Thiago Alves has an insatiable hunger to be the best.
This is what the good life looks like. It’s perfect day in South Florida – sunny, not too humid – and Thiago Alves tooling around town in his immaculate white Range Rover. He’s wearing designer sunglasses. He’s sitting on twenty-two inch Asanti rims. He weaves through traffic and sings absently along with Beyonce on the radio, glancing back and forth between the road and the text message, one of dozens every hour, that he’s sending on his cell phone.
He cuts someone off, a guy in a tiny Toyota. He doesn’t notice until the guy is livid in the rearview mirror, laying into his horn. This guy clearly does not know he’s honking at the UFC’s number one welterweight contender, the man who will soon step into the Octagon to fight for a world title, the man who gets goose bumps just thinking about the thrill of fight night and the ineffable feeling of punching another human being in the face. “Relax, bro,” Alves says, more to me than the angry man behind us. “I’ve never been in an accident. Not one.”
After this trip, it seems to me like a minor miracle, but not to Alves. There isn’t much about his own life that surprises him. The fact that he came to Florida from Brazil six years ago without money or even a basic grasp of the English language, and yet now finds himself a twenty-five-yearold pro athlete whose biggest day-to-day problem is fi guring out which of his three cars ( the Rover, the Maserati or the Infi niti) he wants to drive to practice—for some reason that doesn’t seem unusual or even unexpected to him.
“The Maserati, that was from a sponsor,” he says. “They were like, ‘here’s a car.’ ” Just as easy as that. It fell right into his lap, as many things seem to. A pro fighting career, money, women, a title shot.
At least that’s how it looks from a distance. It’s what you might think if you saw him cruising the Florida beach town streets as if he owned them, sliding into a parking spot and jumping out of his Range Rover in a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals. Maybe you’re on your lunch break from a job you hate. Maybe he’s just cut you off in traffi c. Maybe it’s already been a bad day for you, and then you see him, the wealthy young athlete at rest. Maybe it makes you think about how some guys have it so easy. Maybe you just think you know what you’re talking about.
“He said he would be here at noon,” says Andre “Benkei” Ferreira, Alves’ strength and conditioning coach. He smiles and shakes his head. It’s a little after two o’clock in the afternoon, and still Alves hasn’t made an appearance at the state-of-the-art, 20,000 square foot Prime- Time Sports Performance center in Boca Raton. This comes as no surprise to “Benkei,” a middle-aged Brazilian with the easy air of a man who wants to like you, but will nonetheless take exactly zero shit from you if you cross him.
“I just went ahead and started working with (Gesias) “JZ” (Cavalcante), because I knew he’d never be here on time,” he says, like it’s all some big joke.
He isn’t angry or even annoyed. Alves’ chronic lateness is one of the facets of his personality that his friends have all gotten used to by now. They don’t have much choice. Even by the relatively lax Brazilian standards regarding time and punctuality, Alves has a problem.
“Benkei” finishes his workout with Cavalcante, who is left covered in sweat and looking like he would puke if only it didn’t require so much energy, and still Alves is nowhere to be found. A high school football team wanders in and begins stretching out. A few teenage girls giggle through drills with a set of hurdles. People are beginning and ending their workouts in the time it takes Alves just to send a text message (naturally) explaining that he’ll be a little late. When he fi nally shows up around three o’clock, Cavalcante looks over at him and shrugs.
“You see, by Thiago’s time he’s only an hour late,” he laughs. Cavalcante learned how to deal with “Thiago’s time.” If he needs Alves to be somewhere at noon, he just tells him ten a.m. It’s a system that worked well, he says, until Alves fi gured out all the various training schedules for himself. Now he’s much harder to fool.
