He is the captain of the Brazilian Top Team (BTT). He is the former UFC Middleweight champion who submitted Matt Lindland twice in one fight. He is one of the most respected and revered icons in the sport. He is, quite simply, a legend and a pioneer in mixed martial arts.
I hope you enjoy this interview with Murilo Bustamante, which was a true honor for me to conduct. Murilo discusses how the sale of Pride Fighting Championships affected his career and MMA overall, his relationship with the UFC and why he chose to leave to fight overseas, his toughest fights and the fighters he admires most, and why he thinks he's maintained such a special position within the hearts of hardcore MMA fans.DW: You were consistently active in MMA up until Pride FC was sold, after which you were absent for some time. Can you explain how the UFC’s purchase of Pride affected your career?
MB: When Pride was sold my contract was already finished, so I didn’t have any fights remaining. The problem about Pride being sold was that the UFC didn’t keep making the show and they couldn’t keep all the fighters, because the UFC already had a lot of fighters.
Then, they dismissed some of the Pride fighters, and some of them were from BTT. We had at least two BTT fighters fighting on each Pride show, which was perfect for our team. The best part about having two big shows like Pride and UFC was that the fighters had more options, because there were two big and different markets of MMA: Japan and USA.
DW: I couldn't agree more. Though I had complaints and compliments for each, I loved having two different options, which was a perfect balance for MMA fans. Pride's dissolution also sparked a significant change in the entire sport. Besides most of the best fighters going to the UFC, in what ways do you feel the demise of Pride changed global MMA?
MB: The first reason is that none of the Japanese events could fill up the hole left from Pride's demise. None of them could replace Pride. Pride was a particular show with particular fans. Pride fans were really loyal and huge fans of the show and the fighters. They support the show in all ways. I think they didn’t become fans at the new shows like they were of Pride.
Pride's demise makes the whole global market focused only on the United States. That became the biggest MMA market in the world. Before we had two big MMA markets, now I can only see the US as the big market.
DW: There was a lot of speculation about why you chose to leave the UFC as middleweight champion. Can you explain your reasons for leaving and discuss your relationship with the UFC at that time?MB: I left UFC just because of contract issues; nothing else. My relationship with them at the time was really good. They cared really well for me, and I can’t complain about anything. The UFC was nice to me. But, at the time, Japan was the biggest market of MMA in the world.
Unfortunately at the time we couldn’t agree about the terms to renew my contract, and then I left the show.
DW: Were you ever asked to come back to the UFC, and would that have been an option you would have considered after the sale of Pride?
MB: We spoke about it at the end of 2007 and they made me a offer to return to the show, but we didn’t close the deal. Of course, it was a option. Returning to the UFC would have been awesome. I always fought well in the Octagon. I think I could have done much more after Pride's demise, but unfortunately it didn’t happen.
DW: You’ve competed in a few boxing matches lately. Why did you decide to try a pure striking art, and do you plan to continue boxing?
MB: The reason was just because I had too much time without fighting. I was planning to return and a boxing match would be good training to return to MMA fights, and it was what I did. To step in the ring and fight a striking game was perfect for me; it made me full of adrenaline and gave me a cold stomach again, and was also good training for me.
By the way, I always wanted to fight a boxing match as well. It was nice and I think I did well. I can’t say I won’t do it again -- we will see -- maybe in the future, just for fun.
DW: Jason “Mayhem” Miller recently visited your school in Brazil. Tell me about his day at Brazilian Top Team, and what you thought about his grappling skills?
MB: It was really fun to receive him at my gym. He is a good fighter and a professional. I didn’t know him well, and he showed a lot of respect on the mat, training with everybody and really having fun to be there.
I think he is a good grappler with a lot of skills, he tried to learn everything he could. And he learns really fast; he is such a smart fighter. It was my pleasure to receive him and his crew at BTT. My doors are open to him anytime.
DW: MMA fans are a pretty tough bunch, but you’ve always been an iconic fighter who everyone holds in very high regard. What aspects of your character or career do you think make you different in this way than other competitors in MMA history?
