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One more rung?: exclusive interview with Ricardo Almeida

Ricardo Almeida

Climbing the ladder to the top of the UFC middleweight division just might go through Hamilton, New Jersey. That’s because that’s where the Ricardo Almeida Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (RABJJ) Academy is and where Ricardo Almeida is preparing for UFC 86 when he will take on heavy-handed Patrick Cote for a fight that could very well have title implications.

Check it out:

UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva has tore through a who’s who of contenders, including Dan Henderson, Rich Franklin (twice), Nate Marquardt, Travis Lutter and Chris Leben.

Silva’s rematch with Yushin Okami has long been delayed since Okami suffered a broken hand when he smashed it into Evan Tanner’s head.

Several would-be contenders can’t seem to string together multiple win streaks, like Jason MacDonald, Kendall Grove, Ed Herman and Drew McFedries.

Still other middleweights with back-to-back wins have a few rungs to climb if they want a title shot. I’m looking at you, Nate Quarry and Dean Lister.

And we may as well round it out by mentioning former top contenders with back-to-back (to back) losses, like Jeremy Horn (who, with three losses in a row, can’t seem to earn his 80th career win) and Evan Tanner (who has openly contemplated retirement).

I’ve left off about 15 names in the UFC’s 185-pound who have even further to climb, including The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 7 winner Amir Sadollah, who has a loooooong way to go, but is off to a good start if he does not make the drop to welterweight.

But apart from Okami — who likely has the best claim at the number one ontender spot, given his 6-1 record in the UFC, his back-to-back wins over Tanner and MacDonald, and his January 2006 win (albeit, a controversial one) over the champ — this leaves about seven fighters worth considering:

Ricardo Almeida, Patrick Cote, Michael Bisping, Martin Kampmann, Thales Leites, Demian Maia and Rousimar Palhares.

Most agree that Maia and Palhares need a few more wins to familiarize American fans with their skills (and faces) before even considering granting them title shots. If the UFC is slow to pull the trigger on an Okami title shot, there’s no way they will give one to Maia or Palhares right now.

Since returning from a 15-month rehabilitation, Kampmann looked great in his win over Jorge Rivera, but still has a lot to prove. Likewise, Bisping has looked terrific since moving down to 185 against both Jason Day and Charles McCarthy, but is still a win or two away from title consideration.

Thales Leites? Although he is 4-1 in the UFC (his lone loss to Kampmann happened way back in November 2006), without the two-point deduction of Marquardt at UFC 85, Leites would have lost that fight.

That leaves Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Ricardo Almeida (who hasn’t lost since January 2002, but has only fought once since returning from his three-year hiatus) and Patrick Cote (who is on a four-fight win streak, including wins over Scott Smith, Day, Grove and McFedries).

Wow. When they meet on Saturday, July 5 at UFC 86: "Jackson vs. Griffin" at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, expect a war.

We caught up with Almeida, who weighed in on his climb up the middleweight ladder, his upcoming fight against Cote, and his thoughts on Anderson Silva’s upcoming light heavyweight debut against James Irvin.

Adam Wagner ( You’re set to face Patrick Cote at UFC 86 on July 5. Tell us a bit about how you’ve been preparing for this fight. What coaches have you been working with?

Ricardo Almeida: I have been preparing with the same people I have worked with all my career. Renzo Gracie is the head coach. I go to Martin Rooney at the Parisi Speed School for strength and conditioning, and I have been training with a great young boxing coach, Golden Gloves winner Bo Lattimere, who has been working on my defense really well.

John Danaher, who is one of the main instructors at the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York, is helping me also with some game planning and strategy.

Adam Wagner ( You’ve said in the past that you’ll be looking to take Cote down, as he’s a talented striker, and you’re clearly world-class on the ground. Do you think this is going to be a fight where a lot depends on how good Cote’s sprawl is, or how good his takedown defense in general is?

Ricardo Almeida: Cote looks pretty hard to take down, especially against the fence. Takedowns and takedown defense will for sure dictate where we will fight. I foresee him being hard to submit just because that is what everyone is expecting me to go for, but I will have some tricks up my sleeve for sure.

Adam Wagner ( Cote has knockout power and is on a bit of a hot streak. How do you think you measure up on the feet?

Ricardo Almeida
: He has the ability to end the fight with one punch. For as long as we are on the feet, I will have to be very focused and patient not to make any dumb mistakes.

Adam Wagner ( In a division where the champion, Anderson Silva, has tore through a lot of top contenders, your fight with Cote could very likely have title implications. Do you think that, with a solid win over your opponent, you might be next in line for a title shot?

Ricardo Almeida: I think any fight has title implications, since if you lose you are off the ladder. For now I will stay focused on Patrick Cote. If I am victorious, a lot will have to do with how the fight is won also. The UFC will not give a title shot to someone who doesn’t look impressive, especially with Silva at the top of the mountain.

