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The Bad Boys (and a few girls) from Brazil: How Rio came to rule ultimate fighting

GlobalPost's Simeon Tegel visits the Brazilian gym that's a training ground for some of the world's toughest cage fighters.

striking much more quickly, and become a complete fighter.”

Pederneiras, who permits no drinking or partying among his proteges — other than right after a victory — then adds that a fighter has to have “heart,” that intangible competitive drive that can manifest in many ways, including a through-the-roof pain threshold that allows a combatant to fight back from hellish beatings.

“More than the ability to deal out a thrashing, the ability to take it is what makes a fighter,” he says.

I will learn this lesson the hard way.

The following week, I'm watching the Nova Uniao pros go through their paces in muay thai — the full-contact martial art from Thailand that combines Western boxing with kicks, elbows and knees.

As they crash set combinations into each other, I felt frustration at missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train with them. And relief.

I dabble in muay thai and was supposed to have joined in the class — until I tore an intercostal muscle in my first ever BJJ class a couple of days earlier, while attempting to scramble out of an arm-bar. The pain comes and goes, but at its most intense feels like I am being stabbed in the ribs, and my movement is seriously impaired.

A couple of gentle finger-pokes is all it would take to TKO me.

Yet, incredibly, several fighters tell me they would train through the injury, at least if they had a big payday coming up. “Your family has to eat,” one of them says matter-of-factly.

Although Nova Uniao’s home to several household names plus one global megastar, Aldo, most of its team members earn a modest income and still live in the favelas where they grew up.

They rely on a small stipend, usually around 800 Brazilian reais ($400) a month from the gym. Anything they earn on top of that either comes from their fight purses or sponsorship.

In return, the team gets a cut, typically 10 percent, of the purse, and is able to attract paying customers — amateur weekend warriors like me — who sign up for jiujitsu or other combat classes.

That business model now functions at fight gyms from Long Beach to Helsinki. Yet many still view MMA as a barbaric throwback to the dark ages. In some places, notably the state of New York, MMA events are even banned.

“It is stupid. We are stereotyped by people who know nothing about us, or how technical this sport is,” says Gadelha, who is studying for a law degree in her spare time.

“They don’t know about our discipline, or that we have a philosophy, or that we train three or four times a day. We are not aggressive outside the gym.”

She’s not kidding about the fighters’ dedication.

Peter Sobotta and Ryu Masters spar. Courtesy of Connection Rio.

As Dantas continues to warm up, the room slowly fills with more athletes, burly, tattooed modern-day gladiators with lean, chiseled features and more than the odd cauliflower ear. Many faces are familiar to me from the long hours I've frittered away watching UFC undercards.

They josh among themselves as they stretch and wrap their hands ahead of the marathon sparring session.

Nova Uniao is famous as a small fighter’s gym, with most of its members competing at lightweight, 155 pounds, or welterweight, 170 pounds. But several of these men are huge, and appear more like light-heavyweights.

One Danilo Pereira — his nickname Moto Serra, or “chainsaw,” tattooed across his back — tells me he weighs 215 pounds but will fight at the 180-pound middleweight limit in five weeks.

The last 8 or 10 pounds of that will be sweated off in the gym or sauna in the final 24 hours before the weigh-in. But the rest will be worked off the hard way, through extra sparring sessions and by whittling food down to the bare minimum.

Yet there’s no fat that I can see on Pereira, whose physique is reminiscent of a young Mike Tyson. He looks like he could run through a brick wall.

After some brief stretching, the sparring begins. Like in most real MMA bouts, the fighters start cautiously, feeling out their opponents, searching for openings, and testing their range and timing.

But the intensity quickly ramps up.

Soon I am surrounded by 50 of the world’s hardest men — and three of its hardest women — taking turns to go at it tooth and nail.

Beads of sweat fly as punches connect. Grunts echo as takedowns see fighters smashed into the mat.

Once on the ground, the combatants wrestle for control of each other’s limbs, using chokes, arm-locks or leg-locks, combining the precision of an orthopedic surgeon with the crushing power of a boa constrictor.

At the other end of the gym, Gadelha is mixing it up with some of the male strawweights and featherweights.

One fighter is knocked out in the ring just a couple of feet behind me — a common occurrence here, apparently. His teammates apply an icepack to the back of his neck as the sparring continues.

Meanwhile, with a quiet, unassuming presence, Aldo — his UFC belt apparently forgotten at the door — joins in the sparring as though he were just another kid hungry for his first win.

More than most sports, outsize egos tend to land hard in MMA.

And if there were any doubt about the depth of talent at Nova Uniao, it’s quickly dispelled as Aldo, one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, is tested by each of his training partners, with more than one backing him up against the wall.

After the session, Pederneiras tells me what must be a truism for any sport: The only path to success is to simulate competition conditions in training.

At Nova Uniao, that means three-hour sparring sessions every Tuesday and Thursday. On top of that, there are grueling, daily classes in submission wrestling, BJJ, muay thai and fitness training.

Fighters either thrive or drop out.

One new team member who looks like he’s doing the former is Torryn Heffelfinger, 26, an ex-wrestling captain at Indiana's Manchester College and a Michigan Golden Gloves semifinalist, one of just a handful of foreigners accepted at Nova Uniao.

Torryn 'Falcon' Heffelfinger at Upper Flamengo, courtesy of Connection Rio.

“I wouldn’t want to be behind a desk eight hours a day,” he tells me as he nurses a cut under his right eye. “This is never easy, but it is the only time I feel I am doing what I am meant to be doing.”

Gadelha adds: “The fight is never as bad [as the training]. In training, you get hurt, you see a lot of blood. You have to train two months to fight 15 minutes. That is what makes you ready to do anything inside the cage.”