Thursday, February 15, 2007
By JASON REMILLARD
LUDLOW - From the outside, the little storefront on East Street that houses the Marco Alvan Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy looks like any other martial arts school.
Inside, however, Alvan is helping his top protg and childhood friend from Brazil train for the biggest fight of his Ultimate Fighting Championship career.
Gabriel "Napao" Gonzaga, who moved to Ludlow last summer from Rio de Janeiro, is 3-0 on the UFC's pay-per-view events and holds a 7-1 overall mixed martial arts record.
That recent string of success has led to Gonzaga, 27, taking on his toughest challenge to date. On April 21 in Manchester, England, he will face one of the most feared fighters in the world - Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic - in the main event of "UFC 70."
"That's the most important commitment of my life," Gonzaga said through Alvan, his trainer and interpreter. "Everybody knows (Filipovic) is the No.1 fighter in the world at the moment."
Filipovic, a former anti-terrorism commando in the Croatian special police, has built a reputation in the mixed martial arts community for his devastating knockout power. He is especially proficient at ending fights with his high left-leg kicks to the head.
With his penchant for putting opponents to sleep quickly, Filipovic is UFC's version of Mike Tyson, circa 1986.
In order to play the Buster Douglas role, Gonzaga will have to take Filipovic off his feet and look to end the fight with one of his array of Brazilian jiu jitsu submission holds.
"I know what I'm going to do to win this fight," Gonzaga said. "I think he has enough skills on the ground, but he's a dangerous stand-up fighter."
Gonzaga's most recent outing inside the Octagon opened the eyes of UFC matchmakers. At "UFC 66" Dec. 30 in Las Vegas, Gonzaga showed all facets of his fighting style in a first-round victory over Carmelo Marrero.
The 6-foot-1, 242-pound Gonzaga rocked Marrero with a hard punch before taking him to the mat to begin a textbook display of Brazilian jiu jitsu. Marrero fought out of an attempted side choke, but eventually succumbed to a perfect armbar.
Marrero had no other option but to tap out, giving the former bouncer the victory by submission. Gonzaga reportedly earned $18,000 for only three minutes, 22 seconds of work.
"My team studied Carmelo Marrero a lot, and we knew, sooner or later, the fight was going to end on the ground," Gonzaga said. "I was glad to be able to get the takedown early and be able to apply my Brazilian jiu jitsu."
Gonzaga also is a proficient striker, as he showed when ending his first two UFC outings by knockout. He has learned many techniques from his boxing coach Clayton Robertson Jr. and muay Thai (Thai boxing) coach Elcio Machado, both of whom are part of Alvan's Team Link.
"We have excellent coaches and partners, and it's made me improve a lot," Gonzaga said. "That's made me feel ready."
At first, it did not look like Gonzaga's stay in the UFC would be a long one. He looked sluggish and uninspired in a knockout win over Kevin Jordan Nov. 19, 2005. However, it was later revealed that Gonzaga's wife suffered a miscarriage in the weeks prior to the fight - losing one of the couple's expected twin daughters.
Gonzaga spent his time caring for his family and was not able to train properly for the fight. After defeating Fabiano Scherner last May, Gonzaga apologized for his previous performance in his post-fight interview.
A lot has changed since then. Gonzaga settled in Ludlow with his wife and 1Â½-year old daughter last summer, and both his professional and personal life are growing by leaps and bounds.
Gonzaga credits the large Portuguese community in Ludlow - especially fellow Alvan students Daniel Juliano and Gene Martins - for helping him adjust to his new surroundings.
"The Portuguese - they are our brothers, so I already have great, great friends," Gonzaga said. "I have met a lot of great fans, and I would like to raise my daughter in this town."
Gonzaga's grappling expertise is not limited to the UFC Octagon. Last summer, he won the championship in the black belt heavyweight division at the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu World Cup. In 2005, Gonzaga was the runner-up at the prestigious Abu Dhabi grappling championship.
It was that experience that caught the attention of UFC officials, who approached Gonzaga two years ago with the opportunity of a lifetime.
"Napao has been training in everything, but definitely his strong point is the ground," Alvan said. "He's been training in Brazilian jiu jitsu for awhile, and if he can take the fight to the ground, that's what he's going to do."