UFC Fight Night: A city stands behind Yorgan De Castro

Jasmin Frank/USA TODAY Sports

Editor's note: This story was originally published ahead of Yorgan De Castro's fight against Greg Hardy at UFC 249.

FALL RIVER, Mass. -- The heavy bag was taking a beating. Thump. Thump. The assault of low kicks from the tree-trunk legs of Yorgan De Castro was unrelenting, as ominous as an approaching thunderstorm. Thump. Thump.

He looked like he could continue like this for days. But seconds later De Castro switched things up to dish out punch combinations -- tightly looping left hooks setting up hard, straight right hands. Everything he threw was packed with an intention to hurt.

Then a timer rang out, and De Castro paused his aggression.

As the fighter dropped his guard to take a breather, a high school-aged kid who'd been shadowboxing in another corner of the gym walked by. The UFC heavyweight gave the kid a gentle pat on the head. De Castro shared not a word but watched him make his way to another heavy bag hanging from the gym ceiling and start taking swings. Then De Castro got back to his own thumping.

De Castro was preparing for the biggest fight of his life, his heavyweight matchup with former NFL star Greg Hardy scheduled for a UFC Fight Night on March 28 in Columbus, Ohio. But the coronavirus pandemic forced the event's cancellation. Plans for a new card on April 18 featuring Hardy vs. De Castro began to take shape, but that was ultimately postponed as well. Booked a third time, De Castro and Hardy are now set to meet Saturday at UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Florida.

Same high-profile opponent, same life-changing stakes for De Castro in his second fight in the UFC. But so much has changed.

Before the pandemic hit, De Castro's days would begin with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up for a run on the sleepy streets of Fall River. The early start was a necessity because his days were busy. And hitting the streets before dawn also allowed for solitude. If he were to run at any other time of day, he inevitably would pass by people he knew -- he seems to know everyone in Fall River -- and he'd be tempted to stop and connect.

After returning home for breakfast with his wife and daughter, De Castro would drop off the 5-year-old at school. Then he would head to his day job as a security officer at B.M.C. Durfee High School. He would be one of several on duty during the school day, charged with keeping the building and its 2,100 students safe and orderly.

When his workday finished in the early afternoon, De Castro would make his rounds visiting local sponsors around the city to pick up packages of healthy meals and replenish his supply of nutritional supplements. These were not quick stops. Banter and laughter tended to slow things down.

By late afternoon, De Castro would be at Infinite Fitness Sports Performance for strength and conditioning training, and then he'd head across town to Regiment Training Center to work on his jiu-jitsu and kickboxing skills. He often would not arrive home until 9 p.m.

When 5:30 a.m. would roll around, he'd be back at it.

Durfee closed its doors to students on March 17, but De Castro is still employed by the school, helping distribute meals to families in need a few hours a week. But the majority of his time over the last two months has been spent working toward his fight against Hardy. Both of the gyms De Castro trains at are closed to the public, but his coaches open the doors each day just for him.

By 9 in the morning, De Castro is in the gym working on his strength and conditioning. In the afternoon, he shifts to another gym for kickboxing and jiu-jitsu. While having the spaces to himself has allowed De Castro to focus on training, he misses the camaraderie.

De Castro can no longer be out and about in the city, but he has made a point of ordering takeout from local restaurants, many of which have supported his fight career. Those takeout meals with his wife, Carla, and their daughter, Kyara, represent a silver lining in these troubled times.

"When was the last time you could take breakfast, lunch and dinner with your family?" he says. "When things are back to normal, we're not going to have all this time with each other."

Still, having his fight canceled twice "really burned me out for a while," De Castro says. He even paused his training for a few days. But gradually he managed to shift his frame of mind. He came to view the delay as just one more mental challenge in a sport that's all about cerebral preparedness.

"Things are different, but I know how to fight," De Castro says. "And when I get there, I'm going to fight."

Then he laughed wistfully.

"Let's hope the fight happens this time."

THE ROLLER-COASTER ride of fight bookings has represented only part of the upheaval in De Castro's life. The other part is symbolized by his wordless encounter with the teen in the gym in February. As seriously as he takes his fighting, he is no less fierce in his devotion to being a mentor to the youth of his adopted city.

At Durfee High, he does not approach his security job as an iron fist of authority. No, the tough-guy UFC heavyweight has become known around school -- and around the city -- for his welcoming demeanor.

