Bibiano Fernandes is inclined to do what's best for him (even if popular opinion is that he's done the opposite) and after hearing his story it's easy to understand why.
Fernandes, a former Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion and Dream bantamweight grand prix winner, returns to action Friday in the Philippines against Australian Gustavo Falciroli. The contest headlines ONE FC: Pride of a Nation, the fifth event for a promoter that views itself as the emerging force in Asian mixed martial arts.
This is where the 32-year-old Brazilian wants to be, clearly. Fernandes could have been in the UFC. In fact, just two months ago the UFC claimed the top-10 fighter was in their stable. Fernandes, Zuffa said, had a fight at UFC 149. But Fernandes hadn't signed a deal. UFC jumped the gun.
"Everyone got excited about me fighting there," Fernandes said. "People don't know the negotiations. Of course I can go there, but it has to be the right reason.
"The truth is, I made the decision. I made the choice. It's better for me, for my family. I'm already fighting in Asia and have a lot of fans. People know me [in North America] but not as much. Of course I feel it's a good decision -- 100 percent."
Fernandes' life helps explain why.
His mother died when he was 7. Lacking money to take care of his son, Fernandes' father later shipped him from Manaus, Brazil, to the rain forest. He lived simply. Hungry? Time to fish or hunt. Thirsty? Cop a drink from the millions of gallons of fresh water rolling down the river.
"When you're sick, you're sick," he said. "I had malaria there, it was crazy. But life is very peaceful in the jungle. Sometimes when go I back to my city, Manaus, I go there."
Never really knowing his mother. Having been shipped to the jungle by his father. Ahh, of course Fernandes fights. He's angry. He must be.
"Why would I be angry?" he wondered. "My mother passed away, but that's life. I have my life. I had my choice: be angry or enjoy myself. I'm not angry at my father. I'm not angry at anyone. Everything is my choice."
And there it is: Everything is his choice. We should all have Fernandes' sense of free will and determination, even and especially when life's circumstances feel predestined for the worse.
"I didn't have a lot of options," Fernandes said. "My options were to be a good man or a bad man. I said, OK, I want to train and be good. This is inside me. I chose training. I chose discipline. I chose doing good things in my life. That's taken me."
He may have ultimately chosen training, but not until he found it.
When Fernandes was 16, he stared training in the face. Every day. For months, like Charlie pining for a chocolate bar. Then it finally invited him in the door. Fernandes couldn't afford jiu-jitsu classes, but learning is what he wanted. It's what he did gawking at classes from behind a pane-glass window.
A friend was kind enough to pay for a month of lessons. He was in love. And he was good. He tapped out other students like it was nothing. The coach asked Fernandes if he had competition in mind. He did. And he won. But he couldn't afford anything more than he'd already done. Charlie was getting axed from the chocolate factory.
"I said, 'Listen Coach, I don't have the money anymore. I can't train anymore," Fernandes said. "He told me to come in and clean the dojo. Every day for three years I cleaned the dojo. After classes were over I stayed, cleaned, locked up and gave the key to the coach's mother. Every day for three years. One day my coach said, 'Bibiano, today you don't need to clean the gym anymore. The next boy is coming."
It's among his most important promotions. From 16 to 19, Fernandes lived an almost monastic life dedicated to the soft art of mangling another human.
"I could see everything that would happen,” Fernandes said, with a soothsayer’s confidence. “I believed I could do it and I did."
He entered MMA in 2004 and jumped in headfirst. Two of his first three fights came against Urijah Faber and Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto. He lost both, but he was doing what he wanted. Fernandes won his next seven bouts, stumbled, then took three in a row to capture the Dream bantamweight grand prix at the end of 2011.
"In Brazil people train in lots of sports," he said. "For me sports are big in my life. I wanted to be good at something and I believed I could be good in jiu-jitsu. I dedicated myself and my life to this sport. Training hard, discipline is good."
Fernandes’ track in life and the success that sprung from it were more than enough for Zuffa to offer the deal.
"I walk with my foot on the floor," Fernandes said. "I don't fly in the sky. I'm here. I live for this moment. I know my talent. I know I can go fight there."
Yet he chose not to.
“I don't owe anyone anything,” he said. “All my life I had a hard time. People can think whatever they think. I have to respect that.”