In 2004, when a 21-year-old Diego Nunes took his first MMA fight against Jorge dos Santos Velho, there was a sentiment in his native town of Caxias do Sul in south Brazil that he was, among other things, completely off his trolley. The reason? The kid was a phenomenal soccer player in the state of Rio Grande do Sul and everybody thought he was headed for a career in the national pastime.
“I played for a few local pro teams in the south of Brazil,” Nunes said Tuesday from Vancouver. “I was well-known in my town as a soccer player. The first time I fought people were like, ‘what the hell? Isn’t Diego a soccer player?’”
Turns out, well, yes and no. Nunes was a standout center and a forward who had to decide between taking soccer to the next level or trying his hand at fighting, which had a much more visceral connection to Nunes. For a while, he did what any rational person with multiple talents would do -- he did both.
“At one point I was playing soccer and fighting at the same time and it came down to making a decision,” he says. “[Fighting] was really a matter of survival. It is like surviving and that’s what I wanted to do. I was always bullied at school and I always had that survival instinct.”
Seems like a pretty good choice. Seven years later, Nunes is fighting on the main card of his second UFC event. He won a split decision against former champion Mike Brown at UFC 125 in Las Vegas in January, and his professional record is 16-1. Oddly enough, his opponent this weekend is Kenny Florian, who’s fighting in his fourth weight class in the UFC and making his featherweight debut. Florian was a pretty good soccer player, too. He played for Boston College on a scholarship back in the day.
Not they meet in a bout that could determine who’s next in line to face current champion -- and Nunes’ training partner at Nova Uniao in Brazil -- Jose Aldo for the 145-pound belt.
So what does Nunes expect from the seasoned veteran Florian come Saturday night?
“We’re going to see the same Kenny Florian, a guy that’s dangerous,” Nunes said through his translator, Derek Lee. “He’s got a lot of weapons. He feels right at home in the Octagon, very comfortable in the Octagon, but he might not be as fast … maybe from the weight cutting, maybe from his age; we’ll see. But he’s basically going to be the same Kenny Florian that we’ve seen.”