Bibiano Fernandes unwittingly found himself at the center of controversy recently when Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) announced that he would be fighting Roland Delorme at UFC 149 without, as it turned out, having bothered to wait for the Brazilian to actually sign the contract.
The DREAM Bantamweight Champion subsequently signed with ONE FC along with many of the top fighters from the supposedly defunct Japanese promotion such as Shinya Aoki, Melvin Manhoef, Masakazu Imanari and, according to various unsubstantiated reports, Tatsuya Kawajiri.
Having beaten three separate fighters to claim the DREAM Bantamweight Grand Prix, Fernandes was unsurprisingly sought after by the top promotions but, speaking after the ONE FC press conference in Manila, he offered a staunch defense of his decision to continue competing in Asia.
"I believe ONE FC will be the biggest MMA promotion in the world. Look what ONE FC is doing, look what happened here (at the press conference) today. It is crazy, a big show is happening here in the Philippines and I believe in ONE FC."
The scale of interest in the press conference surprised many with around 200 reporters from TV, radio and print media jostling for position to the extent that staff were forced to take some crowd control measures in order to make a photo shoot feasible.
Fernandes found himself sitting alongside another DREAM champion in Shinya Aoki as well as former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski and when the subject of his decision to turn down the UFC came up he was reluctant to discuss it but did admit the announcement that he would be fighting Delorme was unexpected,
"I was a little bit surprised when I saw that but it is history, it’s past. I’m with ONE FC now and I don’t want to talk about the UFC. I want to look forward not back and I am very excited to come to the Philippines. I always fight in Japan, I love fighting in Asia for me it’s the best."
Also in attendance was the man who will be facing Fernandes on August 31st, CFC bantamweight champion Gustavo Falciroli. He is currently the top 135 lbs fighter in Australia and is coming off a quickfire win over Soo Chul Kim at ONE FC: 'Battle of Heroes' earlier this year.
Although those with a limited knowledge of global MMA have suggested that Falciroli will be an easy opponent Fernandes has been following his career for a long time and knows he is in for a tough test at ONE FC: 'Pride of a Nation',
"I have known Gustavo since 2004 when he fought a black belt tournament in Sao Paulo, he is very good, good grappling, good talent. I respect Gustavo, it’s a good fight. He is big but it doesn’t matter, I will be ready for this fight."
Falciroli reportedly told people at the press conference he was walking at 160 lbs but Fernandes is no stranger to taking on bigger opponents having won the DREAM Featherweight Grand Prix in 2009, although he says he wants to stay at 135 lbs for the time being,
"I am walking today at 146 for me to go to featherweight I have to go up at least 8 lbs and I don’t want to do that. I feel 135 is my weight but in the future I don’t know, maybe I can go up for a fight, it depends... but it’s not my weight class."
Although there are plenty of BJJ black belts on the ONE FC roster few are as decorated as Fernandes who has won numerous tournaments and competitions including the World Jiu Jitsu Championship, the Pan American Championship and the Brazilian National Championship.
He had an impoverished upbringing in Manaus and during the press conference ONE FC CEO / Owner Victor Cui told an anecdote about how as a child Fernandes had sat outside a BJJ school staring in because he could not afford to train and, when he was finally able to join a session, he was immediately able to tap out more experienced grapplers having learned just from watching them train together.
The Brazilian corroborated this account and recalled that, had it not been for the generosity of a childhood friend, he would never have had the opportunity to study BJJ,
"I came from the bottom, the very bottom. My mother passed away and I had a hard time in life. I watched the BJJ every day but I didn’t have the money for pay and my friend says ok ‘you want to train’ and I say ‘yes’ and he pay for my training for one month and my coach he asked ‘do you want to compete’ and I said ‘yes I can do it' and I went to a tournament and I won and he told me I had a talent for fighting and later, when I didn’t have the money, I said to him 'I don’t have the money to keep coming' and he said ‘you know Bibiano come everyday and clean the gym' and that was the beginning."
Although reluctant to make the transition from BJJ to MMA Fernandes was talked into it by another friend and won his first fight in less than a minute with a rear naked choke. With just one win to his name he was given a massive step up in competition and the opportunity to fight Urjah Faber for the King of the Cage bantamweight belt.
At the time the Brazilian had no idea what he was getting himself into and admits he was not prepared to face an elite level MMA fighter,
"I wasn’t training MMA full time, I didn’t know who Urhaj Faber was but I said I would fight him because I like a challenge and I believed Jiu Jitsu can beat everybody but the truth is it can’t, you have to have the skill, have to lean boxing, Muay Thai and be ready for everything. I took him down and took his back but I needed more experience and I lost. At the time I wasn't doing Muay Thai or wrestling or strength and conditioning, only Jiu Jitsu."
Things didn't get much easier for Fernandes when he went up against Japanese veteran Norfumi Yamamoto in his next fight, going three rounds before dropping a unanimous decision. With a 1-2 pro record he could have decided to focus exclusively on his highly successful Jiu Jitsu career but instead he persevered and won his next seven fights, picking up the DREAM Featherweight title and winning the DREAM Featherweight Grand Prix in the process.
After suffering another decision loss to Horoyuki Takaya he made the sensible decision to drop back down to his natural weight of 135 lbs and has been unbeaten ever since. Although Fernandes is now based in Canada he has been travelling down to Seattle to train with Matt Hume at AMC Pankration and the days when he would rely exclusively on Jiu Jitsu as a base for MMA are well and truly over,
"Now I train with Matt Hume, he is the best coach, a good friend and a good man. I train a lot of Jiu Jitsu and I train wrestling, boxing, Muay Thai. I train everything."
ONE FC has yet to introduce titles but Fernandes would be an early favourite for the bantamweight belt and although he is not thinking in terms of a title shot he is well aware of who the competition will be,
"I know everybody at bantamweight, I know Gustavo, I know Brodinho (Leandro Issa) I know the Korean (Kyung Ho Kang). Maybe some new guys have come but now I think I know everyone. I don’t want to talk about the bantamweight belt because that’s up to the boss Victor, that’s his job, I only come here to fight, I am not going to ask for the belt."
On August 31st Fernandes will get his opportunity to fight for the first time since winning the DREAM Bantamweight Grand Prix on New Year's Eve. His ONE FC debut will be a baptism of fire in front of16,500 Filipino fans but the Brazilian will be determined to demonstrate that despite eight months out of action he is still the most dominant 135 lbs fighter competing in Asia.