MB: I think people could see that I am a sportsman, a good professional, humble, low profile, don’t like to talk crap, but show my skills in the ring. I'm always respectful to the fans. When I step in the ring, I do my best to make a good show for the fans -- it doesn’t matter who is in the other side, I will push the fight and fight hard against everyone that fights me.
Another thing is that I could make a good connection between BJJ and MMA, using my BJJ skills really well in MMA fights. BJJ is my background and my religion, that’s what makes me able to go to the top in MMA. But I am smart enough to know how to use it well in MMA. I tried to learn the most I could in Martial Arts to be able to fight fighters from different disciplines.
I think I was the first fighter that could strike with strikers, wrestle with wrestlers, and grapple with grapplers at a very high level -- just because I have a lot of interest to learn different disciplines. I am in love with Martial Arts in general.
DW: Two of your career losses stand out as very pivotal: Rampage and the first Henderson fight. I’d like to get some of your thoughts on each.
At Total Elimination 2003, your teammate, Ricardo Arona, injured his leg and you filled in for him against Quinton Jackson with only a few days of notice. It’s impressive considering your natural weight and background that you nailed a trip takedown on Rampage, as he has some of the best takedown defense in the game, and only powerful light-heavyweight wrestlers (and Matt Lindland) were able to do the same.
Why do you think you were able to put Rampage on his back so easily? Was this timing, experience, technique, or all of the above?
MB: I think it was the mix of everything. I always try to be unpredictable fighting, and I think it made it harder for my opponents to defend the takedowns. When they thought I was going for the takedown, I punched them. When they thought I was going to punch, I took them down.
Even the best wrestlers can be taken down, but it has to be in the right timing. That’s one important part of my training.
DW: This takedown lead to the tight guillotine that Rampage had to spend several minutes fighting out of. What was going through your mind when you had the choke, and did you feel you were on the verge of ending the fight?
MB: I thought I was going to submit him at the time. In my mind I thought like that while I was choking him: “Fuck! I accepted this fight on short notice, I didn’t train anything for this, and I am going to submit him right now. I can’t believe it!” (laughs)
It was something like that. But suddenly, after some time choking him, he jumped to the side (I think he was trying to escape between the ropes), and I couldn’t keep choking well, so I chose to go to the top. Then the referee stopped the fight to let him tie his trunks, which gave him time to recover his breath.
Anyway, it was a good score to my side during the fight, and I knew that. My problem at the time was that I didn’t know how long I could keep fighting. I didn’t know how much endurance I had because I didn’t train at all for this fight in question. I just didn’t know how many rounds I could handle, but fortunately I could handle the whole fight.
DW: According to Pride’s judging criteria, there’s a good argument for you winning the decision because of your submission attempts and success with strikes. Do you think you should have been given the decision? Why or why not?
MB: I think they could have given me the decision. A lot of people think the same. But the most important thing for me was that I handled something really hard, stepping into the ring to fight against a top fighter without training anything, and I did really well.
Rampage is a top fighter and I fought him with no training at all. It was a kind of a personal challenge for me. I just overcame the lack of training and made a good role to my fans.
DW: Your first fight with Dan Henderson was also controversial because of the unintentional headbutt. Did you ever try to appeal this incident with Pride, and if so, what was their response?
MB: Yes, my manager wrote a letter to Pride to appeal but they didn’t care. They kept the decision.
DW: Did you ever discuss the fight and/or the headbutt with Dan Henderson?
MB: No, I never discussed it with Dan Henderson. I think the headbutt was an accident, non- intentional, but the fact is that it changed the result of the fight because it made me dizzy.
Maybe he could knock me out or win the fight some other way later -- who knows -- but at the time that it happened it just changed the game to his favor. I think this fight would be like the second we did, a hard fight for us , and a great fight for the fans.
DW: Have you ever wondered how different your career would be if you’d won both of those fights?
MB: Yes, I have thought about it some time. But I think you have to deal with the difficulties that happen in your life, overcoming them. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I just keep working and fighting and trying to do my best. And after that I had a lot of good fights in my career.
