Don’t expect Olympic gold medalist Rafaela Silva to follow the footsteps of fellow judokas Ronda Rousey and Kayla Harrison to MMA.
A two-time judo world champion (2013 and 2022) and one-time Olympic champion (2016), Silva flirted with mixed martial arts during her two-year suspension for fenoterol, a substance used to treat asthma. Silva claimed innocence but was forced to stay away from judo for two years between 2019 and 2021. In MMA, she found a way to stay active.
“MMA is not for me,” Silva said with a laugh on MMA Fighting’s Portuguese-language podcast Trocação Franca. “I can’t. It doesn’t work for me. I got kicked in the face, kicked on the leg, and couldn’t put my foot on the ground for three or four days. It’s very tough.”
Silva is close friends with former UFC champion Jose Aldo and Nova União fighters Leonardo Santos, Matheus Nicolau, and Luana Pinheiro. She said that being in the gym to work with MMA athletes has only made her admire fighters more.
“It was a very unique experience for me because it’s a whole different fight,” Silva said. “I have a judo background which is totally different for MMA, so it messed with my head quite a lot. I had to adapt a lot of things. It was a very difficult but amazing experience for me, because it came at a moment I couldn’t train judo, so I gave myself the luxury and privilege of training another sport.”
The biggest lesson Silva learned during that period of time was that, even as an Olympic champion, she still had a lot to learn about combat sports.
“I believe it helped me a lot because I was always asking for help, advice, [and it helped] me in my return to judo,” said Silva, who won her second world title in her first tournament back from suspension. “I’ve trained in several spots and would always try to learn something here, something in wrestling, in the grappling area. I always had difficulties on the ground.
“At the same time, there I was trying MMA, bringing all I could to judo. Even after so many years training judo, this period training MMA helped me a lot, it made my spirit stronger as an athlete.”
Silva has always admired the likes of Anderson Silva and Aldo, and watched the UFC stars compete live back when the sport became a sensation in Brazil in the early 2010s. But she became a bigger fan after watching and experiencing what they go through in camp.
The list of MMA stars include judo phenoms Ronda Rousey and Kayla Harrison, who made the transition to MMA to become superstars and win titles in UFC and PFL, respectively.
“I already admired them from the outside,” Silva said, “and knowing what they went through to make such transition — even Kayla, a two-time Olympic champion and world champion, making that transition the best way possible. You just can’t not admire athletes like her.”