by Mick Hammond
Over the next few weeks there will be two big main event battles featuring four of the most talented fighters in the world of MMA. One match features two Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu stand outs, a legend and a legend in the making, facing off in front of what could be the largest crowd ever assembled to watch an MMA bout in the US. The other match becomes the focal point of the first ever full on live MMA event to be broadcast on major cable/satellite television and marks the UFC debut of one of Japan’s most dominant champions.
These two fights are of course the main event matches between BJ Penn and Renzo Gracie at K-1’s Hawaii GP and the fight between Nathan Marquardt and Ivan Salaverry on the UFC and Spike TV’s Ultimate Fight Night. Linking these two bouts together and what all four competitors have in common is former Middleweight King of Pancrase, Ricardo Almeida.
For those who may not be familiar with Almeida, he is a BJJ black belt under Renzo Gracie and amassed an 8-2 record in MMA. Over the course of his career he competed in Pride, Pancrase, and in the UFC along side BJ Penn and Ivan Salaverry. Shortly after capturing the Middleweight KOP title from Nathan Marquardt in late 2003 and returning triumphantly over Ryo Chonan in Pride, Almeida shocked the MMA world by doing something few ever do, retiring while at the top of his career. Now enjoying his retirement, MMA Weekly spoke to Ricardo to get an exclusive breakdown of both fights for our readers.
The first fight Ricardo offered his opinion on was Penn VS Gracie. This is a fight that means a lot not only to hardcore MMA fans but also grappling fans as it represents two distinctively different styles of BJJ going head to head with each other.
“It is wonderful for me as a student of Jiu-Jitsu to see Jiu-Jitsu guys always being at the top,” commented Almeida. “This is a battle of one Jiu-Jitsu generation versus another. Renzo was fighting MMA when BJ was still a kid. He fought heavyweights at a time when people would fight three matches in one night; I can’t even imagine that. BJ on the other hand represents a new, very dynamic hybrid generation of BJJ’ers. He’s run over almost every opponent in his path. It will be interesting to see how this one unfolds, it should be a match between experience and indomitable courage versus raw talent and versatility.”
When asked specifically what he feels BJ brings to the fight, Almeida said, “BJ is one of the most talented fighters I have ever seen. He brings speed and skills into a very flexible body. Combined with how well he blends strikes, takedowns and submissions he is deadly in the ring. Penn can finish fights on the feet and on the ground.”
When it comes to Gracie, Ricardo feels that his experience and continued growth as a fighter are his biggest assets. “Renzo Gracie is a legend of the sport. He is known for never stepping down from a challenge, and masterful groundwork. Renzo is a very progressive fighter, he’s always looking to incorporate something new into his arsenal.”
Ricardo continued, “Renzo has been accused of coming into fights out of shape, well try running one of the biggest BJJ schools in the country, coaching an MMA team and being a professional fighter for a change. When Renzo is focused and prepared, he can beat just about anyone in the world.”
When it comes to an outcome, Ricardo stays close to home with his prediction. “I see BJ having the upper hand on the feet and Renzo on the ground. The fight is in Hawaii so you have to count the crowd as a plus for BJ. Penn has shown trouble finishing fights against BJJ guys, maybe he doesn’t feel that comfortable on the ground or maybe he is conservative. I think it should go the distance with the win going to the one that finishes stronger. I think Renzo is going to dig deep and pull out a win.”
Moving on to Marquardt VS Salaverry, Ricardo has first hand knowledge of what it takes to beat Nathan, whereas he has the painful experience of losing to Andrei Semenov at UFC 35, just prior to Salaverry defeating Andrei at UFC 37.
Commenting on what Marquardt brings to the fight, Ricardo feels his solid ground game coupled with great stand up is Nathan’s key to the fight. “Nathan is a very talented fighter with great stand up and solid groundwork. He has been very active and successful in Pancrase, with lots of fights under his belt. He trains with Duane “Bang” Ludwig so his stand up should be at a higher level.”
Salaverry on the other hand represents an ability to put together a good plan and execute it to perfection, according to Almeida. “I remember his match against Semenov. He completely neutralized Semenov by taking the fight to the ground and pounding rather than going for submission. He obviously watched my faults and shortcomings, designed and executed a solid game plan against a tough guy. Ivan trains with Matt Hume so he will be prepared and surely has the ability to execute a game plan well.”
As for an outcome, the two fighters may be too evenly matched overall to predict a winner. “I believe talent and skills-wise the scale is tipped towards Nathan,” said Ricardo. “However Nathan has fought at lighter weight class in Japan, where the Japanese fighters are not big on cutting weight. Salaverry will surely be bigger and more powerful than what Nathan is used to dealing with. He will also have in his favor the experience of having dominated a powerful striker and submission escape wizard in the Russian Red Devil prodigy Semenov.”
Ricardo continued, “Nathan will be stepping out of his comfort zone where Salaverry has already been there. I feel it should be an even tactical fight on the feet with it being ultimately decided by conditioning and experience. I couldn’t pick a sure winner, these are very tough guys and I wish them both luck.”
Moving out of predictions and focusing on Almeida himself, he’s enjoying retirement with no thought of returning to active MMA competition any time soon. “Things have been going great for me, life is a blessing. The school is growing by leaps and bounds ever since I retired from competition. I am focusing a lot on my students, developing black belt level talent as well as future leaders for the Jiu-Jitsu community. We are getting ready to relocate the school to a 4000 square feet facility in central New Jersey, I’m very excited.”
Ricardo further commented “Regarding coming back, I consider that a closed chapter in my life. I am very happy I was able to stop as one of the top middleweights at that time. I am taking those experiences with me to attack the challenges of being a better father, husband, and running a professional BJJ school. If I can’t use the lessons I learned as a professional fighter in my daily life, I feel like it was a waste of time and effort.”
The conversation closed out with Ricardo wanting to give a message to the competitors out there currently trying to make their dreams come true in the tough world of professional MMA. “Fighters, train everyday as you would for your last match. Always learn from your mistakes and fight with your heart inside your gloves but your head above your shoulders. This way you will never regret anything. Respect the sport and always think of life outside the ring or cage. If you don’t, we become puppets in the hands of promoters and the whole circus that goes on behind the curtains.”