Jailton Almeida quit so many times, it’d be easy to think he’s not cut from the same cloth of the MMA greats. But to persevere past the adversities thrown his way to become one of the hottest prospects in the sport paints a different picture.
“When I look back at my life and see me giving up on 2014 and coming back to conquer what I wanted, to be here in the biggest promotion in the world, that’s my dream,” Almeida said on this week’s Trocação Franca podcast. “To be headlining a card now and looking back at what I went through, what I lived, the sadnesses and joys of life.”
Almeida grew up watching his father Jailton “Malhado” compete in boxing in Salvador, Bahia. His uncle was always in a boxing ring too, and so was his older brother Alexandre. The lean teenager had different plans for his life, though. Almeida wanted to play soccer, and he was a talented goalkeeper. A supporter of Salvador’s Esporte Clube Vitoria, Almeida decided to try his luck and apply for a spot on the youth team to one day wear that respected red-and-black jersey.
“I went to Vitoria for a test and it worked, they approved me,” Almeida said. “But there was a meeting there and a man from the staff said, ‘Boy, you’re a good goalkeeper, but the thing is, you don’t have a manager. If you can get us R$ 10,000, we can at least get you a manager so you can keep training at the club.’”
A “super excited” Almeida rushed home to tell his father the good news, only to find out that his dream was out of reach.
“Where am I going to get that money, my son?” Almeida’s father asked, disappointed.
Almeida’s father, a boxer and coach, simply could not afford the money to allow his son to train soccer, so Almeida “gave up” for the first time in his life. The young boy already trained jiu-jitsu occasionally at the time, free of charge since he attended the school where his father taught boxing, so he decided to focus on that instead.
His jiu-jitsu coach suggested Almeida take a MMA fight a few years later, an idea that forever changed his life.
Almeida had been grappling for a while and already tested his hands in the gym, so he felt ready. The date was set — Sept. 29, 2012 — and Almeida stopped his opponent with a rear-naked choke in the opening round. After another fight and another rear-naked choke two months later, Almeida was excited with the prospect of becoming a future UFC star, but then tragedy struck his family.
“My older brother disappeared in 2012,” Almeida said. “I think it was because of the path he chose to follow. There are two paths in life, the good and the bad, and instead of opting for the good one, that happened.”
Almeida says that his brother was involved with local criminals and was never heard from again after entering a car in 2012.
“We never overcome a loss like that,” Almeida said. “I think the [reality] has dropped for my mom that we won’t ever find him again. My story is very similar to Vitor Belfort’s. It’s been 11 years already. It stays in your head, you keep wondering if he’s still alive or not, that maybe he’s taking his time and will come back one day. We think about way too many things. You have that question mark in your head, you can’t think about anything.”
It took three years for Almeida to finally enter an MMA cage to compete again. He finished his opponent with another rear-naked choke on a local show in Bahia, but his misfortune continued — Almeida wasn’t paid his purse and once again decided to quit the sport and find another career.
“Our sport isn’t valued in our country,” Almeida said. “The sport was growing when I started and everybody wanted to promote MMA events. They offered you some money, but in the end only paid you enough to put gas on the car and drive back home. They wouldn’t pay for your food during fight week, they put you on the worst hotel in the city — and that’s when they even offered you a hotel.
“One time I had to take money out of my pocket to travel and fight. I put my head on the pillow one night and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I was working as a security guard and had to pay for someone else to cover my shift so I could travel and get punched in the face for free, or even pay to get punched in the face. I wasn’t expecting to signing with the UFC after a win or anything like that, it was a long road ahead, so I stopped.”
Almeida wasn’t the big body he is today. In fact, he fought as a welterweight at the time. He was offered work as personal trainer in a local gym and started making more money than he’s ever seen before, yet he still missed punching people in the face.
Almeida’s manager Leo Pateira couldn’t stand idly by, and told the young prospect, “You have so much potential, man. You can’t give up.”
Almeida returned to MMA months later, but this time lost in devastating fashion. A 16-second knockout loss to Tyago Moreira derailed his career, a brutal setback that once again had him consider quitting the sport.
“I started crying, I thought about stopping again,” Almeida said. “I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ A lot of things go through your head. It happened so fast. I was a huge favorite to win, and then to lose like that, in seconds.”
Yuri Moura, Almeida’s head coach then and now, felt his student was drifting away from the sport and feared he would lose such a talented young athlete.
“Kid, we know a champion in defeat,” Moura told Almeida. “You’ll go back to the gym on Monday to train. If you really want this, it’s up to you and you only.”
Almeida went home heartbroken from an “unexplainable defeat,” but was back in the gym Monday to train.
He won again in his next fight, lost a decision shortly after, but then started an eight-fight winning streak in Brazil. Almeida told MMA Fighting at the time, “There’s nothing left. Give me an opportunity to show my work [in the UFC].” He even accompanied his loyal teammate Carlos Felipe to one of the UFC Fight Island shows in Abu Dhabi for a chance to meet UFC matchmakers Mick Maynard and Sean Shelby in person, and the call eventually came for the promotion’s Contender Series.
“My dream came true. If the world ends today, I die a happy man. And things are only getting better,” Almeida said. “I tell people all the time, [heartbreak] happens all the time. It’s part of the sport. You’ll think about giving up, but don’t. You’ll suffer, but don’t quit.”
The man who once dreamed of playing for Vitoria now has his name chanted by soccer fans even though he doesn’t kick a ball for a living. At 18-2 in MMA as he nears his 32nd birthday in June, Almeida is about to enter the biggest opportunity of his life on Saturday — his first UFC main event against Jairzinho Rozenstruik at UFC Charlotte.
A hard-hitting heavyweight veteran, Rozenstruik has never tapped out before in his career. But Almeida knows a thing or two about quitting — or in this case, forcing other men to.