Alex Pereira’s dream once felt out of reach. As a youngster working in a tire shop, the native of São Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, was dragged into a world of alcohol and disappointment. He still became the UFC middleweight champion, but the road to the top of the world had many twists and turns.
Pereira realized becoming an athlete could change his life, he said, “because sport saves people”. He had no talent for soccer, Brazil’s most popular sport and the No. 1 career path in the dreams of millions of kids in the country. Growing up in a difficult environment, often getting involved in street fights, it felt natural for Pereira to seek out a martial arts gym. It would either give him a future — or at least make sure he would get the last laugh in the streets.
Wilson Nunes, otherwise known as “Ninja,” was his first trainer. He saw so much potential in Pereira, he realized the young fighter needed a more experienced coach. Ninja sought out Belocqua Wera, one of the top kickboxing masters in São Bernardo do Campo, telling him, “this guy has talent and can become a champion.”
Wera remembers responding that he didn’t want to waste his time on a newcomer. But eventually, he conceded. Pereira showed up in his gym one day for a test, and Wera matched him against one of his best proteges.
“I put him against ‘Eduardinho,’ who was Brazilian champion many years before, to test Alex,” Wera says. “Alex went all in right off the bat with full aggressiveness. He was in complete disadvantage and eventually quit, but he showed some quality, he showed where he could go.”
Afterward, Pereira got some direct advice.
“You saw that you need to learn the technique,” Wera told him. “There’s no point coming with just pure strength. That won’t get things done. You’re stronger and heavier than ‘Eduardinho,’ but you saw what happened. You need to work hard and learn my style.”
Pereira, however, just liked fighting. He had no idea of how big things were in the kickboxing world, really. When Wera asked him what his goals were, he simply answered, “I want to get to the top.”
Where exactly, Wera questioned?
“Wherever you can get me,” Pereira answered.
The plan was set. Pereira wanted to become the world’s best kickboxer, and Wera would do anything in his power to turn that into reality. Things wouldn’t come easy, though.
“I taught in an elite gym at the time, and I had some difficulties bringing him in because of his humble background,” Wera says. “Some of the gym coordinators didn’t want to allow him in the gym. I had to negotiate a scholarship for him, because the monthly fee was higher than what he made at the tire shop, so he had no means to pay for it.”
Pereira was talented, and that helped him secure the deal. But Wera was constantly butting heads with other gym coordinators and coaches to side with his kickboxing up-and-comer.
“He went through all that, and I don’t even know if he realized that it was racism,” Wera says. “I saw that. I’m older, I have experience. I’m poor, too, but I had rich people in my family, so I know what it’s like to deal with racism and social prejudice within your own family. He didn’t have that notion at the time.”
On top of that, Pereira was still addicted to alcohol.
“When I started training him, he’d drink one liter of cachaça per day,” Wera says, referring to popular Brazilian distilled drink made from fermented sugarcane juice. “He used to say, ‘When there’s no cachaça, I had alcohol with coffee.’
“I could see that in him, given my indigenous background, [that] he was fragile due to drugs and alcohol. He never mentioned drugs to me, but you don’t have to say, right? Everything he said. … I never asked him either. Everybody deserves a second chance.”
Pereira decided to get rid of alcohol, once he realized it prevented him from reaching a higher level as a kickboxer.
“I was training with him in the ring one day, trying to teach him some difficult moves,” Wera says. “I was pushing him hard, so I punched him right in the stomach, and he went down. I thought to myself, ‘F***, he’s weak. Am I wasting my time with him?’ He was back up seconds later, and I saw tears in his eyes. I realized he wasn’t weak, he was a warrior. He was rotten inside due to the things he used, he was contaminated. It wasn’t easy to turn him into what he’s become.”
Wera explained to Pereira he had a special recipe, something he had learned from his indigenous ancestors, that would help “heal” from the harms of alcohol. Pereira barely had money to pay his bills, so the coach offered to buy several Brazilian roots, lemon, honey, pineapple and other ingredients to prepare him a juice that would “detox and cure” his body.
Wera noticed something special about Pereira during the healing process. The young kickboxer had no idea about it, but his parents later confirmed that much like his coach, Wera, his grandparents were indigenous.
From that moment on, Pereira became “Poatan,” a word in tupi-guarani that means “hands hard as rocks.”
“He had no idea what it meant to be an indigenous,” Wera says. “I started bringing back the spirit of his ancestors with dances, bringing the mind and spirit.”
“Poatan” became the WGP kickboxing champion in Brazil under the tutelage of Wera, but he parted ways with his mentor before becoming a two-division titleholder in GLORY and a UFC champion. The coach says there’s no hard feelings toward Pereira, whom he roots for until this day.
“He’s representing me,” Wera says. “When he’s champion, I’m happy.”
Pereira’s unique striking style is still the one he learned in São Bernardo do Campo, Wera says. The coach calls it “jaguar style,” a variation of traditional strikes with different body angles while having both feet still planted on the ground — “things that common boxers can’t do,” he adds.
Wera says Pereira “used that in the end” of the first UFC clash with Israel Adesanya in November, knocking out the middleweight champion at Madison Square Garden for an epic fifth-round comeback.
Pereira and Adesanya meet again Saturday at UFC 287, headlining a pay-per-view card in Miami, and Wera is confident.
“I had a dream before the Sean Strickland fight, and he was in bad shape, he was getting beat up, and he was telling me he had lost his connection with his ancestors, and I had to reconnect for him,” Wera says. “He was lost in spirit and mind, and I did that in the dream. I also did my dances when I woke up the next day, and you saw the result in the fight. He said in an interview afterwards he felt like a warrior, like a giant in that fight.
“Adesanya posted a video recently of a panther hunting a jaguar. Panthers are supernatural animals in his culture. He must have talked to the shaman that guides him spiritually. I watched that first fight on my feet at home, screaming at night, but I don’t know if my health will allow it this time. I can’t do that for him again. I’m an old 70-year-old man with high blood pressure. [Laughs.] But he has to be ready for this because [Adesanya] will have the spirit of the Africans strong with him.”
“As for the actual fight, he has to start the first round like he ended the fifth, with my kickboxing style. He knows what I’m talking about,” he adds. “Move the body, keep your feet on the ground and fight jaguar style. Aggressive blocks, strong kick, knee, use your boxing and knock him out right off the bat. He has to fight differently. Adesanya will come in to knock him out because he’s seen holes. If he fights this way, he knocks out Adesanya.”