Glover Teixeira: Connecticut's Brazilian "Rocky"

 

With a determined scowl, Glover Teixeira stepped into the cage for the biggest fight of his life. It was Sept. 4 and the Danbury resident and native of Brazil was squaring off against Ryan Bader, a veteran Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter. Bader had won 15 fights, seven by knockout, while fighting for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the largest MMA promotion company in the world and the sport’s equivalent of Major League Baseball.

The fight took place in front of a packed crowd at the 25,000-seat Mineirinho Arena in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. If Teixeira won this fight he would likely get a chance to face Jon Jones for the light heavyweight championship.

Winning the championship is a dream that has driven Teixeira for twelve long years.

Twelve years of hard training on dusty wrestling mats in dingy Danbury gyms that looked like something out of a Martin Scorsese film. Twelve years of intense conditioning, struggling to push his body to the limit while absorbing the teachings of the multiple fighting disciplines of judo, jiu jitsu, boxing, kickboxing and wrestling. Twelve years of extended car rides to regional competitions where there was little fanfare but plenty of pain.

Then there was the real sacrifice: immigration battles and three years of reluctant exile back in his native country, away from his wife and the opportunity to legitimately pursue his dream.

In October, Connecticut became the 49th state to legalize mixed martial arts, although the state’s casinos—on tribal lands—have long hosted MMA bouts. The sometimes-bloody sport allows for full-contact punching, kicking, grappling and wrestling techniques. Critics of the recent legalization argued the sport is too brutal. Supporters countered that it is no more brutal or dangerous than football or boxing, and its athletes actually suffer fewer hits to the head. However, the Teixeira-Bader fight showed just how intense the sport can be.

In the cage at the start of the fight, Teixeira moved toward Bader. His strategy was to push Bader backward and avoid being taken to the ground, but he pushed too far forward, leaving himself open to a hard punch from Bader. Off balance and temporarily dazed, Teixeira stumbled to the ground.

Thousands of miles away in Connecticut, Teixeira’s friend, training partner and former jiu jitsu instructor, Luigi Mondelli, watched in dismay. Mondelli, who teaches martial arts at American Top Team Connecticut in Danbury, normally serves as corner coach for Teixeira. He couldn’t travel to Brazil for this fight and watching it on TV was difficult. But Mondelli was confident that his friend would not fold in the face of adversity. Teixeira had been on the floor before and he was used to picking himself up and pushing forward despite obstacles.
 

 

Rags to Punches

Teixeira, 34, was born in Sobrália, a small Brazilian town in the state of Minas Gerais. His neighborhood had no traffic signals and there was no electricity in many of the homes. In 1999, when he was 19, he immigrated to America to help support his family. It took him 48 days to travel illegally from Sobrália to Danbury, where he had friends and a place to stay.

“I liked America from the first day I got here,” recalls Teixeira during a recent break from training. “I got here in March and it was very cold, and it snowed the first week I was here, but everything was amazing—I never saw snow before.”

When he’s not traveling, Teixeira trains at the American Top Team Connecticut facility, a spartan dojo located in a warehouse-like building on an out-of-the-way Danbury street. It was here that Teixeira honed his jiu jitsu technique under Mondelli’s tutelage beginning in 2003. It’s also where Teixeira mentors fellow UFC fighter Caio Magalhaes, a younger middleweight fighter from Brazil.

At 6 feet 2 inches tall Teixeira is big, and his shaved head and deadpan facial expression make him look all the more intimidating when he steps into the cage. But outside the netting, his face softens and you get a glimpse of the humble and friendly man his friends know, the one—who despite his current superstar stature in the sport—continues to mentor young fighters like Magalhaes, putting as much energy into their training as his own.

Soon after arriving in Danbury, Teixeira got a job at a local landscaping company, working grueling 10- to 12-hour days. But he had dreams beyond the world of lawn work. Inspired by boxers such as Mike Tyson and early mixed martial arts fighters like Royce Gracie and Chuck Liddell, Teixeira set his sights on entering the UFC cage and eventually winning the championship belt.

