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Bruno Silva: Failed TUF run, ‘Walking Dead’ in Russia, and long-awaited UFC success

UFC 269: Jordan Wright v Bruno Silva Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Bruno Silva is one of the most intriguing up-and-comers in the UFC after shutting the light out of his first three opponents inside the octagon — and his highly-anticipated UFC Vegas 50 clash with Alex Pereira comes a decade after he nearly ended his MMA career.

Back in 2012, Silva was a 22-year-old newcomer with a middling professional record of 5-5, with four of those defeats coming by way of first-round submission. At the time, Silva struggled to maintain a training routine in his hometown of Cajazeiras, a city so small that its entire population could fit inside an arena and barely break UFC’s attendance record.

The odds of Silva making a career out of MMA was nearly impossible back then.

“I had to work and study because I couldn’t make a living through fighting,” Silva explained on a recent edition of MMA Fighting’s Portuguese-speaking podcast Trocação Franca. “It’s a small town and there was no MMA there. I ran in the middle of the streets. I worked as a security guard all day and trained at 10 p.m., and started running at 1 a.m. People called me crazy, they said I wanted attention, that I was doing drugs.”

Silva had mixed results early on. He won as much as he lost, then a couple of quick submission defeats in the Northeast region of Brazil in 2012 made him consider finding a different career path entirely.

“I had already decided I would stop fighting in 2012 because I had no team, and my coach had just left [the city],” he said. “I was training with two friends, and one of them taught me not to get taken down and beat them up on the feet.”

Silva decided to give it one more try, so he moved to Joao Pessoa to live inside a gym. After scoring four straight first-round knockouts, he landed a spot on the third season of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil as a heavyweight. Unfortunately for him, eventual TUF Brazil 3 finalist Vitor Miranda was the man standing across from him for the elimination round bout.

“I was only fighting for four years when I was paired up against Vitor Miranda,” Silva said. “I was a kid amongst a bunch of lions. I was fighting people 65 pounds heavier than me. I wasn’t even a white belt, since I had no gi. People were afraid of Vitor Miranda and I was the youngest there. Vitor was one of the few people I hit and couldn’t shut off, and he knocked me out in the end of the second round.

“I never fought outside of the Northeast before and now I’m fighting Vitor Miranda right off the bat? Someone else would have mentally died right there. I was scared s***, but I stood with him. We put on a great fight, thank God, and that fight changed my life. This fight made me go to Curitiba, to train at Evolucao Thai. I took off after that.”

Silva won six in a row as an Evolucao Thai fighter under the tutelage of Andre Dida, an assistant coach of Wanderlei Silva’s TUF Brazil 3 team, but came up short in his first international bout, losing to Moise Rimbon in Lebenon a few months after being considered as a late-notice replacement for Anderson Silva against Uriah Hall at UFC 198.

Another knockout victory in the Curitiba circuit propelled Silva back to international waters, but Dida was against the idea of flying to Russia to face Gennadiy Kovalev.

“Brazilians were only getting beat up in Russia at that time,” he said. “Only one or two would win, and that’s it. But Russia was the only option for me. I went to Chelyabinsk, [it was] -20.2 [degree Fahrenheit]. It was madness. But I went there and fought the best. Mike Tyson was there [in attendance]. Fedor [Emelianenko] was there. I was fighting in their home.

“Several Brazilian fighters told me they were only going there to make some money. They were paid $4,000, enough money to make ends meet for six months or so [in Brazil]. I said, ‘No, man. I’ll be the Trojan Horse.’ I talked to Dida and he didn’t wanna let me go there. I said, ‘Dida, let me go, man. If I lose, you can cut me from Evolucao.’”

Silva saved his spot in the Evolucao Thai team by stopping Kovalev in the opening round, which set up a bout against Russian star Alexander Shlemenko, who had just lost to Gegard Mousasi in Bellator after rolling through a seven-fight unbeaten streak.

“Their plan was, ‘Let’s bring Silva, this average guy, to get beat up by Shlemenko, so Shlemenko goes back [to Bellator] to fight Mousasi or [Rafael] Lovato for the title. Shlemenko was the favorite — and I knocked him out in Russia. And that’s when I met ‘Minotauro.’”

Former UFC and PRIDE heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was working as an ambassador for the UFC in Brazil when he saw potential in the Brazilian middleweight.

“‘Minotauro’ saw me at UFC Sao Paulo and said, ‘Man, I admire you a lot. I’m a fan or yours,’” Silva said. “I was nervous because I was a fan of ‘Minotauro,’ and all of a sudden this guy shows up saying he’s my fan. He said he wanted to see me in the UFC, and I said, ‘Look Minotauro, I’m only going to the UFC when I become champion in Russia.’

“He said I was crazy, that Russia only had tough fights. But I said, ‘There’s an undefeated guy there, [Artem] Frolov, and beating this guy would give me a lot of money and would make me the first Brazilian champion at M-1 Global. I’m going to make history in Russia.’ He said, ‘You know it’s a huge risk, but it’s your call.’

“Fighting in Russia is still tough,” Silva continued. “Only two of 10 Brazilians that go there actually win. It’s heavy. It’s a long flight. The first time I went there, they lost my baggage and I had to stay three weeks with the same clothes, cutting weight at the hotel. I almost missed weight. I only had a treadmill and a sauna and food was crazy.

“They give you this weird look everywhere. You’re clearly going there to get beat up. It looked like a horror movie. It was snowing when I got there, and look at my friend and said it looked like The Walking Dead. It really did. Nobody in the streets, that white snow and the black road. If you don’t have a good mind, you lose before the fight. It’s crazy.”

Silva ultimately stayed true to his word — he dethroned Frolov by knockout in the fourth round to clinch the M-1 Global 185-pound title and finally earn a deal with the UFC.

“That’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” Silva said of his run in Russia. “I took the hard path to the UFC. I fought everybody in Brazil. I fought in Lebanon and lost, went back to Brazil and fought, went to Russia and knocked them out, and went to the UFC. I got to the UFC and was suspended two years for something I didn’t do. I came back, knocked out three guys in a row.

“What I love the most is to hear that I’m ‘Blindado from Russia’. Or the ‘Nightmare of the Russians’. If I had gone to the UFC before going through Russia, I don’t think it would have been good. UFC gives you this glamour and people get deceived with praises and Instagram followers and feel the pressure of fighting in the world’s biggest promotion. I don’t.”

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