He walks in to the training center and stands at the edge of the indoor basketball court, watching a high school kid practice his jump shot with an expensive-looking and altogether unnecessary machine feeding him passes. There’s a batting cage on the other side of the court, and next door an expansive weight room sits beside a mini football fi eld complete with artifi – cial turf. Next to that, there’s a fenced in area for grappling mats and heavy bags. This place exudes money. It is for serious, professional athletes, or else the children of rich people who see no problem writing a check if it gives their kid the edge he needs to start on the varsity squad this year. The clientele seems equally split between these two demographics, and there is no confusing one for the other.
“Yeah, I hate this place,” Alves says as he changes into his workout gear. He’s only slightly kidding.
Once the training session starts you can see why he was in no hurry to get here. He and “Benkei” seem to have come to an agreement regarding their time together: “Benkei” won’t say anything when Alves shows up three hours late, and Alves won’t say anything about how much he despises the workouts. He doesn’t have to.
“Right now we’re doing all power training,” Benkei says as Alves begins a set of deadlifts, his breath hissing out through his teeth between reps. “It’s easy for him, but he hates it. We’re working on his strength, helping his body with recruiting muscle fi bers. You can get that through genetics or you can get it through training. Of course,” he pauses and nods at Alves, “it helps to have both.”
He does twelve, five-minute rounds, moving from one station to the next. He rests for forty-fi ve seconds between each round, then it’s back to the beginning for more deadlifts, more crunches, more shadow boxing, more everything.
“He’s made for this,” Ferreira says, watching Alves explode through another set. At around 5’10” and currently hovering in the low 200s, “Pitbull” is an appropriate nickname for a guy who is all compact muscle packed on to a wide frame. He got the moniker after a Muay Thai fi ght as a teenager. It was his fi rst tournament and he knocked out two opponents in one night. He’d been so nervous beforehand that he couldn’t eat. As soon as it was over he realized he was starving, so he ran backstage and began eating with his hands. His coach pointed out that since he fought like a pit bull and then ate like one, the nickname was only fitting.
“I thought (to myself), you’re going to give a fi fteen year-old kid a nickname like ‘The Pitbull’?” Alves recalls now. “That’s too cocky. But it stuck and I got used to it. The way I’m shaped, my ears, I do kind of look like a pitbull. Everything happens for a reason, I guess. You become what you want.”
This is one maxim that Alves repeats often, in different forms, referring to every aspect of his life. If you want something enough, you can simply will it into existence. It’s even inked on his body in the form of a Bible verse, Philippians 4:13: All things are possible through God who gives me strength.
Further down on his arm there is another tattoo, a baby wrestling a koi fi sh that is as big as he is. It comes from a Japanese samurai legend that Benkei is fond of telling him. As a child, a great warrior was said to have fought and overpowered a koi fish, an animal revered among the Japanese for its strength and stoic courage even under the knife. When the boy became a man, he fought another battle, this time against a dragon.
Sure enough, the dragon is also inked on Alves’ forearm. How fi tting, considering the task ahead of him. And just in case it’s not symbolic enough for you, look closer. The dragon portion of the tattoo, Alves points out, tracing the bare lines with his fi ngertip, isn’t quite finished yet.
For a place that is nothing less than an institution in the mixed martial arts world, American Top Team sure doesn’t look like much from the outside. Just another faceless building in another industrial park in Coconut Creek, Florida. You might drive right by it looking for the Sawgrass Parkway and never have any idea about what’s happening inside.
It’s a typical Wednesday night here. The place is humming with the constant din of punching bags rattling and round timers beeping. You look on the mat and see a gi jiu-jitsu class that includes guys like Luigi Fioravanti and Carmelo Marrero working alongside no one you’ve ever heard of. The air is heavy with the smell of stale sweat, mildew and testosterone.
For Alves, tonight is Muay Thai night – his favorite. He’s locked in the cage with kickboxing coach Remy Bonnel, a lanky Frenchman who doesn’t say a word to Alves as they mix up the fourand- fi ve-punch combos with front kicks and knees. The way they move wordlessly from one thing to the next tells you how often they’ve done this lately. After five hard rounds, Alves is still raring to go. It’s Bonnel who has to tell him to back off.
