Matheus Nicolau recorded three wins in four bouts in his first run inside the octagon (not including his 2-1 journey on The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 4), but he ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Nicolau, a native of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, was 22 when he made his UFC debut in 2015, forcing Bruno Rodrigues to tap to a smooth Japanese necktie in Sao Paulo. He then beat John Moraga, who was coming off a No. 1 contender match with Joseph Benavidez, before improving to 3-0 in the company with a win over Louis Smolka.
The Brazilian suffered his first official octagon defeat in July 2018, losing to Dustin Ortiz at UFC on FOX 30, and was cut by the promotion shortly after.
“I think I had my loss at the wrong moment, when they were thinking about ending the division,” Nicolau said in an interview with MMA Fighting. “They traded Demetrious Johnson for Ben Askren, because Demetrious Johnson was reigning for a long time and making his fights look so easy even though he was fighting high-level athletes like [Kyoji] Horiguchi and many others, and he wasn’t a trash talker nor a big guy in the media.
“To be fair, [Henry] Cejudo really helped the division to continue. His win over [T.J.] Dillashaw was very important for the division. I think the division would really have ended if he had lost that fight, and then he won and defended the 135 belt and [the UFC] was like, ‘How am I going to end the division now?’”
Cejudo never dropped back down to flyweight, but the weight class looked rejuvenated and strong again. Deiveson Figueiredo won the vacant belt and defended it once already in 2020, but it took a while for Nicolau to finally re-sign with the promotion.
“I always try to see the positive side of everything,” Nicolau said. “It was a shock for me and it was hard to accept at first, of course. I grieved for some time, couldn’t understand it. I was confident that I was doing a good job, even in the fight I lost. Media, fans, UFC staff and matchmakers told me I was fighting well until I got caught, but I always try to look at the bright side.”
“That helped me mature,” he continued. “I proved to myself how much I really love martial arts more than fighting for the world’s biggest company. Even if part of me was upset and disappointed with that happened, I never stopped working and doing what I had to do, waking up early every day and going to the gym. I’m more mature as a fighter now. And all the training I’ve done all these years, I think I’ve evolved in my martial art, my conditioning and mental, and I’m better prepared in my return to the UFC.”
His re-entrance to the UFC could have happened a while ago, actually, but Nicolau opted to honor his word to Brave CF. Nicolau signed with the Bahrain-based company after a win at Future MMA, and said he was offered a short-notice flyweight bout with Sergio Pettis in the UFC. The problem is, Nicolau was fighting as a bantamweight in his hometown a week later. Tyson Nam ended up signing as a replacement for Alex Perez versus Pettis.
“Since [the UFC] was going to end the division, I thought there was no reason to continue fighting at 125,” Nicolau said. “You like it or not, [the UFC] kind of runs the market and it’s the world’s biggest promotion, it’s where the biggest checks and challenges are. I had to start fighting at 135 to see if I could go back to the UFC at 135.”
Nicolau signed a new deal with Brave CF to return to the flyweight division, facing fellow UFC veteran Jose Torres in the company’s grand prix, but that card was one of many cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The UFC eventually offered him a new deal in December 2020. He also thinks his girlfriend Luana Pinheiro’s impressive first-round knockout over Stephanie Frausto at Dana White’s Contender Series in November once again opened the UFC’s eyes for his services.
This Saturday, when he enters the eight-sided cage to face short-notice replacement Manel Kape, who stepped in for Tagir Ulanbekov, Nicolau vows to entertain and impress. Nicolau doesn’t rule out moving up to bantamweight in the future, but flyweight is his home for now.
“I like the challenge,” he said of fighting the former RIZIN bantamweight titleholder. “Much respect for his martial art, he’s a great guy. His hype is well deserved. He was the RIZIN champion and has done many tough fights.
“His record shows he’s very explosive, many submissions and knockouts, but I think he has holes in his game. I have what it takes to explore these holes and bring the victory with the strategy I prepared with my team. I’m sure it will be a great fight. All my UFC fights were good and it will be no different this time. I’ll return in style.”