by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
(Photos courtesy RicardoAlmeida.com)

When pro athletes retire in most sports it’s not usually noteworthy. With hundreds of athletes across numerous leagues, it’s possible that some people leave sports without anyone really noticing. However, MMA is different.

Being a relatively young sport, many of the athletes that were around at or near the beginning of MMA are still fighting, and even when a fighter decides to leave competition, most do not make formal retirement announcements, as they often leave things open for a possible return, regardless of their age.

So, it came as a surprise that when Ricardo “Big Dog” Almeida decided to leave MMA in 2004, not only did he do so formally, but at the top of his game, still in his prime and as the reigning Middleweight King of Pancrase.

Now, after three years away to concentrate on his family and ever-growing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy in New Jersey, Ricardo has decided to return to action on September 28th at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City for the Cage Fury Fighting Championships promotion against MMA veteran Dennis “Superman” Hallman.

Shortly after confirming his return to action, Almeida took time out of his busy training and teaching schedule to answer some questions for MMAWeekly regarding his comeback, being a part of the extremely successful Renzo Gracie lineage of fighters, and the new climate of MMA.

MMAWeekly: First off Ricardo, tell us the decision-making process that went into you deciding to return to fighting after a three year absence.

Ricardo Almeida: Well, I was never able to truly disconnect from MMA. Between my students fighting at some local events, helping Master Renzo Gracie for his fights, as well as the [New York] Pitbulls in the IFL, I have been one way or another involved in the coaching aspect.

I would be training and guys would go like, “Man, you should be fighting, why stop so early?” But, up until last year I did not feel like fighting at all. I was very content with my new challenge, which was to dedicate myself to Jiu-Jitsu and my students.

Funny enough, I was in Brazil back in May visiting our families with my wife and children, and had an interesting little talk with my younger brother Andre, who lives there (he’s only 16), in the middle of a surfing session. It was hilarious to hear my baby brother say to me, “Man, leave all of these surfing trips for later, you’re only 30, this is the time to get back in the ring and get to work!”

First, of course, he got the noogie he deserved, but soon after I was like, “Man, he’s so right!” My wife laughed, all I had to do was give her the look that said it all — I’m going back — as weird as it sounds, that moment played a major part in my decision.

MMAWeekly: Why did you choose the CFFC over events such as the UFC, EliteXC or even the IFL?

Ricardo Almeida: I had the luxury to take my time and study the best scenario before coming to a decision, given the success of my Jiu-Jitsu Academy. My main concern and dedication were geared towards my family and students, not MMA.

Joe Silva [UFC Matchmaker] invited me back to the UFC to be a part of TUF [The Ultimate Fighter] 4 for the chance to fight for the title. I remember Matt Serra called me and was like, “Let’s go together Big Dog; it will be like old times!” I loved fighting for the UFC, I think Dana [White, UFC President] and the Fertitta Brothers [Lorenzo and Frank, UFC Owners] are visionaries and revolutionaries, but 6 weeks away from my family [to tape the show] was a big turndown.

But, I have the feeling that I will be fighting for the UFC again someday, when the right opportunity presents itself. The relationship [I have] with the UFC has always been extraordinary, they always treated me with a great deal of consideration, so it is a case of a serious mutual, respectful relationship.

After that I received a proposal from the IFL and soon after, Bodog had someone contact me — and we came very close — we even had two opponents lined up. I also went to their show in Vancouver [British Columbia, Canada] for Roger Gracie’s fight, and it was great, I like how they treat their fighters.

As far as why Cage Fury Fighting [Championships], there’s plenty of good reasons. I have an Academy that’s run under my direct supervision, and I have launched my Association — where my students run their schools as well — which also requires a lot of my time and dedication, so in order for me to train full time for a fight, it needs to at least make sense financially. CFFC is paying what I think is deserved of my time and dedication, as others agreed to as well, but again, that’s only one of the reasons.

I always felt like I owed my students and local crowd a good live performance. I fought guys like [Kazuo] Misaki and [Nathan] Marquardt in Pancrase where you could only watch in Japan so this fight will be a chance to perform for the local fans. Besides, I was at the last CFFC cornering my fighters, and had a terrific time! The Boardwalk Hall was completely packed, the event couldn’t be more structured or well organized, the way the fighters were treated was deserving of an award.

I couldn’t help but think of myself fighting for that crowd and that organization. I instantly got along with CFFC President Felix Martinez, who made me a written proposal by email, and things just moved forward from there. So far it has been a great experience; I have a lot of faith in that organization. I think they are a great addition to the MMA scene.

MMAWeekly: What kind of fighter can fans expect to see from you now, as opposed to when you were fighting previously?

Ricardo Almeida: I made a lot of mistakes early in my career; I really got caught on the whole thing about trying to be entertaining and exciting. It was just not natural for me to get in a ring or cage and try to beat up some guy I don’t even know and have nothing against.

It was so hard that in the ring I would almost become another person, you know? I was just too tense and anxious. When I matured a little more as fighter I learned to align my style in the ring with who I am outside. I think it allowed me to perform at a different level.

As far as what I have been doing during this three year hiatus, I was deeply involved in training other guys, [and] it has taught me so much. I can see things in a fight that I just couldn’t see back when I was fighting. Part of my motivation for coming back is to turn all this knowledge into applicable skills.

MMAWeekly: Having won a coveted King of Pancrase Title in your previous run, and with the success of peers Renzo Gracie and Matt Serra, do you feel additional pressure to live up to that, and/or maybe achieve more?

Ricardo Almeida: I feel blessed to have Mestre Renzo Gracie as my teacher and Matt Serra as a fellow Black Belt under Renzo. To be honest, I have much more than I ever imagined I could have in every aspect of my life. It is not the titles or the money that motivates me now; it is the knowledge, to me that is invaluable.

I feel MMA is going through big evolution now, look at guys like Sean Sherk, Nick Diaz, Anderson Silva or Dan Henderson, they are amazing. I just want to be a part of this evolution, learn from being in there. Pressure — never! Motivation — tons!

MMAWeekly: The MMA landscape has changed a lot since you last fought, including the buyout of PRIDE, the formation of promotion alliances, and even the creation of team-based fighting. What do you think about the changes our sport has seen just over the last couple years?

Ricardo Almeida: The epicenter of the MMA world has shifted from Japan to [the] USA. I loved going to Japan, but I didn’t like the 14-hour plane rides. I am very excited about fighting in the US. I like that the organizations are joining together it will only make things better. We can have same rules and regulations, referees, judges, etc…

For a while the style of fighter that was successful in PRIDE would not necessarily do well in the UFC and vice-versa [because of the] different rules and weight divisions. If the sport becomes more standardized it can grow in a more uniform way. I just hope it doesn’t become like boxing where only championship matches are showcased.

MMAWeekly: Thanks for your time, as always, Ricardo. Is there anything you’d like to say as we head out?

Ricardo Almeida: I would like to thank the MMA community for all the support. I didn’t think I would get as much response with coming back, but I have been receiving emails and phone calls from people I don’t even know to say they are very excited about my return to the ring.

If you live in the Northeast come watch CFFC 6 live at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. CFFC is putting together a World Class card that you should not miss. Let’s raise the level of the sport in our area. See you there.