“This far out from the fight, he is already doing so much,” Bonnel explains in his heavily accented English. “I don’t want him to overtrain for this fi ght.” When asked if he thinks it’s Alves’ stand-up game that will make the difference against St. Pierre, Bonnel shrugs. “That guy,” he says, referring to St. Pierre, “there’s really nowhere that he’s very weak.”
This is something that gets repeated by all the ATT personnel, from Bonnel to head trainer Ricardo Liborio to Alves himself. No one is expecting GSP to be anything other than superb. But that doesn’t make him unbeatable.
“I don’t get caught up in thinking about what people say. ‘Oh, he’s so great. He’s too much.’ He’s just a human being,” says Alves. “He’s got two arms, two legs. He’s fought a lot of great guys, beat a lot of guys, but he’s never fought nobody like me. The same guys he beat, I beat too, and in a worse fashion. They say GSP’s the best. I say, let’s see. He’s the champion, but he hasn’t fought me yet. If he goes through me, then I’ll say he’s the best.”
For Alves the title fi ght with St. Pierre is the climax of a journey that began ten years ago, when he first started competing seriously in Brazil at age fi fteen. He’d found his way into a Muay Thai gym a couple years earlier and fallen in love. He stayed away from jiu-jitsu at first. In Fortaleeza, his hometown, the jiu-jitsu guys were the bullies – arrogant and always looking to prove something. The one and only street fi ght of Alves’ life came when he tried to help a friend who found himself in an altercation with some jiu-jitsu toughs from the neighborhood. “One of them hit me in the back of the head,” he remembers now. “I turned around and knocked him out.”
Even with his two brothers – one older, a manager at a Bank of Brazil location, and one younger, who helps run the family- owned bakery – he never got into too many tussles.
“I fought my older brother twice. I couldn’t hit him in the face. I just couldn’t. After I started training we never fought again.”
When his fi ght training began in earnest, Alves, a self-described “momma’s boy,” finally began taking steps toward independence. While his mother dropped his brothers off at school every day until they graduated, he got up early to take the bus. He immersed himself in the monastic life of a young fighter – eat, sleep, go to school, train, repeat. He got down on his knees every night and prayed for God to help him become the best fighter in the world. It wasn’t a dream, because he knew he was going to make it. He just didn’t know how.
It wasn’t until he moved to Florida at nineteen years old and joined American Top Team that he fi gured it out. This was how: By battling the monsters he found in the gym every day. By forcing himself to get better or get crushed in the process. He had a little money coming in. He managed to send some home to his mother. Suddenly what she’d regarded as a slightly crazy pursuit seemed somewhat rational after all.
His father was a different story. He’d been in and out of Alves’ life for years. He describes him now as “a little crazy, doing his own thing.” Only after he phrases it this way does he appear to see a parallel.
Once the Muay Thai training is over for the night, Alves looks as if he hasn’t quite had enough. He paces back and forth on the mat while some of the school’s more star struck-prone young students eye him from inside the ATT weight room, which is really just a small, fenced-in section of free weights and benches. Kind of like prison gyms in the movies, only much higher end.
Alves stretches out on the mat, slowing his breathing and gradually cooling down. After days like this it’s hard to see how he has the energy for hitting up the South Florida night spots he’s known for frequenting, places like the Blue Martini in Boca Raton, where ordinarily he might go just to catch ladies’ night, which happens to be tonight. But after a grueling session with Benkei and then Muay Thai training, who has it in them to head to a club? “You know, I wonder the same thing,” Alves laughs. “I don’t know, bro. I surprise myself sometimes.”
These days, it’s getting a little harder to enjoy a night on the town. For one thing, he has a girlfriend in college in Orlando. But for another, even if he were to strike up a conversation with a pretty girl in a nightclub, there always seems to be some drunken fight fan butting in, shaking his hand, asking him if he’s “going to kill GSP.” “I’m like, yeah, man. I’m going to kill him. But not tonight.”
