Bruno Ferreira didn’t literally go from “heaven to hell” in one week back in June of 2014. But what he went through shortly after signing his fist international contract came close.
Ferreira was 26 and held a spotless eight-finish MMA record when he signed with what was then Legacy FC. Unlike most up-and-comers, who have their sights set in the UFC from the start, Ferreira didn’t even put that much thought into that back then. His first major dream had already been fulfilled: he would get to fight in the U.S.
“It’d be my first time outside of Brazil,” Ferreira told MMAjunkie. “I think I’ve never even seen an airplane.”
Ferreira didn’t exactly lead a luxurious life. After moving from his native Sao Jose do Rio Pardo with a 5-0 record to train in the much bigger city of Campinas, he had to live in the gym. By the time the Legacy FC contract came, three wins later, he’d just recently been able to rent a one-bedroom apartment with his wife.
Things seemed to be quite on track for Ferreira (8-0), except for the back pain that some seriously persistent kidney stones had been giving him for nearly six months. Nothing seemed to work to ease his suffering. Still, Ferreira pushed on, training as hard as ever.
Until, after taking three consecutive trips to the hospital in one weekend, Ferreira urged the doctors to take action.
“It was the same week I had signed with Legacy,” Ferreira said. “(The signing) was even in the newspaper – I even showed it to the doctor. I hadn’t done the scan yet, so I told him I was going to fight soon and I needed to get rid of the stones. I couldn’t take the pain anymore.”
So they finally did a scan. Instead of pain relief, though, what Ferreira got something much scarier: a cancer diagnosis, and a somewhat advanced one, at that, which had already spread from one of his testicles and made its way up to other spots in the fighter’s belly.
“I went from heaven to hell in the same week,” Ferreira said. “I made my dream come true, and then the rug was pulled from under me. At first it was very hard. I was depressed. I was at a situation in which, as soon as it got dark, I started crying immediately. I was in despair.
“Because when you find out about the disease, the first thing you think is that you’re going to die. It was the only thing I thought, that I was going to die and that I wouldn’t be able to do what I love anymore, what I’d conquered, which is fighting.”
Aggressive chemo, three surgeries and a lost voice
Ferreira was admitted to the hospital, where he stayed for a week. Things, however, would only get tougher from there.
“Two weeks after I found out, I lost my voice,” Ferreira said. “I couldn’t talk for five months, due to a mass. I did six cycles of hardcore chemo. And then, in October I had surgery and removed the testicle.”
Ferreira’s chemo treatment was aggressive: The cycles, which were administered 21 days apart, consisted of Monday-to-Friday treatment, with medication going into his body from five to six hours straight. At first, Ferreira could barely gather the strength to eat.
But, after his body started getting accustomed to the aggressive treatment, he went back to the mat for some jiu-jitsu. Of course, there was some serious physical strain. But, for a man who’d just had his dream so violently snatched away, it was also therapy.
“I had no strength,” Ferreira recalled. “My friends took it easy on me. But I was always staying active. I did one hour, 40 minutes of training, and it was enough to make me happy. I felt alive again.”
In March 2015, Ferreira would have to give the mat a break again. Two eight-hour surgeries in the same spot, 15 days apart, left him recovering from a big gash on his belly for four months. And the scare wasn’t over. Late in 2016, altered blood work meant another two particularly rough rounds of chemo.
“I almost died doing the chemo,” Ferreira said. “I couldn’t eat for 10 days. I couldn’t even swallow my saliva. It destroyed my body.”
While he always got back to the mat, Ferreira felt drained and tired – even in between chemo treatments. He moved from Campinas back to his city, where he opened a gym with his wife, who’s a zumba teacher. At some point, as he battled to get his health back, Ferreira had to confront the harsh reality that perhaps his days of being an MMA fighter were behind him.
“A few times, I thought, ‘There’s no point,’” Ferreira said. “‘I’ll need to move on with my life. This part of it is done. I’ll never be as strong as I was before.’”
Determined to not surrender, though, Ferreira decided to resort to other methods as well. Ferreira, who’s very religious, heard in church about an alternative type of treatment that focuses on food and dietary supplements. While the efficiency of these kinds of treatment is a far from unanimous, Ferreira started feeling like his old self again.
