Poliana Botelho’s road to the octagon might have been quicker than the one taken by some of her peers. But it doesn’t mean it was easy.
In fact, it didn’t get much easier even after she got there.
Botelho was only three years into her MMA career when, in September 2016, a meeting with Valerie Letourneau was agreed upon for UFC 206. But the following month, when she threw an overhand right that landed flush on the head of one of her trainers during a sparring session, an injured Botelho had to withdraw .
Fellow Brazilian Viviane Pereira, the only opponent who’d ever beaten Botelho in an MMA bout, stepped in – and won. And Botelho went from training for a former title challenger to watching from the sidelines. (via Instagram)
Fortunately, the injury didn’t require surgery. So, in a few months, the strawweight was able to go back to training and shedding the pounds she’d put on – partially thanks to the medication for her hand. Things were going just fine until, as it sometimes happens, they weren’t.
“My weight was low, I got back to 128 pounds,” Botelho told MMAjunkie. “I was skinny, just waiting for the UFC to get me a fight. And then once again, in training, I landed a straight right in the girl’s face, and my hand broke in the same place. I re-fractured it and had to put the cast again.
“(But) the second time, I said, ‘I’m not going to stop. I’m going to train in a cast, use only my left arm. I’m not going to stop and let my weight go up again like it did.’”
Botelho’s commitment paid off. After a solid camp, her octagon debut is on track for Saturday’s UFC 216. Looking back, Botelho won’t deny the stress of having the same unfortunate incident repeat itself. But after a year that proved difficult all around, she chooses to focus on the positives.
“Last year was rough for me,” Botelho said. “Not only because of my hand, but I had two losses in my family. My nephew died; my cousin died. I had a bunch of bad things happening. I took it as a lesson. For some reason, this delay in my UFC debut had to happen.
“But there’s no explaining it. It’s God’s plan. I just had to accept it, because there was nothing I could do.”
At this point, though, grinding her teeth and pressing forward seems like something Botelho has grown accustomed to.
At 28, Botelho lives in Rio de Janeiro – where she is both managed and trained by Andre Pederneiras at the renowned Nova Uniao headquarters. Botelho dedicates her time exclusively to fighting, which involves two or three daily training sessions. She has a UFC contract and an XFCi belt to show for her efforts.
But that was far from the case less than five years ago, when she was still living in the small town of Muriae, Minas Gerais. At 24, Botelho had taken part in all sorts of physical activities throughout her life. She even traveled to pursue handball professionally. A lack of financial support forced Botelho to give up on sports.
Then came fighting – and with it, a second chance.
“Until I was 24, I’d never done anything fight-related in my life,” Botelho said. “I worked out a lot, but I’d given up the other sports. I was very strong, so I started getting a little chubby. A little rotund (laughs). So a friend of mine who was training muay Thai told me to go try it. I went.
“On my first day, I kicked the heavy bag, and the teacher asked me to fight for him. I said, ‘Hold on, I have never done this in my life. One thing at a time.’”
Whether that counts as “holding on” or not is debatable, but fact is, three months later, she had her first muay Thai fight. Botelho also happened to knock out her opponent in the first round – a pattern that would repeat itself in four of her five MMA wins (the fifth one, though also a knockout, went into the fourth round).
Jiu-jitsu followed. Then MMA. After two pro bouts, Botelho followed the advice of a UFC vet from her hometown, jiu-jitsu expert Yan Cabral, to consider Nova Uniao. Botelho was aware the gym was home to the likes of then-featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo.
First, she visited Rio to try out. Then, welcomed by Pederneiras into the team, she decided to stay.
“I had no place to stay,” Botelho recalls. “I had no money, no sponsorships. I had nothing. I came with my courage and, like my trainer says, a backpack full of dreams, and that’s it.”
Thanks to UFC strawweight and former fellow Nova Uniao product Claudia Gadelha, Botelho went to live with Michele Tavares, who’s still her Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach. The support she found in her new city, however, didn’t mean a struggle-free day-to-day.
