RIO DE JANEIRO — I’ve been covering MMA for over 14 years and have watched hundreds of events over the years, sitting three feet away from the fence dozens of times to photograph fights. Photography is not my specialty, but I’ve always enjoyed the unique feeling of watching so closely as two athletes battle for their dreams.
It's March 11, 2022, and featherweight prospect Jonas Bilharinho has given me an even rarer opportunity. After so many years interviewing some of the best around the world, I will go backstage and witness a fighter’s preparation in the locker room before sitting in his corner for a championship fight.
It’s a level of intimacy I had never experienced before, an intoxicating world of thrill, pain, joy and sorrow that one never forgets.
Bilharinho had cameras following him for weeks in training and at home. It was his first time in a cage since a weird night at Dana White’s Contender Series this past November in Las Vegas; he waited for the perfect moment to land a wheel kick and floored Canaan Kawaihae at the UFC APEX, but wasn’t awarded a UFC contract.
Signing with the industry-leader was a certainty, they thought. It’s about when, not if. But Bilharinho, a prospect touted for years in the Brazilian circuit, had to get a win first, and having the LFA belt around his waist would only make it sweeter.
Playing chess in the living room, a relaxed Bilharinho discusses Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul with his father while a hairstylist fashions his hair into cornrows. Three belts are draped over a cabinet, titles he’s conquered over the years in Brazil. He will enter the cage in a few hours, but chooses to stay with family and one or two close friends. Pride, a fat little dog named after the revered Japanese promotion that shut down years before Bilharinho made his MMA debut, lays by his feet. His mother, proving that Brazilian mothers never change, asks if his clothes are ready.
Bilharinho is undoubtedly the star of the night. A long line of fans wait outside by giant posters with photos of the main event fighters, Bilharinho and Barbosa. Jose Delano, who will later steal the show, gets no shine since he jumped in on the opportunity after the posters were already printed. Barbosa’s name isn’t even on the ticket.
Inside, Bilharinho enters a large room with black and blue mats split in half by a large black board. The air conditioning distributes the smell of sweat as 24 fighters use every last minute of work time with their coaches before walking out to the octagon. The sound, non-stop grunting and screaming after every strike hits the pad, leaves no doubt: You’re in a room full of killers, human beings designed to hurt people as they pursue their biggest chance in combat sport.
Bilharinho, wearing camo pants and a black shirt, doesn’t stop walking. He’s concentrated, focused, quiet. It’s 9:25pm, and he won’t fight until the early hours of Saturday, so he’s in no rush to wrap his hands. When he finally does, he has to start over three times, calling it “the longest wrap in MMA history.”
“My bad,” he laughs at a Brazilian commissioner as his coach Alex Gaze again re-wraps his right.
They are finally ready, and Gaze whispers something in his ears as they are about to hit pads for the first time that night; Delano is working out a few feet away, so the coach won’t take any chances letting them hear what he’s saying. When it’s time to hit pads, it’s like day and night. Every punch that lands is followed by a loud scream from Gaze. A kick? Even louder.
It’s clear intimidation of Delano and his team, and Gaze smiles at the cameraman.
Bilharinho’s father walks in, a wood cross hanging on his neck. His brother, who will also corner him tonight, arrives seconds later. They give Bilharinho a kiss, and dad starts taking pictures with his phone, he tells his son, “to calm down your mom.” Bilharinho’s mother is the only one that didn’t take the three-minute car ride to Ribalta, and he says she’s “locked inside the bathroom.” I can’t tell if he’s joking or not, but she was definitely anxious by the time he left the house earlier that night. This is Bilharinho’s 12th professional fight, and a mom never gets used to it.
Rodolfo Bellato, a close friend of Bilharinho, leaves the locker room for his fight. Bilharinho gives him a long hug and a kiss to the cheek, and his family starts to feel the anxiety. Rafael Cavalcante, otherwise known as “Feijão,” a former Strikeforce champion and Bilharinho’s cornerman, tells Bilharinho’s father and brother that “being a cornerman looks fun but isn’t. You don’t watch the fights, you stay here, focused.”
I tend to agree, honestly.
Bilharinho, his hands finally wrapped and black LFA gloves strapped on, makes room next to the wall and lays down for a bit. From afar, he looks like he’s trying to take a nap, but as I get closer, I notice he’s mumbling a few words. He’s probably praying, but I can’t say for sure — and won’t ask. No one gets any closer to him right now.
His mother definitely would, though. “Stand him up,” she texts her husband after getting a picture of him laying on the mat.
Bilharinho sits up and stretches for a long period of time now, interrupted only by CABMMA referee Fernando Portella, who will work on his title fight tonight. Bilharinho asks him about touching the fence with the back of his hand and what is their criteria for a grounded fighter. Unified rules, right? “If he does this [gets his knee off the ground] I can kick him in the face, right? Perfect,” Bilharinho declares. He has big plans for his championship duel.
The 31-year-old featherweight leaves the mat, but not without bowing first. He lives the martial arts life to its core. Walking down the stairs, he enters the arena for the first time, and stands by the door to watch Bellato’s fight. It doesn’t take too long before Bellato, whose name fits perfectly for Bellator, actually, taps Thiago Vieira with a triangle choke with two seconds left in the opening round. His team is successful in their first mission tonight, so Bilharinho walks back to the locker room to continue his preparation.