“I started doing sparring,” Ferreira said. “And that fire that was deep down in me started lighting up again. I started winning jiu-jitsu fights in tournaments again. And then it started coming back to me.”
“My dream hasn’t died”
While Ferreira is still going to have to follow his health closely for years, he’s hoping the two rounds of chemo in late 2016 were his last. He’s now eating properly – mostly lean meats, vegetables and complex carbs – and says he feels just as strong as he felt before the health scare. Finally, he feels ready to return to the cage.
Ferreira says he’s now training three to four times a day and believes he could start a camp and be ready to take a bantamweight fight as soon as four months from now. A mission that his manager since before he got sick, Wade Hampel, has fully embraced.
“The time is now,” Ferreira said. “My dream hasn’t died. God gave me a chance to continue and I’m going to pursue it.”
Ferreira’s last MMA fight, in 2013, ended the same way that all of his other ones did: with a first-round finish on the ground. Even the only knockout, he explained, actually stemmed from an attack from the mount. His eye-popping record, paired with his attitude, made Hampel sure that his signee was destined for great things.
Which is why, even when Ferreira tried to come to terms with the fact that he might never return, Hampel remained confident.
“I always knew he was a great fighter in the cage and life,” Hampel said. “Even though it was a dire situation, I like to believe he was going to fight this way through this. And if there’s anyone that could fight their way through this, it was Bruno. He’s accustomed to difficult challenges in life.
“And I think he embraced it just like he does fighting in the cage. He never quit. Even though his pictures showed him sick, with cancer, they did not show a broken soul. I knew there was always hope. I knew he always had hope. And I never saw him broken.”
The manager, in fact, signed Ferreira along with a close friend of his, Ricardo Ramos, most commonly known in Brazil as “Carcacinha.” Ramos, who trained and slept in the same gym as Ferreira, was 6-0 then. The plan was the same for both then-undefeated fighters: getting them to Legacy FC first, then the UFC.
While Ramos, who’s now scheduled to fight at UFC 217 after a successful octagon debut, went on to do just that, Ferreira faced a much harder battle. But, for Ferreira, watching from the sidelines didn’t turn into frustration. If anything, Ferreira celebrated his friend’s success as his own.
“I know everything he went through, from age 14 to 21,” Ferreira said. “When he signed his UFC contract, it was the happiest day of my life. I was so happy for him, because he deserved it.
“(Watching MMA) was a way of making me feel closer to it. I was never sad watching it, like ‘I’m never going to do this.’ I loved it and I still do. I always had it in my heart. While, in my head, I sometimes thought ‘I’m going to have to give up,’ in my heart I’ve always had a lot of faith in God that it would work out. That my dream wasn’t over. That it was simply paused.”
“I was afraid of death before. But we’re here, aren’t we?”
While Hampel says he has no doubts that Ferreira would be in the UFC had he continued on his path, the bantamweight himself doesn’t think about that. The 29-year-old’s main goal, as it turns out, remains the same as it was back in 2013.
“I’ll fight for anyone that wants me,” Ferreira said with a laugh. “My dream is just to fight abroad, really. I never thought specifically about the UFC. I thought about fighting internationally – especially in the U.S. And then, if I won, the UFC could maybe follow, I don’t know.”
The dark days were made lighter by the overwhelming support Ferreira found in his wife, parents, in-laws, training partners and friends. He’s feeling good, he’s eating well but, most importantly, he’s alive. Even if it took, before his 30th birthday, dealing with difficulties that most people don’t face in a lifetime.
“I got sick at a time when people are usually so healthy, you know?” Ferreira said. “And you learn how to deal with things. Sometimes even in training, I was exhausted, gassed out, and I thought, ‘Are you going to give up again?’ So I told myself no, and I got back in there.
“I think you learn how to see life differently. I was afraid of death before. But we’re here, aren’t we? We’re all subjected to it, not just those of us who are sick.”
Ferreira is now ready and eager to re-open a book that he once feared would be closed for good. But, with the inevitable perspective that comes with dealing with uniquely difficult questions, Ferreira is happy to take it one chapter at a time.
“At first I’m thinking about this fight,” Ferreira said. “Whatever comes after it, I welcome it. Hopefully I’ll win. If anything else comes along after it, it will be a gift from God already.”
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