Paulo Laia was a 14-year-old kid in Rio de Janeiro when Matt Hamill made his UFC debut in 2006. Hamill, a deaf fighter, ultimately main-evented a UFC show and co-headlined many others during his octagon run, showing it wasn’t an impossible dream for others like him.
Hamill’s success served as a great inspiration for Laia, who is also deaf. More than a decade later, as he readies to face top lightweight prospect Manoel Sousa this Friday at PFL Challenger Series in Orlando, Laia knows it’s his turn to do the same for the next generation.
“I see many deaf people contacting my coach and wanting to train MMA because of me,” Laia wrote to MMA Fighting. “I’m very happy about that, to be able to show the community that we all can do everything normally.”
Laia, 30, is 14-5 as a pro fighter after winning a one-night lightweight tournament in November that earned him a spot on PFL’s Challenger Series. He said his mother has always supported his combat sports dream, and “everybody is anxious for my fight now.”
“I never suffered any kind of prejudice,” Laia wrote. “I started in a luta livre social project with coach Paulo Josino. When I decided I wanted to do MMA, he introduced me to master Renato Dominguez, and my experience with them has been great.
“Being deaf doesn’t make any difference to me these days,” he added. “My connection with my coach and training partners is great. My coach and I understand each other very well with hand gestures. When I want to know something, like how much time we have left or what should I do, he immediately understands me and instructs me on what to do. I have great peripheral vision inside the cage, and I get in there knowing exactly what I have to do.”
Laia’s opponent Friday night, Sousa, is 9-0 in the sport with a 100-percent finish rate, but he’s standing in Laia’s way for a potential spot in the million-dollar PFL season.
“I’m very happy with everything that’s going on,” Laia wrote. “I’m going taking step by step to the $1 million goal, but I’d rather think of the actual fight and let things happen. My opponent is a tough guy with a good game, but the plan is to get the victory. I’m ready for everything.”