“Feijão” Cavalcante, who is helping Ed Soares organize LFA in Brazil, is now in full cornerman mode for Bilharinho, pumping him up backstage. He tells Bilharinho to keep the UFC outside his mind tonight, to simply live the moment. “We don’t control the future or the past,” he says. “It’s all about the now. It’s your time to do it.” They drill a few knees in the clinch, and “Feijão” can’t help but smile every time he throws it. “If it lands, you’ll kill him,” he encourages. “Straight to the hospital. I don’t want you to knock him out fast, let’s work. Let’s have fun.”
A experienced fighter with knockouts over notable names like Yoel Romero and “King Mo” Lawal, the semi-retired Cavalcante has seen it all inside and outside the cages. He has cornered Anderson Silva over and over again in the UFC, and he lauds Bilharinho as unique. “He’s so calm and smart,” the corner man says. His theory as to why the UFC hasn’t signed him yet is pure marketing. Bilharinho is so confident and calm that people see it as arrogance, he believes. If you spend 10 minutes next to the guy, you’ll see that’s far from the truth.
The locker room is almost empty now as the co-main is about to start. Gabriel Bonfim will face Eduardo Garvon for the vacant welterweight belt, so it could take a while before it’s Bilharinho’s time. We’re told to leave for a different room downstairs, a dressing room used by artists when Ribalta is holding concerts and other type of events. A commissioner comes two minutes later, though, and tells Bilharinho it’s time to go. Bonfim has choked out Garvon in just 79 seconds.
It’s 1:35am, and Bilharinho walks out for the second-biggest fight of his life.
Delano, a Shooto Brasil featherweight champion who went from the prelims to the main event on short notice, was ineligible to take the belt home with a win since he had failed to make weight.
“Relax a little bit,” Cavalcante tells the featherweight after round one. “You’ve won the round, but we’re not in a hurry. He’s [only] prepared for three rounds. You’re too worried about what’s going to happen.”
Round two starts, and Bilharinho can’t find his rhythm. Delano’s punches leaves marks on his face, and Bilharinho sounds frustrated in between rounds. Cavalcante tells him they’ve lost the round and have to “start over” in round three, but need to relax. It’s five rounds, he says, and “I’m not in a hurry to win.”
“No hurry,” Bilharinho responds, “but nothing is working. … He’s kicking my ass.”
“I don’t care, Jonas,” “Feijão” interrupts him. “It’s five rounds. We have three rounds left to organize and win. It’s only over when it’s over. He’s starting to slow down now.”
“So am I,” Bilharinho responds.
“Feijão” tries to get Bilharinho up and ready for round three by saying his “cardio is endless.” But again, the corner needs to motivate Bilharinho before round four.
“Do you want to win or lose this thing?” Cavalcante cries.
“I want to win,” Bilharinho responds, and his corner goes again with a motivational speech before the championship rounds.
“Let’s f****** fight,” Cavalcante says. “Losing by knockout or any other way makes no difference. Let’s win this s***. He’s tired, you’re tired, but I trust you. I know you have cardio. You can beat this guy. You can’t lose to yourself.”
Gaze and “Feijão” urge him to attack in the fourth and fifth, as he’s probably down the scorecards. Bilharinho has his moments. Gaze wants Bilharinho to make it a bar fight, a flat-out brawl. They go at it in the final seconds of an exciting fifth stanza. Unfortunately for Bilharinho, though, it isn’t enough to stop Delano, or swing the cards in his favor. Delano wins the decision – but not the belt – unanimously.
In the end, two judges scored all rounds in favor of Delano, with the third giving Bilharinho a couple of rounds.
Bilharinho limps back to the locker room with the help of his cornermen and sits on a chair. CABMMA doctors check on him, and the only pain he feels is from the strikes. No major injuries – aside from the usual damage of a 25-minute fist fight.
Bilharinho tells Cavalcante his biggest mistake was counting on Delano gassing, and he was surprised “it felt like he didn’t feel my strikes.”
“That kid has a tough chin,” Bilharinho’s dad tells him. ”It was a beautiful fight, son.”
Cavalcante embraces the fallen fighter, but he won’t sugar coat the situation. “You quit in the second round,” he says. “You turned to me and said, ‘He’s kicking my ass.’”
“I wanted a solution,” Bilharinho responds.
“It’s a game of who wants more,” Cavalcante insists. “Getting dropped dead or not, it doesn’t matter. You have to go for all or nothing.”
“I tried,” Bilharinho says.
Cavalcante recaps his fighter’s attacks over the five-round contest. Bilharinho didn’t attempt a single knee in the clinch, something they’ve drilled non-stop backstage, and tried “40 hooks” in the fight. “You’ve missed the 40 hooks you tried,” he says. Bilharinho apologizes. Cavalcante tells him to shut the f*** up and stop with the apologies. He has nothing to be ashamed of.
Delano walks in with a smile on his face. He’s clearly talented and now on a nine-fight winning streak, the past two in five-round decisions.
“You tore me apart,” Delano tells Bilharinho. “It was awesome. What a war. You almost dropped me. It was awesome.”
LFA CEO Ed Soares is later overheard inside the cage discussing a potential rematch with Delano’s weight miss. But all Bilharinho wants now is to go home and lay inside a bathtub full of ice. His family and friends are standing around him with their heads down, in silence. Bilharinho wants none of that.
“This feels like a funeral,” he says. “Enough of that.”
They give Bilharinho a round of applause and he goes home. He lost tonight, but reminded me why I love this sport.