American Ninja

The most common question I get from interviewers and fans is, “How or why did I get into MMA?”

I believe MMA got into me, for there is no disturbing reason as to why my job is to beat people up. I didn’t have a tough upbringing – I had quite the opposite, actually — and I don’t have any anger issues. Unlike some fi ghters, there was no daily violence that made me feel the need to know how to defend myself or infl uenced me to hurt other people. And to top it off, my parents have been married for more than 40 years!

I grew up in a nice, quiet town in Massachusetts and never needed for anything. I am one of six kids, and every day we were reminded that our comfortable lifestyle could only be achieved through hard work and that nothing worth anything ever comes easy. We were told we were not better than anyone else, and we were never allowed to say we were “rich.”

Although most people in our town are quite affl uent, I grew up very different from my friends. We were one of the few Latino families in town. Both my parents were born in Peru, South America, where although the rich are very rich, the poor can be desperately poor. Poverty cannot be ignored in Latin America because it is blatant. When I visited as a child, there were children much younger than myself working in the streets to help support their families. You may walk out of an elegant high-rise and buy a chocolate bar from a child who is barefoot and fi lthy as you get into your chauffeured car. You will pass shantytowns built with cardboard boxes as shelter for entire families on your way to the beautiful beaches and an old lady begging for food on your way to a country club. Our parents not only told us about this, but showed this to us. We were taught to appreciate everything we had because there are so many others who have so much less. Acting “spoiled” was a kiss of death in our household.

Although we are no doubt American, we have a very strong Peruvian infl uence in our daily lives. We were raised Roman Catholic, and as with many Latin families, religion is very prominent in our life. I consider myself bicultural and trilingual, and our culture is built on very strong ties with family. Enmeshment is normal for us as we share and experience one another’s pain and triumphs. We are very loving and warm with one another, and to this day my mom embarrasses me with Spanish lovey-dovey nicknames like “amorsito” (lovely) and “mi hijito querido” (my dear little son).

Coming from Peru, my dad was a fanatic about soccer, boxing, and the martial arts; and naturally, we became fascinated with them as well. I can still recall word for word his stories about watching Garrincha and Pele play in the South American Championships. He remembers Garrincha making the whole stadium laugh as he literally danced around the other players and made soccer pros look as if they never played soccer in all their lives. He would easily get the ball, dominate it, and cut right through the players. He either scored or passed the ball to Pele for the goal. My dad believed that Garrincha was an even greater player than Pele. And despite his deformed legs, he had talent, style, and fl air that could make you cheer, laugh, and even cry. He was a ballet dancer on the soccer pitch and played to entertain the fans. Sadly, he had a talent for self-destruction, and drinking got the best of him. In my father’s opinion, Garrincha could have been even greater than Pele, but he made wrong choices and did not take the game or the incredible opportunity given to him seriously enough. Pele was once asked, “How do you play so well?” I will never forget his reply. He said, “They gave me sneakers, a ball, and beautiful fi elds to play in. How can I not play well?” He was an all-time great, a legend, yet that answer made me realize how humble he is and how he knew to appreciate the opportunity given to him. He worked hard, played to win, and made the effort to always keep his image clean. These stories taught me that entertaining the crowd with great techniques and a little fl air will get them to remember you. It also taught me that talent will only take you so far, and that there is no substitute for hard work. Also, to take opportunities seriously and never let the party life get the better of you, as it did Garrincha. We will never know how far he could have gone with his career.

Into my teens, our parents enrolled us in many different sports. However, probably due to my father’s infl uence, the ones that were most exciting to me were soccer and martial arts. My father was a black belt in Judo and loved the technical aspect of the art. My dad worked a lot, but when he was home, we loved to listen to his stories and his jokes.