At the time, MMA was a relatively new and controversial sport in America that grew out of the fighting traditions of Brazil. In the 1900s, Brazil circuses featured sideshow combat competitions called vale tudo, or “anything goes.” The vale-tudo tradition was brought to the United States in 1993 with the founding of the UFC by the Gracie family, the unofficial royal family of Brazilian martial arts that also started Brazilian jiu jitsu. In its early days the sport pitted experts in different martial art disciplines against one another to see which discipline was the most effective—kickboxers would square off against wrestlers, jiu jitsu experts would face karate masters.

When the UFC started there were minimal rules and no weight divisions. As the sport evolved, the term mixed martial arts was coined, other MMA companies formed and participants began mastering multiple martial arts disciplines. Ultimately, more safety rules were put in place and weight divisions were added.

In late 2001 Teixeira began taking jiu jitsu classes from John Pereira at the Danbury War Memorial, an old-fashioned community gym and basketball court. Ed Apicella, a Waterbury police captain, was a jiu jitsu classmate and sparring partner who helped Teixeira with his early wrestling technique.

“One of the first things he ever said to me was, ‘My dream one day is to be in the UFC, I’d like to be a champion,’” Apicella says. “You meet a lot of guys who say that, a lot of guys who perceive themselves to be tough. It was different with Glover because when Glover was saying it, it wasn’t like a boast. He was saying it like ‘I’m going to put in the work; I’m getting there one day.’”

Teixeira had his first fight in June 2002, just a few months after he began training.

“I didn’t do good,” Teixeira recalls with a laugh. “I lost in the second round, but I got experience.”

Around the same time he met future wife Ingrid Peterson, a Connecticut native. “We met at the gym,” she recalls. “He helped me with a machine.” She was intrigued by his desire to be an MMA fighter, and in all the years they’ve been together, she can count on one hand the number of Teixeira’s fights she has missed. But watching her husband work isn’t always easy. “I don’t want to see the love of my life getting beat up in a cage,” she says. “But he doesn’t lose very often, so that helps.”

After his first few fights Teixeira sought out Bennie Little Jr., a three-time world kickboxing champion who owns the Connecticut Academy of Kickboxing in Danbury. When they met, Teixeira told Little he wanted to be the world champion. Little decided to put those words to the test.

“I challenged him to come in at 5 a.m. every morning to see if he was really serious,” Little says. “He was. He came every day—snow, sleet, hail, rain, it didn’t make a difference. That kid was there at 5 o’clock in the morning with me training. That’s how I knew he was dedicated.”

It wasn’t long before MMA guru John Hackleman invited him to train in California with him and Chuck Liddell, a UFC Hall of Famer and one of Teixeira’s heroes.

Under their tutelage, Teixeira’s star began to rise in the fighting world. After racking up a 7-2 MMA record, the UFC was eager to sign him, but because he was in the U.S. illegally, the organization could not offer him a contract. To properly sort out his immigration status, he returned to Brazil in 2008.

It was a bitter disappointment for Teixeira and his fans. Some sports analysts predicted the immigration delays would be a knockout blow for his UFC career, but they underestimated the fighter’s passion.
 

 

Brazilian Rocky

Having to move back to Brazil for three years was difficult for Teixeira and his wife.

“I was working here and he was over there struggling,” Ingrid recalls. She says they consoled themselves with jokes about how it all would make great drama when they sold the rights to his life story.

“It was hard to stay away from my wife and stay away from my dream of fighting in the UFC,” Teixeira recalls. “But I knew it would come sooner or later and I knew I had to keep working hard and keep my head up and fight and train.”

He lived in Rio de Janiero and kept fighting, winning 10 bouts while he was there. On Dec. 23, 2011—Ingrid’s birthday—Teixeira was approved for a Permanent Resident Card, and officially returned to America in January. Shortly thereafter, he signed with the UFC.

Naysayers said he couldn’t make up the three years he had lost, that his entrance into the UFC came too late, that now approaching his mid-30s, he was too old. Teixeira ignored them.

“I believe in my hard work and I believe in my techniques,” he says. “People said that I was the best, that I was going to get the title in a few months, while some were like ‘He doesn’t deserve to be here, he’s not going to make it.’ I did not listen to any of it. I was just so happy to be there and to fight.”