“Now I think about it. Like, how did I come up with the money to pay rent?” Botelho said. “Every month, it was a struggle. There were days when I didn’t eat. I had to climb up to Morro Azul (a poorer community near the Nova Uniao headquarters, which attracts fighters due to lower rent prices) crying. I’d call my mom, crying and exhausted. It was rough.”
Botelho says her parents supported and helped her in any way they could, but they simply didn’t have that much to give. To make matters worse, despite all the sacrifice, Botelho’s first efforts representing Nova Uniao didn’t really go as she had planned.
“My first fight was in a jiu-jitsu tournament,” Botelho said. “I was disqualified, because I broke the girl’s hand. I wasn’t allowed to apply a wrist lock, but that’s what I did. Then I had my first Bitetti Combat fight and suffered my first and only loss. I think it was a test, really, as to whether I really wanted it. Because I was off to a bad start.”
Understandably, Botelho was discouraged. But thanks to the constant reassurance of a trainer who she considers a brother in Rafael Bertho, she pressed on. And she walked into her XFCi debut, against Karina Rodriguez, determined to turn things around.
“I fought as if there was no tomorrow,” Botelho said. “I wanted that win so bad. (It showed) not only in the fight, but also in my training. I train so hard. Whenever I leave home and get to practice, I do it for real. I never stall.” (via Instagram)
Botelho got a win. And then another win. And then she got the opportunity to fight for XFCi’s women’s flyweight belt. While the meeting with the then-undefeated Argentinian Silvana Juarez proved to be “a war” that went four rounds, Botelho won that one, too. And then, came the UFC contract.
Although she’s been sidelined from fighting, Botelho has had a taste of UFC life. Not only has she taken part in a few promotional activities and traveled to Las Vegas to attend the fighter’s summit, she even got to be featured in a novela (Brazil’s equivalent of a soap opera). (via Instagram)
That’s fun and all. But it’s still not what Botelho has set out to do.
“On the one hand, it’s good that I got to be close to (the UFC),” Botelho said. “But the reality is that I want to fight. It’s not to show up at UFC parties. I like it, but my thing is fighting. I want to fight.”
A few bumps and bruises later, Botelho (5-1 MMA, 0-0 UFC) will finally debut this Saturday against Pearl Gonzalez (6-2 MMA, 0-1 UFC). They meet on an FX-televised 115-pound preliminary bout, which takes place at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena.
As far as her opponent goes, Botelho sees a solid fighter and an overall favorable matchup. Can she knock Gonzalez out? Sure. But, after years honing her wrestling and jiu-jitsu alongside UFC-level peers, she’s made sure that is not her only weapon in the cage.
“All my wins were knockouts, but I’ve never looked for that,” Botelho said. “I believe knockouts are things that happen. They say strikers just smell blood. But I don’t chase it. If it happens, awesome. If not, I just want to win and show what I train and work for up there in the octagon.”
After that, Botelho’s road can go in different directions. When she first signed her contract, the UFC didn’t offer a women’s flyweight division. So Botelho came aboard at 115 pounds. While she wants to see how that will pan out in her debut, Botelho admits the dieting has been a struggle, which could mean a move up.
Before any of that happens, however, Botelho has a fight with Gonzalez to get through. And, win or lose on Saturday, she knows just how much she’s had to overcome just to be up there.
“There are some butterflies in my belly, of course,” Botelho said. “When you think of it, I’m in the biggest promotion in the world. Sometimes it seems unbelievable. But then I see everything I put into it, how hard I worked.
“More than anyone, I know how hard I work. How much of myself I put into it. We know when we’re doing good work. I feel like I am. This camp was well done. Even if I go up there, and it doesn’t pan out, I did everything that I had to do.”
For more on UFC 216, check out the UFC Rumors section of the site.
Filed under: News, UFC
Source: MMA Junkie