.
“I heard that people would get onto ships to other countries but get thrown into the sea, many stories like that, and decided I wanted to go to Brazil,” Camara says. “I looked for the best way to get to Brazil but never had the chance. I would always go to the port with food in my backpack looking for an opportunity, but never had one.”
When the opportunity finally did present itself, Camara simply couldn’t let it pass by — even if the timing was far less ideal than he’d hoped.
Camara’s aunt had been transported to the hospital to give birth to her child, and Camara was asked to go down to the port to let his uncle know that he was about to become a father. Camara had some cash in his pocket, money he made selling barbecue in the streets earlier that day, when he saw a gigantic cargo ship unloading cars at the port.
“One of those cars had the word ‘Salvador’ on it, and I asked myself which country was that,” Camara says. “A man told me Salvador was a city in Brazil, the third-best city in Brazil, and the ship was going there.”
The first two words that immediately crossed Camara’s mind were “Brazil” and “Ronaldo,” obviously. The third? “F*ck.” His chance at finally making it to Brazil, and he wasn’t ready.
“I spent some time trying to find a way to sneak into the ship but couldn’t find one,” Camara says. “I saw a security guard and asked if he’d let me in. He asked me how much money I had in my pocket, so I gave all the money and [he] let me [in].”
With the security guard looking the other way, Camara boarded the ship and looked for a safe place to hide.
“I got inside a deck crane and stayed over a propeller fan. That was, by far, the scariest thing because I didn’t realize it was a machine until it turned on,” he says. “It almost cut my belly open. I was afraid of slipping and getting stuck in there.”
The crane turned off moments later and Camara heard the sound of large doors closing. He then realized the ship was about to leave his home country en route to Brazil.
“I got into that ship knowing I could die,” Camara says. “They could find me and throw me into the sea, or maybe I could make it to Brazil. It was up to Allah. If I’d died, it was my day to die. If I didn’t die there, where I thought I could die … I had these thoughts in my head.
“I had no idea how many days I was in the ship. I felt hungry and couldn’t wait anymore, so I went out for scraps but only found water with slime.”
Camara felt weaker as time went on — until the moment his body simply shut down and he passed out outside of the crane and was caught by the crew. The ship’s captain didn’t believe Camara when he admitted he sneaked onto the ship in Guinea and hadn’t eaten since.
“Holy f*ck, I still don’t know how I survived that,” says Camara, who estimates that he hadn’t had a meal in six days and 22 hours. “[The captain] slapped me, I thought he was going to throw me out of the ship, but there were so many people from so many different countries there [so he didn’t do it]. One of the members of the crew, a Muslim from India, gave me an apple. I was locked inside a room getting fed once a day.”
Camara was taken to juvenile court as soon as he landed in Brazil. He was 14 at the time, but realized he would likely be deported at that age. Instead, he told the Brazilian federal police he was 17, old enough to stay in the country. He’s listed as being 29 years old on Tapology, he says, but is actually three years younger than that.
As fate would have it, the judge handling his case told a friend about Camara’s situation. She decided to help, and hired lawyers onto the case to help the young child stay in Brazil.
That woman later became Camara’s adoptive mother.
Days into his new life in Brazil, Camara showed up for a test at Esporte Clube Bahia, one of the main soccer teams in the country, but failed because he “didn’t run that well.”
“What were they expecting?” Camara asks. “I just got to Brazil after 14 days on a ship and you want me to outrun everybody?”
The young kid eventually made his way to the Associacao Atletica Banco do Brasil under-20 soccer team and played in the state tournament, scoring twice against EC Bahia. His performance convinced the club that once turned him down to instead make him an offer, and Camara agreed to it, but later changed his mind. His dreams had moved elsewhere.
“I told my [adoptive] father that I was going to be a fighter,” Camara says. “He said I was so sweet, how was I going to hit someone? And I explained to him that it was different inside [a cage], that the other person was trying to hit me too, so I had to hit him first.”
Camara did his research and discovered Luiz Carlos Dorea’s Champion team in Salvador. At the time, Dorea’s protege Junior dos Santos was approaching his first shot at the UFC heavyweight championship against Cain Velasquez, and Camara knew the gym would be the best place for him to start a career in boxing.
