From Rio de Janeiro’s infamous Cidade de Deus slum to the UFC’s highly competitive middleweight division – and in between, a seven-year stint in the Brazilian army. For “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 2” alumnus Thiago “Marreta” Santos, it has always been about focus.
At 32, living his best professional moment to date, he is as determined as ever to stay on the path he carefully crafted for himself.
“I’ve had many dreams that I’ve been able to accomplish,” Santos, who returns Saturday at UFC 198, told MMAjunkie. “I wanted to become a paratrooper, and I did. I wanted to become a professional MMA fighter, and I did. I wanted to join the UFC, and I did.
“I know things are not going to happen overnight. I take it day by day, step by step. My immediate objective is to be in the top 10 by the end of the year. Then, next year, I’ll have a new plan. My goal is to have the UFC belt in two or three years.”
Santos is no stranger to method and discipline – traits he picked up after joining the Brazilian military as a paratrooper at 18. Although he never stopped training or taking part in amateur competition during his seven-year service, he decided not to pursue professional MMA until he was able to focus solely on it. The Army might have delayed this career – his debut was only six years ago, at Brazilian regional promotion Watch Out Combat Show – but also helped it grow in more ways than one.
“Physically, the military experience makes a difference because I’ve been working my body through extremes all these years,” Santos said. “Is dieting awful? Yes, but not as bad as being stuck in the Amazon jungle having to hunt for your own meals.
“But I think the most important thing was discipline, and that’s what my coaches always notice about me. I’m actually a little bit annoying about it. When I started training at American Top Team, for instance, the other Brazilian fighters would always take those extra five, 10 minutes to start training, while I was always prepared to start on time.”
This unshakeable focus was essential when facing decisions that could have sent him on a much darker path. Santos has lived his entire life in Rio de Janeiro’s Cidade de Deus community, made famous worldwide by its violent portrayal in the 2002 Brazilian movie “City of God.” Highly sought after due to his former military credentials, he dodged several offers to join the lucrative industry of illegal drug deals. Currently alternating between Rio de Janeiro, home to his original training center at Tata Fight Team, and Florida, where he trains at American Top Team, Santos looks back on his upbringing and takes special pride in his achievements.
“I feel like an example – not only for having come this far, but for not surrendering, not being drawn to the ways of easy living, of drug dealing,” Santos recalled. “My father was a truck driver. My mother worked as a maid. I came from humble beginnings, and my life was not easy at all. So I try to set a good example for the kids.
“There is a lot of good coming from Cidade de Deus regardless of its negative media portrayal. I am just one in a large group of talented people who came from nowhere and made something out of it.”
Slowly but surely, “Marreta” (Portuguese for “sledgehammer”) is making a name for himself in the UFC. His list of highlight-reel moments include a devastating head-kick KO against Steve Bosse that earned the Brazilian muay Thai specialist a $50,000 bonus. After a shaky octagon start, with two losses in three bouts, he is now riding a three-fight winning streak – the most recent victory against the then-undefeated prospect Elias Theodorou.
“I feel like a much more well-rounded fighter,” Santos said. “Even my striking is better. I now feel more confident fighting guys of any style: wrestlers, strikers or jiu-jitsu specialists.
“Apart from ATT’s excellent wrestling credentials, there’s the tranquility. Rio can be very distracting. There’s too much traffic, the places are too far apart, and the day-to-day gets tiring. In Florida, I basically train and rest. I have great training partners in Rio too, but the main difference is being able to focus.”‘
Santos (12-3 MMA, 4-2 UFC) returns to the octagon on Saturday at UFC 198, against ex-Strikeforce champion Nate Marquardt (34-15-2 MMA, 12-8 UFC). The two square off at the UFC’s first event in a Brazilian stadium, at Curitiba’s Arena da Baixada, in a FOX Sports 1-televised preliminary card bout that precedes the pay-per-view main card.
Although Marquardt’s recent history has been inconsistent – he’s lost four of his last six bouts, with a two-loss streak snapped by a knockout win against C.B Dollaway – having felt underestimated himself, Santos knows better than to make the same mistake against his opponent.
“I don’t really fret over it, but I think I’ve been underestimated,” Santos said. “I can’t remember being the favorite walking into a fight in the UFC. Nate is not at the height of his career, but he’s got great jiu-jitsu. He’s a tough black belt with knockout power. The worst I could possibly do would be to underestimate him. Dollaway did that, he became negligent, and look what happened.
“He doesn’t seem too eager to go straight at his opponents, he tries to take them down. I think he will try to exchange with me for a bit, and, in that short window, I expect to get a knockout.”
Regardless of the outcome at UFC 198, Santos has been through enough to see himself as a winner already.
“I wouldn’t say my background made fighting easy, because it’s not easy for anyone,” Santos said. “But it gave me will power. It made me work harder. It prepared me to deal with whatever is thrown my way.
“Every time I fight, whenever I’m about to enter the octagon, I visualize everything I have been through, all that I had to overcome, and go in there that much stronger.”