"Yorgan always has a smile for you. Always," says Brendan Palma, the teen who was working out alongside De Castro at Regiment Training Center that night. Palma is a Durfee senior who met De Castro last summer at the gym, where Palma had just taken up boxing. Almost immediately, he found himself having easygoing conversations. "I liked that a professional fighter would talk to a total beginner," Palma says.

Then the school year came, and on the first day of classes Palma walked in the front entrance at Durfee and saw a familiar face smiling at him from the security desk.

"Our school is lucky to have Yorgan," Palma says. "He talks with everyone, always wanting to know how your day is going. He treats us like we're his own kids. Everyone loves Yorgan."

Walking the Durfee High hallways alongside De Castro on that early February school day was like being part of a ticker tape parade, just without the confetti. Every single student he passed had a greeting for him -- a high-five, a fist bump, a "Hey, Yorgan!"

De Castro is not so much a celebrity in the eyes of the students, despite being a professional prizefighter in the world's leading MMA promotion. He's more like a local hero who is part of the family.

"Students respond to Yorgan because of the kind, respectful way he is with them," says Melissa Fogarty, vice principal of the Class of 2020. "Kids have an instinct where they know whether someone's real or not, and Yorgan is as genuine as can be. He understands that it might take just one 'Hey, are you doing OK?' to change someone's life, keep them on the right path. And that comes natural to him."

That might be a byproduct of De Castro's own path. He was born 32 years ago in Cape Verde, an island nation in the central Atlantic off the coast of Senegal. The country was made semi-famous by its greatest export, singer Cesaria Evora, known as the "Barefoot Diva" because she performed onstage without shoes -- same as De Castro. But many who live on the 10 islands that make up this onetime colony of Portugal are stuck in a world that knows nothing of fame or fortune. Thirty percent of its citizens live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. De Castro and his siblings were raised by a single mother, scraping by on little. "There were no opportunities there," he says, "and really no way out."

De Castro grew up playing soccer and dreaming the dream shared by so many Cape Verdean youth: an elusive ambition of one day moving to Portugal to play the beautiful game. Yorgan was pretty good as a midfielder, though a bit too rough. "A lot of red cards," he says, laughing. "A lot."

By age 19, De Castro did make it to Portugal, though without his soccer dream. When he settled in his new home he discovered a sport that better suited his ruggedness: kickboxing. He took it up just to get in better shape but found he was good enough to compete. He went 8-1 as an amateur.

That turned out to be a steppingstone for more life-changing moves: another new sport and another new country.

His relatives who had immigrated to the United States heard he was kickboxing in Europe, and a couple of his uncles persuaded De Castro to switch to mixed martial arts and leave Portugal for Massachusetts, where they live among a sizable population of Cape Verdean expatriates. They told him about the abundance of opportunity in MMA -- regional fights around New England, they were thinking, not necessarily the big show. In 2012, De Castro made the move.

"Coming from nowhere," De Castro says, "just being here is a win for me."

That's the kind of attitude that makes you popular in Fall River. This is a place not used to being characterized as a refuge, a land of opportunity. The city is just a few miles from the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, but it's a world removed. Unemployment and poverty rates have long been significantly higher than state and national averages. Fall River made headlines last year when, based on FBI crime statistics, it was declared the most dangerous city per capita in Massachusetts.

That's not the lens through which De Castro views Fall River. He treats his adopted hometown like a cherished locale. He feels comfortable here. Nearly half the population has ancestry in Portugal or its colonies, and there is a significant immigrant presence drawn from various parts of the world. At the high school, when speaking to students, De Castro can carry on a conversation in English, Portuguese or Creole.

"They relate to Yorgan, and he relates to them," says Jessica Stephens, vice principal for the Class of 2023 at Durfee High. "He feels many of the same things they feel. And because of that, he is always seeking to understand where kids are coming from rather than assuming the worst."

Freshman Rafael Vazquez knew who De Castro was when he enrolled at Durfee in September. He's a football player, but he had always been interested in trying boxing. He had even talked about it with his elementary school principal, Brian Raposo, who also happens to be the striking coach at Regiment. So Vazquez knew who the top fighters at the gym were, and he recognized De Castro at Durfee during his first week at his new school. He got up the nerve to introduce himself.

"Hey, man," Vazquez told De Castro, "I want to be the next you."