Dorea was already leaving the gym when Camara arrived for the first time with his adoptive father. “Do you want to be a fighter? This is a gym for champions,” Dorea asked the teenager. When Camara said yes, Dorea replied, “So come back tomorrow and you’ll become a champion.”
Camara had no idea how to throw a punch on his first day. By three months in, he already wanted to spar. Dorea allowed it just to make Camara stop asking over and over again.
Camara recalls getting beaten up for a long time until his opponent gassed, then turning the tide and getting the best of him in the end.
“Dorea looked at me and said, ‘F*ck, you’ve got heart,’” Camara says. “I pissed blood that day, but didn’t give up [laughs].”
Camara worked hard in the gym every day, however a series of injuries forced him to stay glued to the sidelines. Months turned into years, and Camara had to put his dreams of fighting on hold. He worked as a janitor at a local mall, a waiter at an ice cream shop, and a handyman in a hotel, until he was finally healthy enough to resume his combat journey.
Years later and finally healed from a shoulder injury, Camara returned to the gym in November 2016 to box again. He had just watched UFC Fight Night 100 live in Sao Paulo and cheered for one of his idols, Kamaru Usman, when the future UFC welterweight champion and fellow African-born fighter defeated Warlley Alves. “I had no voice the next day,” Camara says with a laugh, “because I was the only one in that arena rooting for him.”
Camara dove back into the boxing world and was enlisted to compete in the Salvadorian championships in May 2017. Coach Dorea was busy in the United States cornering dos Santos in his UFC 211 championship rematch against Stipe Miocic, but Camara still managed to win four matches that day and capture a gold medal. Impressed, Dorea attempted to convince him to start a career in boxing, claiming Camara had a “Mike Tyson-style” of fighting, but the Guinea native was determined to jump over to MMA.
So Camara joined Nova Uniao in Rio de Janeiro under the advice of Dorea and began training with Andre Pederneiras and alongside stars of the sport such as Aldo.
Much like in his first day of sparring in Salvador, Camara had a rude awakening.
“I started throwing my boxing on them, but got taken down right [away] and was unable to get back up. I got beat,” he says. “They said I had to train more jiu-jitsu, but unfortunately I didn’t. I was afraid of getting injured training jiu-jitsu. I got injured training wrestling too. I thought to myself, ‘What the f*ck is this sport?’”
The young African talent pushed on and booked himself an MMA fight a few months later under the Shooto Brazil banner in Rio de Janeiro, but was forced to tap to a triangle choke in the second round against Alan Alves Vieira.
“When [Vieira] started grabbing me, I thought to myself, ‘Holy sh*t,’” says Camara, who decided not to accept any more fights until he was actually ready for the task. “I told them I was going to train jiu-jitsu and wrestling for at least a year and would never fight to lose again. I promised to myself I’d never get submitted again, I’d train hard to get better.”
The day Camara realized he was scoring his own takedowns and defending well against those who’d once “smashed” him on the mat, he knew it was time to book his second fight.
Fifteen months after his MMA debut, Camara won a decision against Marcos Silva for his first professional victory.
“He tried to submit me but I told him, ‘Do you think you can submit me? No one will ever submit me,’” he says with a laugh. “[Silva] got mad.”
Camara scored a submission victory in his next bout in November 2020, choking out Brendon Amer at Shooto Brazil 104, then won a decision over Brenon Andrade in July 2021.
Last month, Camara was back in a cage once again, finishing Leandro Mesquita with a knee to the body in the fifth round of their featherweight clash at Rio Open DC Pro. Cameras captured him repeatedly shouting “I am the best!” while beating up Mesquita, and even going back and forth with Mesquita’s cornerman who said that Camara was getting lucky.
“No luck,” he responded between punches. “It’s hard work here.”
“You’re trying to stop me from achieving my dreams,” Camara says. “That’s how my mind works.”
It’s been 15 years since he sneaked onto that cargo ship in Africa, and now the man who found a way to follow an unlikely goal of being the next Ronaldo is setting new targets. He’s just 4-1 in MMA but already envisions Dana White wrapping UFC gold around his waist. Maybe one day he’ll do it. It's hard to doubt anyone who went to such great lengths in pursuit of a dream.