He told us about having to use Judo for defense a few times — at least one time was to protect my mother. He never claimed that he was the strongest one, but it was the technical strength he had in Judo that made him the winner each time. From hearing my father’s training stories and from incessantly watching Bruce Lee movies, the martial arts seemed magical to me. Our father told us about the great Judoka Kyuzo Mifune, who used to train himself to always land on his feet — by sleeping on a railing high off the fl oor. Mifune would throw opponents with ease and often defeated them despite a huge size disadvantage. His movements were always precise, effi cient, and elegant. These stories inspired me, mostly because my father marveled at and respected Mifune for his talent and his desire to perform his art well. He was the “little” guy who persistently worked on perfecting his technique up until his death. He was a 10thdegree grandmaster, which I consider to be equivalent to an “infi nity black belt.” Mifune was the master of masters. My father believed that passion and hard work defeats all, and Mifune certainly was a great example of this. He was my dad’s hero, like Royce Gracie (a modern-day Mifune) was a hero to me. I believed that technique would win over strength or size. I became obsessed with drilling BJJ movements and fi nding the easiest and most effi cient ways to fi nish an opponent. This mind-set helped me in my training and helped me obtain my black belt in 5 years.

The other sport my father loved was boxing. Having four other brothers made boxing night a family night. There was excitement in the air all day anticipating the matches while we made our bets on who was going to win. My father always rooted for the Latin boxer, and if that boxer was the underdog, all the better. He was 100% supporting that guy regardless of how many people told him that he would lose. I remember watching the epic fi rst bout between Meldrick Taylor and Julio Cesar Chavez. My father was convinced from beginning to end that Chavez would win the fi ght. Throughout the majority of the fi ght, however, Taylor was winning with fast punch combinations, beautiful footwork, and head movement. Being the relentless optimist, my dad told me that Chavez was just warming up. He was certain that Julio’s body shots would slow Taylor down in the end. Being a surgeon, my dad always paid attention to the little details. Body shots were not as exciting to watch, but my dad told me that Chavez kills the body fi rst and then takes the head out. I was sure that my dad was too overly optimistic and biased, because from what I could see, Taylor was winning just about every round. My dad just kept nodding his head and told me to pay attention as Taylor would surely fade. Every shot Chavez landed got an “ooh” and an “ahh” from my dad and made him sit up a little straighter while either raising his fi sts in the air or rubbing his palms together. As kids, we would laugh at this spectacle. Who am I kidding? We still laugh at this spectacle.

Taylor’s speed and athleticism impressed me much more than Chavez’ did, but by the last
round Chavez was defi nitely doing better by landing more shots. He was running out of time, however, until he landed a devastating combination that hurt Taylor in the 12th round. He then followed up with another brutal combination that put Taylor down and forced the referee to stop the fi ght. Chavez remained undefeated, and my father got off the couch and jumped up and down, saying “I told you! I told you!” I remember being in awe of Chavez after that performance. My father pointed out that Chavez landed fewer punches but made every one of them count. He said Taylor had to break because Chavez’s pressure and will to win was just too great. I was only 13 years-old, but I realized that fi ghting had a real strategy. Having the patience and discipline to keep going and break an opponent down has stayed with me to this day.

A real fi ghter’s will and faith should never be broken as long as there is time on the clock. When I fi ght, I always prepare to fi ght until the very last second of the last round. I learned through my father’s analysis of each fi ght that you must fi ght with your technique, your brain, and your heart. As a family, we would cheer when our favorites won and would also jump up and down with our fi sts in the air, saying “I told you! I told you!” when our guy won. We talked about the fi ghts over and over late into the night, and I believe that at early ages we learned to see boxers, not just as fi ghters, but as intelligent and analytical athletes.

My father’s stories and lessons really motivated me tremendously. His infl uence helped mold me into who I am as a man and as a fi ghter, fi ghting for the UFC. Each fi ght helps me understand more and more about my will, determination, persistence, ambition, and much more. I consider my father a very intelligent and accomplished human being. I am proud of my father, and if he thought these athletes were great, then I want him to think the same about me. I always dreamed about having someone tell stories about me the way my father did about others. These athletes made millions of spectators laugh, cheer, and even cry with their performances. Who wouldn’t want to do the same? My father’s stories and the example that he set for my family taught me that passion, determination, and hard work will make you a man. I am hoping it will also one day make me a champion.

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