De Castro smiled at that, and he remembered Vazquez when the teen showed up at the gym later that week. He took him aside and showed him some boxing techniques, then some kickboxing and a little grappling. All the while, De Castro would talk to Vazquez about life and listen to him as well, offering subtle guidance to help Raffy stay on a positive path.

"He trains me like a son," Vazquez says, "and I look up to him like a father."

"I didn't have anyone to show me the way," De Castro says, "so when I see kids who are at the age I was when I needed direction, I want to be there for them. If they need to talk, if they need help, I'm here. Kids go through a lot of stuff."

De Castro recognizes that the highlights of his life story might sound daunting for the kids at Durfee to hear. Moving halfway across the world to make a new life as a professional athlete is a major venture, setting the bar high. So De Castro has always been open with the teens about his smaller steps and even his lowlights.

When De Castro began as an amateur in MMA in 2014, for example, things looked rosy when he scored a first-round knockout victory in his first fight. He won his second bout as well. But then he lost a fight, and a few months later he lost again. A succession of canceled fights kept him inactive for a year and a half. When he returned in late 2016, soon after having found a new training home at Regiment, he lost two more fights in a row.

"When I was 2-4 as an amateur, I asked myself, do I really want to do this?" De Castro says. "It sucks to wake up sore every day and work toward something you don't even know is going to happen."

That self-doubting time in De Castro's life felt familiar to many of the teenagers he saw every day in Fall River.

DE CASTRO IS proof that life can turn around. The 2-4 amateur is now 6-0 as a professional, with knockouts in all but one of his pro fights. At the start of 2019, he fought for the CES regional promotion in front of 300 fans at a former dog track in Rhode Island. In June, De Castro won himself a UFC contract on Dana White's Contender Series with a devastating leg kick KO. And by October, he was making his UFC debut at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, before 57,127 fans, the largest crowd in the fight promotion's history.

De Castro's first-round KO of Justin Tafa on the UFC 243 pay-per-view set him up for Saturday's big opportunity.

"Greg Hardy has name recognition, so this is a chance to make a lot of people notice me," De Castro says. "I am going to come to fight."

Had the bout happened as originally scheduled, there would have been quite a scene on fight night at Scottie's Pub. Before the pandemic closed down all gathering places in Fall River and elsewhere, this sports bar on Pleasant Street was the place to be for any UFC event. When De Castro made his debut last fall, on the main card, no less, it was packed. "In this place," says manager Lou Sisca, "a Yorgan night is like a Conor night."

That level of support in Fall River -- from fellow immigrants to folks who were born and raised in the city -- is what makes these pandemic times so difficult for De Castro. He says his family is healthy and safe. That includes not just his wife and daughter but also his mother and two brothers, who live downstairs in the same two-decker home on the city's east side. But he misses the larger community, particularly the Durfee students.

"I feel for them, especially the Class of 2020, which is supposed to graduate in a month or two. They miss out on that, and it's terrible," De Castro says. "Being with those kids is a big part of my life. Some of the kids I know have a really rough home life, and I wonder how they are doing. I miss them and pray that everyone will be safe."

The depth of the relationships De Castro has built up within Durfee High School is clear in the stories the students and administrators tell, and how they embrace him. A few weeks after De Castro won his UFC debut in October, Durfee feted him at its annual Thanksgiving pep rally. He got an ear-piercing standing ovation from the student body as he walked into the gymnasium, and then De Castro engaged in a playful wrestling match with the superintendent of schools. It was a hero's welcome.

He won't get that type of reaction upon his return after his fight against Hardy, regardless of the result, but the support remains. In these times of social distancing, De Castro has to settle for a steady flow of texts from students, filling him in on their lives and urging him on against Hardy. "They tell me they can't wait to see me at school again," he says. "And I feel exactly the same."

A February day spent with De Castro in his adopted hometown revealed that, belying any dark FBI stats, Fall River is a city brimming with deep love. Everywhere he went, De Castro attracted it and recirculated it. If this MMA career doesn't pan out for him, he might want to consider a run for mayor.

De Castro laughed at the suggestion, then said, "That reminds me ..." He pulled out his phone, searched his contacts, dialed and handed over the phone. And who answered the call? An actual mayor.

"Yorgan embodies the American dream," says Will Flanagan, who served as mayor of Fall River from 2010 through 2014. "Our community sees hope in him, especially the students at Durfee High School. For the youth of Fall River, Yorgan is a hero. And how special is it to have your hero right there in front of you?"