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

Renzo Gracie black belt Ricardo “Big Dog” Almeida’s first run in the Ultimate Fighting Championship wasn’t exactly anything to gloat about. Going 1-2, including a highly unusual disqualification loss to Matt Lindland, had people wondering if he could live up to the promise of his famous Gracie successors.

It was clear that a change was needed, so a shift overseas to the Pancrase organization in late 2002 and Almeida’s career was revived. Over the next year he would topple Japanese fan favorites Ikuhisa Minowa, Yuki Sasaki and Kazuo Misaki en route to a win over Nathan Marquardt for the middleweight King of Pancrase title.

Six months after defeating Marquardt, Almeida would enter the Pride ring in 2004 and defeat another Japanese standout in Ryo Chonan, and then without warning suddenly announced his retirement from mixed martial arts.

Three years later, he decided it was time to return to fighting after having spent the previous time focusing on his family and his growing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academy. His initial bid to return with the Cage Fury Fighting Championships this past October fell through when the promotion’s main investor backed out of the show.

Shortly thereafter the UFC stepped in and the deal was done. Almeida will be stepping back into the Octagon this Saturday, Feb. 2 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas against late replacement Rob Yundt in a middleweight showdown.

During final preparations for his fight in Las Vegas, Almeida discussed with MMAWeekly his return to fighting, UFC 81, and where he plans to go from here.

MMAWeekly: Firstly Ricardo, I know it’s been a rough emotional time prior to your return to the UFC this Saturday, can you tell us how you’re doing?

Ricardo Almeida: Emotionally this has been a roller coaster for me. I have lost a dear friend, a brother, in Ryan Gracie. If it wasn’t for him, I would probably have never fought in MMA. We lost a great warrior, a true representative of Bushido. I miss him a lot. My heart truly goes out to Master Renzo and the Gracie Family.

Most importantly, my son Renzo Almeida was diagnosed with Autism in the beginning of January after spending many months under evaluation. I wrestled with pulling out of this fight, but I am not a man to break my commitments unless it is absolutely necessary. It has been tough to fit training and providing the necessary care for my son. However, adversity has a way of motivating me and I am going into this fight with a renewed sense of purpose.

MMAWeekly: What has it been like getting back into the fight training routine for the first time in years, and have there been any changes between then and now?

Ricardo Almeida: I am thoroughly enjoying being committed and training full time again. Master Renzo Gracie has found some time in his crazy schedule to oversee my training like in the old days. MMA is an individual sport, but it is a team effort. I feel we have a great, great thing going in the exchange between my guys in South Jersey and the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York.

Having done a lot of coaching and formal instruction in the past couple of years, it has given me tremendous insight on how to guide my own training in order to maximize progress. It has inspired me to take my training to a new level as well as not take things for granted as I perhaps would otherwise.

MMAWeekly: Your opponent at UFC 81 was supposed to have been Alan Belcher, who is out with illness. Replacing him is Rob Yundt. How do you feel about the late change of opponent?

Ricardo Almeida: I came to Las Vegas to fight, and I am ready. It is really unfortunate that Alan Belcher got sick. I spoke to him personally, but I wish him a speedy recovery and that he comes back strong.

MMAWeekly: What do you expect in this fight from your new opponent?

Ricardo Almeida: I saw some of his fights on YouTube and he is a tough wrestler with solid ground and pound. He is very different from Belcher, but equally aggressive and dangerous. I won’t make the mistake of taking him lightly.

He will come motivated and with nothing to lose, which makes it a tricky fight for me. I won’t have much time to prepare as far as strategy goes, but neither will he, so let’s just get in there and make it a great fight.

MMAWeekly: Should all go well on Saturday night, what are your goals for the rest of 2008?

Ricardo Almeida: I am starting at the bottom of the middleweight mountain in the UFC. If I win this fight it proves I haven’t been sitting on my couch getting fat and slow for the past four years and it allows me to move up the ladder.

My first time around (in fighting), I always felt like I had something to prove. Now I already got a world title and achieved more competitively than I ever thought I would. My motivation comes from the people around me and being, once again, part of the sport that I love and respect.

My ultimate goal is to further develop my knowledge and understanding of our sport so that I can reach the top of the middleweight division and help the future generation of students and fighters coming from the Renzo Gracie Team.

MMAWeekly: Would there be any interest in possibly re-matching with Ryo Chonan or Nathan Marquardt, or is it straight for the UFC middleweight title and Anderson Silva or Dan Henderson?

Ricardo Almeida: Even though both Ryo and Marquardt have done some big things since I beat them, unless we get into title contention, which would make sense, I won’t be looking for a rematch. As far as championship matches, I would not come back if I wasn’t committed to this sport and being the best I can be. I would be honored to fight either Anderson Silva or Dan Henderson at some point, whether it is for the title or not. But I feel I need to prove that I am worthy of that privilege.

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

Ricardo Almeida: I would like to thank Master Renzo Gracie for his ongoing leadership and friendship; Sprawl for being an amazing and revolutionary fight company; and Dr. Ryan Parsons for introducing me to Light Force Greens six years ago. I would like to thank my students for their support and dedication towards their training and each other; and my beautiful wife and children, for transforming my way of thinking and outlook on everything.

UFC has chosen the name Breaking Point well. UFC 81 is probably the most grappler-stacked card I have seen. And, not just lay and pray grappler, but the most exciting (kind). I almost wish I wasn’t fighting so I could watch this from ringside. This is the greatest sport with the greatest fans, so if you cannot make it to Vegas Saturday night I will see you on pay-per-view.