When Thiago Alves lost his title shot against welterweight deity Georges St. Pierre at UFC 100, many felt it was only a matter of time before the promising 25-year-old would be back in title contention.
But in the last two years, Alves has seen his share of physical setbacks that continually haunted the scheduling of his long-awaited rematch against perennial contender Jon Fitch.
First, there was a knee injury, forcing him from their UFC 107 meeting; then there was the discovery of an arteriovenous malformation in his brain discovered just days before their UFC 111 fight; corrective surgery followed.
When the fight finally did occur at UFC 117 on August 7, 2010, the toll of these setbacks, combined with an unhealthy diet, caught up with Alves, and he came in heavy at 171.5 pounds -- his second missed mark in four fights.
UFC President Dana White threatened to move him up to middleweight if he couldn't make 170, giving him one more shot.
Since then, Alves says he's stuck to his new diet, the Dolce Diet, developed by "The Ultimate Fighter" season 7 alum and self-styled nutritionist, Mike Dolce. Alves credits the diet with making a huge difference in how he feels in the days leading up to a fight, as evidenced in his UFC 124 unanimous decision victory over John Howard in December.
He says before his recommitment to nutrition, the old Thiago wasn't healthy, that he was passing out in the days leading up to the weigh-ins and that he was left debilitated in his fights against Fitch and GSP. By contrast, the Thiago Alves of today is healthy with more energy than ever before. And you'll see it when he takes on Rick Story on Saturday night, May 28, at UFC 130: "Rampage vs. Hamill."
We caught up with Alves to talk about his new outlook on nutrition, how his upcoming opponent is on a roll but has yet to face anyone of the Pitbull's caliber, and how if Story is looking at Alves' performances against St. Pierre and Fitch to find holes in his game, he's going to be in for a long night.
This is a whole new "Pitbull:"
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): You're coming off a unanimous decision win over John Howard. Your wrestling and striking both looked great. How has your wrestling improved? Have you focused on it specifically?
Thiago Alves: Yeah, definitely. Ever since my two losses, since my loss against GSP, I've been working a lot on my wrestling and my jiu-jitsu. Me and my camp have been working a lot on where we need to get better. That's some of the points that we definitely needed to adjust. I'm always working a lot on my wrestling and my jiu-jitsu, but for the last year we (stepped it up), so I'm very, very confident in my wrestling and my jiu-jitsu now.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Did you bring in any particular wrestling coaches to help you?
Thiago Alves: No, I've been using the same wrestling coach I've been using since the Matt Hughes fight. I truly believe that my performance against GSP and against Jon Fitch was just the top guys in the weight class. It has a lot to do with my weight cut. I wasn't healthy, I was talking to (Mike) Dolce about it. I was fighting at the higher level of the sport, (pushing the extent of) my abilities, you know. And without being completely healthy, there's only so much you can get away with. But no, I've been training with my same wrestling coach, Kami Barzini, but for this fight, I brought some pretty good wrestlers in to spar with me, to train with me, so I'm really confident about that.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): How important was it just to get the win over John Howard? Did you feel any pressure?
Thiago Alves: Oh yeah, definitely. If you're coming from two losses in the UFC, you're not in a good spot. It doesn't matter who you lost against, it was still two losses. I hate losing more than I like winning. So it's something I played very safe. I just wanted to make sure I was going to get the victory. That's why I still pushed it till the end very aggressively, but at the same time I was very safe, I didn't take any risks.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Next up for you is Rick Story. This fight was originally expected to air on the Spike TV preliminary card broadcast, but was bumped up to the PPV. How did you feel when you first learned that?
Thiago Alves: Well, I think that that's where I belong. I've been fighting main event and co-main event. I think the last fight I wasn't the Co-Main Event was the John Howard fight. I was fighting main event or co-main event for such a long time that when they put me on the prelims, I was like, all right, that's just part of the sport, you gotta keep proving yourself.
[Interviewer's note: Alves run at either main event or co-main event lasted four fights, covering more than two year's time.]
And I talked to Dana White, he said it was the Spike TV people who put me in charge to sell the pay-per-view. So on one side I was very -- not angry -- but a little bit upset; but on the other hand, I was like, you gotta get more viewers on Spike because it's an open channel, and you got a responsibility to sell the pay-per-view. So I always try to look at a negative situation in my life and turn it into a positive situation.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): So Spike wanted you specifically for the prelims?
Thiago Alves: Yeah, yeah, that's what my manager said and what Dana White said.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Okay. Well, Rick Story is riding a five-fight win streak, but I don't think anyone would argue that he hasn't faced anyone at your level -- someone ranked in the top 10. How do you feel about the match up?