When he stepped into the ring for his first official UFC fight against Kyle Kingsbury in May 2012, it took him less than two minutes to prove the doubters wrong—he got Kingsbury to submit in one minute and 53 seconds. He stymied critics again that October when he defeated Fábio Maldonado in the second round. Teixeira continued to silence his detractors by dominating his next two fights with his signature hard-hitting ability and advanced grappling technique.

“He came back from Brazil such a completely dominating fighter, almost like a completely different person,” says Apicella, Teixeira’s friend. “It was like he was making no mistakes.” And that domination has continued.

Despite Teixeira’s ascension in the UFC, friends say he remains the same humble person.

“He’s a true gentleman,” Apicella says. “He’s one of those guys where he can be training for a fight, but if you call him and say ‘I need help moving my couch,’ he’ll drop what he’s doing and help you.”

“He’s a really nice guy and a great member of the community,” says Thomas Leaf, an attorney who has written about Teixeira for the Tribuna, a Danbury newspaper printed in English, Spanish and Portuguese. “’The Brazilian Rocky’ is how some people describe him and I think that’s a nice way to put it.”

Teixeira also has become a spokesperson for the sport. Earlier this year he testified before the Connecticut General Assembly in support of HB-5277, which was signed into law by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in July and legalizes and regulates MMA fighting in Connecticut. State Sen. Andres Ayala (D-Bridgeport), who sponsored the bill, believes legalizing MMA will bring revenue and jobs to the state, and will lead to major events at arenas like Bridgeport’s Webster Bank Arena and the XL Center in Hartford. He says the sport is not as dangerous as critics claim. “If you look at the instances of severe injuries, there’s nothing glaring to say MMA is a more brutal sport than hockey, football or boxing,” he says.

Teixeira agrees, but it can still be hard for his family to see him fight. His mother doesn’t watch his fights, and in classic parental fashion has asked him to retire after winning the championship.

It was better that Teixeira’s mother wasn’t watching back on Sept. 4 at the fight in Brazil when Teixeira was knocked to the ground in the first round. Ingrid was there, however, and saw her husband down. But she knew he could come back.

“I always have faith that he knows what he’s doing,” she says.

“Glover is not afraid of anyone and that’s half the fight already,” says Bennie Little, Teixeira’s old kickboxing coach.

Though down against Bader, Teixeira quickly pushed himself off the mat. At the elite level fighters don’t make many mistakes, but they do have tendencies that can be exploited by carefully studying an opponent’s techniques.

“It’s a chess game,” Mondelli says. “Glover thinks really clearly during the fight. He doesn’t get desperate; he can always regroup and put together a strategy in a short period of time.”

Teixeira knows that many fighters get excited when they knock down their opponent and that  they can be careless as they come in for the knockout blow, with victory in sight. As Bader approached, Teixeira was waiting.

“Glover knew exactly how Bader would come to finish the fight,” Mondelli says.

Bader left himself open and Teixeira exploited that opening with a punch combination that Mondelli had witnessed his student use many times before in training. Bader was now the one on the canvas, and Teixeira moved in. The fight was soon stopped—with Teixeira’s arm raised in victory.

That win means Teixeira’s next fight will finally be his long-coveted title shot against world champion Jon Jones. (Originally scheduled for February, it’s been postponed and will likely take place in March.) Some say Jones is the best pound-for-pound fighter the sport has ever seen. To beat him, Teixeira says he needs to push the tempo of the fight. “I have to be aggressive and get in his face and push him, push him to his limit,” he says.

But it’s more than mechanics that will give Teixeira a chance against Jones. “Jon Jones has never been on his back, or if he ever has, it’s been for a short period of time,” Mondelli says.

Teixeira, on the other hand, knows what it’s like to take one on the chin, knows what it’s like to pick himself up off the mat and keep pushing forward come what may, both in and outside the cage. And although he hasn’t fulfilled his goal of winning a championship (yet), he is living his full-contact version of the American dream. “It’s just a great thing that’s happened to me,” he says with a smile—win, lose or draw.

 

Glover Teixeira: Connecticut's Brazilian "Rocky"

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