What Junior Cigano had to say about his title-snatching triumph over Cain Cigano, GRACIEMAG.com readers already know. But what about what went on before that?
In 2007, during my first interview with Cigano (check out the never-before scene photo gallery below), the future UFC champ was getting his feet wet in MMA at Brazilian events. He was already training with the Nogueira brothers and beasts like Fabio Maldonado; with Luiz Alves, Amaury Bitetti, Kelson Pinto and Rodrigo Artilheiro overseeing his development. The Team Nogueira training center was still under construction, and they’d throw down in a ring set up at a friend of Minotauro’s house in the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. Modestly dressed and just as laid back as he is today, Cigano was a rookie full of dreams and hope. The former waiter, who left the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina for the northeastern state of Bahia, put all his chips on a career in fighting.
Possessed of natural talent for the trade, it took him just six years of training to go from rock bottom to the pinnacle of professional fighting, becoming heavyweight champion of the world. On the way, he had the chance to coach a team on “The Ultimate Fighter” and win the first UFC fight ever broadcast on network television in the USA and on Brazil’s most popular TV station. According to UFC president Dana White, it was the most important fight in the promotion’s history.
Both GRACIEMAG.com and GRACIEMAG kept up with the course of Cigano’s career up close. What we didn’t get to see, the fighter revealed on our pages. Check out a bit of what he had to say.
What was your childhood in Santa Catarina like?
It was very modest. My father was a mechanic and my mother a cleaning lady. My parents split up early and my two brothers and I stayed with my mother. There are five of us in all, but the other two are stepbrothers from my father’s side. My brothers were younger than me and my mother had to be away the whole day, so we had to get by on our own. And what did you do to “get by” before becoming a fighter?
And what did you do to “get by” before becoming a fighter?
I sold popsicles, delivered newspapers, worked as a bricklayer’s assistant… I did a lot of things. Then I went to Bahia and worked as a waiter for a while. That’s where I met my wife, Vilsana Piccoli. We had a toy store. After a while, the shop started doing kind of poorly and that was when I decided to drop everything and just train.
Fighting made a definitive change in your life. These days you’re known for your knockouts, but the truth is that you got your start in Jiu-Jitsu, isn’t it?
My first contact with martial arts was when I was twenty-one, in Jiu-Jitsu. I worked out at a gym that had Jiu-Jitsu classes and I decided to practice with Professor Iuri Calton. It was really cool from the start, I learned quickly and enjoyed practice. I trained with a group that was already doing MMA and Iuri invited me to participate. I liked it so much I continued.
What about boxing, how did you get started in that?
After my first MMA fight, after practicing Jiu-Jitsu for a little over a year, I started doing boxing. I had won my first fight by knockout, soccer kicks were still allowed then! Iuri introduced me to Luiz Dórea and I was well received.
So I started practicing boxing from Monday to Saturday and the academy had the greatest champions in Brazil. It was really exciting; everyone was really dedicated and wanted to fight, too. That kept me going and I progressed in boxing really quickly. Now it’s my mainstay, the weapon I rely on and can decide a fight with.
We spoke of two important people in your life, Iuri and Dórea. But the Nogueira brothers are also key. How did you meet them?
First contact was made through Iuri Calton. They’re from Bahia, they go to Salvador a lot and needed people to train with. Iuri called me to let me know they were going to train at the gym and I was already a big fan of theirs, so I rushed over! I remember training with Rogério that time. I was still a white belt but I was always strong, so I could at least help out a bit. When I met Dórea, who already worked with the Nogueira’s, we started talking about going to Rio de Janeiro to train.
What was it like to drop everything in Bahia and go to Rio to train with some of the biggest MMA stars around?
That phase was really heavy. My wife believed in me and financed me. She said, “Go after your dream.” Now I’m very well positioned in the MMA world, thank God, but I had to be really dedicated to get here. It was rough, I didn’t have much experience in the martial arts and things happened quickly. Before I knew it, I was training with the Nogueiras and the rest — guys who were major stars. I didn’t have enough technique or physical conditioning. My body was definitely not used to it. I got really beat up, it was painful! There were days I couldn’t sleep from so much pain. I had to be at training the next day, and I’d go. I didn’t want to squander the chance, I had to make the most of it. I wanted to help in any way I could and I learned the whole time. I quickly became a real fighter, but it was painful. Things are rough, but with determination and patience, opportunities arise, and I always made as much of them as I could.
Then came the UFC …
Right, and my life changed. Now I have unbelievable prospects, my dreams changed, the way I struggle in life and even the way I think about certain things are different. It was a huge blessing. I made it through high school, but I worked in professions where there was no upward mobility. I managed to do well in sport, a really tough area to work in in Brazil. You have to be a warrior and be really dedicated. I can’t even believe my life now. Now I am financially stable and I believe everything will get even better.