Thiago Alves: I feel great. I think it's a perfect match up for me and for him. He's five in a row, so it's time for him to step up the action and see if he really belongs in the top of the weight class. He's a really tough kid, very aggressive. I see myself in his shoes back in the day when I fought Karo Parisyan, when I started fighting the top guys. I know what's going through his head. I know all his fears and everything. I know how much he wants it. I feel the same way, but now I'm way more experienced than him. I've been fighting way tougher competition than he has. So I'm very confident. I'm not taking anything away from him -- I think it's going to be a war. But I'm pretty sure I'm going to either knock him out or submit him.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): No doubt Story could look at your recent fights to see where he might be effective against you. Do you think that he's going to view your wrestling as a potential area that he could capitalize on?
Thiago Alves: I think it's the only area where he has a chance of winning the fight, just because he's a wrestler. But you can't take my performance against GSP and against Jon Fitch. First, they are way better wrestlers than he is. They've been fighting the top of the weight class for such a long time. Like I said, I got no excuse -- GSP and Jon Fitch were better than me those nights. But I know inside of my heart, everybody who knows me -- my coach, my camp -- knows that wasn't the Thiago Alves everybody sees inside of the gym, that Thiago Alves that showed up to fight before. I was very debilitated in those fights, mostly in the Jon Fitch fight. So if he thinks he's going to take my punches and hold me down, he's in for a long night.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): I read that Story called you out for this fight. Did you find that, I guess, flattering in the sense that you're near the top and so fighters are gunning for you, or does that sort of insult you that Story might think he measures up well against you?
Thiago Alves: It could go both ways. I'm very flattered, but he's not the first guy that's called me out. I guess Paul Daley and some other kids have called me out, I don't even know. But it means that you're doing well, I know that, that the people who look up to you want to take your place, take your spot.
But they have to understand that if I am where I am it's not because I'm lucky, that I got lucky against my opponents. The guys that I've been fighting are at the top of the weight class. I'm here because I belong here, and I know where I want to go, I know my goals, I know my potential, I know where I'm going to get one day, I know I'll be world champion one day.
And (Story)'s on the right track. If you want to be the best in the weight class, you gotta fight the best competition out there. But be careful what you wish for, maybe you're not ready to take that next step yet.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): You're one of the largest welterweights in the division, and weight cutting has been a factor for you in the past. What adjustments have you made to your diet to ensure you make 170?
Thiago Alves: I've been using the Dolce Diet since August of last year, and I feel amazing. My energy levels are through the roof, and I'm just cruising through training camp. Before it was a struggle every fight.
Before, like for the GSP fight and the Jon Fitch fight, I used to pass out. I'd start passing out on Wednesday -- Friday are the weigh-ins, you know -- and I had to just drag myself as much I can just to make weight.
Now I'm actually healthy. I'm eating before. I ate four times on Thursday before the weigh-ins.
I was talking to Dolce, I wanted to be competing and at the top of the weight class, (but wasn't able to at the top of) my ability because I was so debilitated before the fight, yet I still (was able to) do what I do. Now that I'm a healthy Thiago Alves, I just can't wait to see the results. I can't wait to step in there and see what's going to happen.
Adam Wagner ( MMAmania.com): Is it true that Dana really gave you one more chance before he wants you to move up to middleweight?
Thiago Alves: Yeah, I never tried to move up. That was their decision. That was Dana White, he was very upset, saying, "Thiago, you cannot miss weight at this level. You gotta make weight, you're one of the top welterweights in this company, you gotta set an example. If you can't do it, you're gonna have to move up a weight class."
So I asked him, "Just give me one more chance. I've been through a lot, brain procedure, you know that." I'm not giving an excuse, I'm not the kind of guy who gives an excuse, but considering the circumstances that I've been through - nine-month layoff (before the GSP fight); then a 13-month layoff (before the Fitch fight); brain procedure; knee injury before the fight; Jon Fitch that's been fighting back-to-back all the time -- that hurt me a little bit.
I got really heavy during those periods and it was hard for me to make weight. But I think everything happens for a reason. I had to go through those things to appreciate everything in my life, to work even harder than what I already do, and make adjustments to get where I need to get.
Adam Wagner ( MMAmania.com): Did you hear that Dana White plans to reward fighters who have the most followers on Twitter? He's giving $5,000 payouts based on who has gained the most followers and who writes the most creative tweets. The same week that story was released, I thought you added a few hundred followers to your Twitter handle. You're closing in on 23,000 followers now. Were you aware of this contest and do you plan to make some money?
Thiago Alves: Bro, I had no idea. I just found out now that you told me. I just keep tweeting because I think it's fun. I think it's fun to interact with fans and all that. I'm not looking to make any money aside of that. But now that you told me it's extra motivation.
Adam Wagner ( MMAmania.com): Right on. Well, Thiago, thank you so much for the interview. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. I wanted to give you an opportunity to thank any sponsors or if you have any parting words for your fans.
Thiago Alves: Yeah, I just want to thank God; and I want to thank my teammates from American Top Team; I want to thank my manager, Mr. Dan Lambert; and my agent, Malki Kawa; Dolce and all my coaches for the opportunity. Tune in May 28. Thiago Alves is back!