Adam Wagner ( Do you find it insulting that Anderson is moving up to light heavyweight because he has allegedly "cleared out the division," yet he still hasn’t faced you or a handful of other top middleweights?

Ricardo Almeida: Anderson has been the most dominating UFC champion ever. He has dominated everyone the UFC has put in front of him. He can and should always look to challenge himself so he could stay at the top of his game. I don’t take it personal at all. I will be at that event watching for sure.

Adam Wagner ( Where do you see guys like Yushin Okami, Jason MacDonald and Michael Bisping — all middleweights who Silva has not beaten — falling into place? Do you see yourself as a notch higher than those guys in the current Middleweight picture?

Ricardo Almeida: I will leave ranking for the media and fans. But I would have to say that Okami and Bisping are both knocking on the door looking for a title shot. Bisping has looked very impressive since dropping to middleweight.

Adam Wagner ( Are there other middleweights out there who you think should be considered as top potential contenders?

Ricardo Almeida: I see Maia and Palhares rising to the top pretty quickly. Kampmann is also impressive. Overall the middleweight division is getting very strong in the UFC. We should see some very exciting match ups coming up.

Adam Wagner ( How would you go about beating a guy like Anderson?

Ricardo Almeida: I will always fight using my jiu-jitsu. Regardless of who I face. If I lose, I will lose doing what I do best. If I win, I will also win doing what I do best.

Adam Wagner ( When you defeated Nate Marquardt at Pancrase back in 2003, it looked like, after Nate tapped, you held on to the choke a little longer than necessary. Nate then struck you, and Renzo Gracie came out of your corner and kicked Marquardt in the face. I know it was years ago, but a lot has happened in both of your careers since that time. What was up with that exchange after the fight? Are things cool between the two of you now? Would you ever give Marquardt a rematch, or do you see that as a step back?

Ricardo Almeida: I have talked to Nathan after the fight and everything was okay. It was a heat-of-the-moment type of situation. Nathan is a great fighter, and I wish him all the success in the world.

As far as a rematch, I believe his goal is to fight for the title again. Maybe a rematch with Leites — you would have to ask him about that one. But if a rematch ever made sense as far as title implications, it would be an honor to step into the Octagon with him.

Adam Wagner ( I believe you have five fights remaining on a six-fight contract. When you decided to return from hiatus, you were clearly seeing your new career in the UFC as being a long-term commitment. Is that fair to say?

Ricardo Almeida: Right now I am a full-time UFC fighter. I am committed to going as far up the ladder in the UFC as my skills will allow me to. But in order for me to fight, so many people have been sacrificing their time and efforts — from my wife and family who support me so much, to the instructors at my academy who are taking the school to a whole new level, and my training partners as well.

Probably at the end of my current contract, I will have to sit down and re-evaluate my commitment. But that is still far away.

Adam Wagner ( What impacted your decision to return? Was it financial, to earn publicity for your school, or something else?

Ricardo Almeida: Many small things impacted my decision to return, but I believe the main reason is my thirst for knowledge. I still have a lot to learn, and MMA is going through a huge evolutionary stage that I would not want to watch from the sidelines.

Adam Wagner ( How has it impacted your gym back in New Jersey? How has it come together to support you for your return?

Ricardo Almeida: It has been great to sort of "walk my talk." I teach these guys lessons in discipline and personal sacrifice toward a long term goal — in their case a jiu-jitsu black belt. Now they watch me train hard and go out there and put my health on the line in order to achieve my personal goals. I hope I am inspiring them to become more through jiu-jitsu.

I would not be able to do this without the continuous support of my wife, who keeps the engine running at the school; our staff, who goes out of their way to make sure things run smoothly in my absence; our instructors, who often sacrifice their own training to ensure the world class level of instruction at RABJJ; and lastly, all the students who are a huge support and inspiration.

Adam Wagner ( How do you see the next few years shaping up for you? Where do you see yourself two years down the road?

Ricardo Almeida: In MMA, plans sort of go one fight at a time. In a few years I see myself walking into the sunset as far as fighting is concerned and concentrating on teaching, passing on all the hard lessons that I am learning right now. I will never retire from teaching. I would like to teach jiu-jitsu until the day I pass.

Adam Wagner ( Lastly, would you like to thank any sponsors, and do you have any parting words for your fans?

Ricardo Almeida: I would like to thank SPRAWL for the continuous support and helping design a new line of clothing for the RABJJ Academies.

I would also like to thank the fans for the all the support and making MMA such a huge sport. It is not the biggest yet, but in my opinion it is the greatest sport, with the greatest athletes and the greatest fans. It is only a matter of time before we take the world over.

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