He loves to eat. He’s not afraid to admit it. With two training sessions a day, why should he be? After a morning of grappling practice, the only thought on his mind is lunch. He takes a quick, obligatory trip to the chiropractor’s offi ce for a little maintenance work on the body that he puts through so much habitual abuse, and then it’s off to find a suitable place to get a bite to eat. He settles on some Asian food, though even sitting down for a meal is getting more complicated now that he’s slowly becoming famous.
“What’s your name?” the college-aged kid working the register asks sheepishly after Alves places his order. Right away he knows where this is going. Whatever hopes he had of ordering his Asian cuisine in anonymity have now evaporated. Inevitably, when someone recognizes him these days they can’t help but mention the upcoming title fight. And when people mention the champ, they always say it the same way:– GSP – pronounced with a certain reverence, as if they’re talking about a deadly disease. Alves shares their respect, but not their awe.
“He’s a really smart guy. What he does is break his opponents mentally. I think he’s going to try and stand up with me because I’m a striker. Then when I get into it he’s going to try and take me down. But it doesn’t matter what he does. I’m going to knock him out,” Alves says. “He could be great. He could be the best. But everything I’ve been through in my life to get to this point, it was for a reason.”
When Alves says “everything”, that covers a lot of territory: his upbringing in Brazil; the beatings he took against much older, more mature fi ghters as he came up in the local Muay Thai circuit; leaving home for America; and of course, his time in the UFC, which has been a learning experience all its own. What stands out as a turning point for him is his suspension in 2006 for testing positive for a banned diuretic that he used to help him make weight for a bout against Tony DeSouza.
It’s a bit of a touchy subject for Alves. Maintaining his weight, sticking to a diet, it’s undoubtedly what he hates most about the life of a fighter and perhaps the only part of a fi ghter’s life that he actually struggles with, as evidenced by his inability to make weight for his recent bout with Matt Hughes. The one aspect of an eventual retirement he’s looking forward to is getting to “eat anything and everything I want.” The way he tears into a plate of fried wontons as he says this makes it an especially believable statement.
But looking back now, the positive test and the eight-month suspension might have been one of the best things to happen to him. It forced him to put his life into perspective and remember why he had come to America in the first place.
“When I got suspended, I got a little bit crazy. I spent six months pretty much just training and partying. I had a little bit of money on the side and I just blew it all up. If you can’t fight, it’s hard to keep training. If I can’t fi ght, what am I doing here? I couldn’t go back to Brazil. I was just partying, chasing girls all over the place. It was good though, because by the time I fi nally came back I had about two hundred dollars in my bank account. I fought against (Kuniyoshi) Hironaka and I was hungry again.”
And for Pitbull, hunger is everything. He can’t ever seem to get enough of anything, whether it’s food or women or competition. He talks about winning the title and holding it for five years. He talks about cementing his place as the greatest fi ghter who ever lived. He dreams big, though to him it seems not so much a dream as a path that is already paved, waiting for him to walk down it.
Yet the life of a fighter demands a certain tempering of these insatiable appetites, and therein lies the struggle. How do you keep raw desire in check – the kind of desire that makes a man leave his home and his family – and still have the hunger when you need it?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I just got this thing inside of me. I’m really calm, but the day of the fi ght I just change. I have two personalities. Most of the time it’s Thiago, but when I’m in fighting mode it’s the Pitbull. It gets so intense. That feeling when you get in the Octagon and the guy across from you wants to kick your ass and you want to kick his assthere’s nothing like that.”
Just talking about it makes him jittery. His perpetually relaxed demeanor crumbles and suddenly he’s an anxious wreck who can’t sit still. He’s tapping on the table with his fingernail. He’s fidgeting and staring out the window. The boy who fought the fish, now consumed with thoughts of the dragon. “It’s the excitement,” he says finally. “The challenge, just seeing who’s going to break fi rst. You know what I mean? It’s who wants it more. Nobody wants it more than me. They just can’t.”