DW: You faced Jesse Taylor recently at Australia’s Impact FC event, and suffered a strange bout of dizziness that may have come from a past injury to your neck. Did you ever discover the cause of this? And are you still experiencing any problems in your training?
MB: When I returned to Brazil after the fight, I had a lot of examinations and the doctor said it was labyrinthitis that happened during the fight. It made me badly dizzy and made me lose my balance completely. It was like I was fighting badly drunk.
Fortunately, Big John stopped the fight because I wasn't in any condition to keep fighting. At the time I was very vulnerable. I don’t know why it did happen, maybe because of my neck or because some hit me in my head, I really don’t know. But it isn’t something that put my health in risk.
I had it for a couple weeks after the fight, and stopped training to recover. Right now I feel totally well, I've even had some hard boxing sparrings that proved I’m totally okay.
DW: The dominance of wrestlers and takedowns has come under scrutiny in many of the UFC events. Your friend and former training partner Antonio Rogerio Nogueira recently lost to Ryan Bader, and said that the takedown is “worshipped” too much in the UFC. Do you feel that the takedown is given too much credit, or that basic mechanics of the guard just aren’t being used effectively?
MB: I think some times the judges give too much credit to takedowns, or to ground and pound control. If you don’t work hard from the bottom to put your opponent in danger or put him in a very bad situation, you don’t score enough.
Basically, you must be aggressive from the bottom, but it is just the rules of the game since my time in octagon, so everybody knows that. You can’t complain if you already know the rules before start to play. You just have to adapt yourself and your style to play the game.
DW: Was there ever an opponent that you were surprised to form a bond of friendship or respect with?MB: I have a lot of respect for my opponents and I am sure most of them have the same feeling to me. For example, I have in my Facebook as a friend my last opponent, Jessie Taylor, and I lost to him.
MMA for me is a sport: I step in the ring just to do my job, I don’t have bad feelings toward people that fight me. They are professionals as I am, and of course, they want to win just as I do. I don’t need to hate people to do my job, I just have to fight them like a sportsman, that’s what I am. Some times I win, some times I lose. That’s how life is.
DW: Either in training or competition, who did you feel exuded the most natural talent and abilities?MB: I can tell you that my student Rousimar Palhares is the one with the best talent when I spar with him. Not only in BJJ but in wrestling and MMA.
DW: Who was the toughest opponent you've ever faced, and why?
MB: I have faced a lot of tough opponents during my career. I fought guys like Tom Erikson, Rampage, Liddell, Henderson, Menne, Lindland, Bohlander, Kikuta, and many more. They were all tough fighters. I always tried to meet the best fighters I could.I can tell you that fighting Erikson for 40 minutes was really hard, and a very good experience for me. He was much bigger and heavier than me, and in very good shape at the time. Our fight was the final of the [MARS 1996] tournament and the third fight of the night, which made it harder.
I fought Rampage without any preparation, which was hard as well. These fights made me stronger and proved to me that I could handle really hard times in the ring. And I mean both of those fights, because of the history of the situation at the time were special and gave me a lot of experience.
DW: Of the current big names in MMA, whom do you respect and enjoy watching?
MB: There are a lot of good fighters nowadays that I like to watch. Guys like Rizzo, Rousimar, BJ, Anderson, Edgar, Aldo, Torres, Milton Vieira, Cain Velasquez, Couture, Aoki, Fedor, Werdum, Carwin, Shogun, Lyoto, Rampage, Mousasi, Demian, Fitch, Thiago Alves and Thiago Silva, Shields, the Diaz Brothers, Maynard, Melendez, Alvarez, Bielkheden, Guida, and Brown. I can keep going and going and I will forget a lot of good fighters. I like to watch guys that fight hard and guys that have natural talent to be fighters.The amount of good fighters nowadays is really big. I like to watch young fighters as well, that are not big names yet. Then I try to find out the names that will shine in the future; those who will become big names. It is just fun.
DW: Murilo, thank you so much for your time. You are welcome to leave any closing comments or final words.MB: I would like to say thanks to my fans who support me and to BTT for all these years, and I can say that we are working hard inside BTT to make new, good fighters to represent our team and make good shows for the MMA fans.