I don’t care who you are, putting together a five-fight win streak inside the Octagon is noteworthy. Doing it twice, well that’s just straight up badass.
UFC middleweight Thales Leites is one such fighter. Heading into his headlining date with Michael Bisping at UFC Glasgow on Saturday, Leites is looking to do one better than the string of wins he put together back in 2007-2008. But of course, it’s miraculous that we’re even talking about Leites in 2015, after he was sent down to the minors following a pair of losses in 2009.
Comeback stories in MMA aren’t a complete anomaly. In recent years we’ve already seen Robbie Lawler resurrect his career during his second stint with the UFC, transforming into one of the most inspirational champions in history. Anderson Silva also demonstrated tremendous courage, returning to the cage in January for UFC 183. Leites’ return, which came in August 2013, largely went unnoticed, until he started picking off some top 15 middleweights.
But before we can even begin to examine the revival of Thales Leites, who has won eight straight overall dating back to October 2010, it’s imperative to remember his first UFC run, which included a middleweight title shot against Silva, who was in the midst of his prime.
It was a different middleweight division in the mid-to-late aughts. Silva was far, far ahead of everyone, and the UFC was almost desperate to find legitimate contenders to last more than a round with “The Spider,” who was demolishing everyone matchmaker Joe Silva put in front of him.
Leites, 27 at the time, was given a title shot, paired with Silva on the strength of a five-fight win streak. But no one was giving the Nova Uniao product much of a chance against Silva, who was coming off of his fourth straight title defense, and eighth straight inside the Octagon.
The odds proved to be correct, as Silva topped Leites via unanimous decision in the UFC 97 main event. The lone bright spot for Leites was that he became the first fighter to last all five rounds with the champ, an asterisk-worthy consolation prize at best.
Four months later, Leites was handed his walking papers following a loss to Alessio Sakara. He appeared destined for obscurity and life on the regional circuit.
Then came a little help from featherweight champion Jose Aldo.
With Aldo, and later bantamweight teammate Renan Barao, capturing UFC titles, Leites found renewed inspiration at Nova Uniao, coach Andre Pederneiras’ legendary Rio de Janeiro camp, which is also home to UFC staples B.J. Penn, Junior dos Santos, and Claudia Gadelha.
He rattled off wins in Canada’s Maximum Fighting Championship promotion, topping Octagon veterans Dean Lister, Jesse Taylor, Tor Troeng, and Jeremy Horn. With six victories following his first run in the UFC, Leites was set to return to the big leagues. And it was Aldo who helped campaign to get Leites back into the Octagon, and onto the UFC 163 card.
For the first few outings of Leites’ second run, the BJJ black belt appeared timid and conservative, taking a pair of routine decisions against Tom Watson and Ed Herman.
Leites was clearly good enough to hang with the UFC’s middle-rung 185-pounders, but he gave no indication that he was ready to break into the top ten and headline sold-out cards in Europe.
The one major improvement that was apparent, however, was a noticeable jump in Leites’ striking, which looked much more accurate, powerful, and calculated.
No longer content with being labeled a jiu jitsu fighter, of which he has always been elite, Leites stormed through Trevor Smith in Abu Dhabi in April 2014, sealing the TKO finish in just 45 seconds.
Was this really the same Thales Leites who was known for pushing the action against the cage, tying up opponents, and dragging them to the mat with his serpentine strangling abilities?
Following the victory over Smith, Leites cracked the top-15; the UFC decided to serve him up to French national, and Tristar representative, Francis Carmont, who was ranked twelfth and hungry for a victory following a pair of losses to Jacare Souza and C.B. Dollaway.
At the time, it was expected that Carmont, who was fighting for his job, would employ Tristar’s Chute Boxe method to jab Leites out of range and control distance for the win. The first round played out as such, but twenty seconds into the second frame, Leites unloaded a flurry to knock Carmont out. The jiu jitsu stylist took home a Performance of the Night for his second-straight knockout.
With the win, a victory that sent Carmont out of the UFC, Leites solidified his place as a legit threat in the middleweight division. But for his next test, the UFC was giving him the heavy handed, and iron-chinned, Tim Boetsch, a veteran of eleven Octagon bouts, with victories over Hector Lombard, Yushin Okami, and Brad Tavares.
Taking place on the UFC 183 main card, Leites and Boetsch traded leather in the first frame, tagging each other with heavy shots in brutal exchanges. Boetsch looked to get the better of the first round, nearly finishing the bout toward the end of the period, but there was no denying that Leites could hang.
In the second, Boetsch once again rocked Leites. But as the Brazilian lost his balance, he recovered to move in directly for a takedown and control Boetsch’s legs.
It was almost as if Boetsch knocked Leites directly into the mount against the cage, and if there’s anywhere where Leites excels, it would be in this exact scenario.
Slithering his way up Boetsch’s frame, Leites forced his head under the American’s arm to attempt an arm-triangle choke. Boetsch escaped the first go-round, but just seconds later, Leites adjusted his position to attempt the submission again. This time, the choke was locked in deep, forcing Boetsch to tap out, giving Leites his fifth straight win inside the UFC.
The victory, which was named both Fight of the Night and Performance of the Night, would cement Leites as a top-10 middleweight and set up his showdown with Bisping. But where can he go from here?
With a loss to Bisping on Saturday, Leites would likely still hang around the top 15. C.B. Dollaway, Tim Kennedy, Lyoto Machida, Vitor Belfort are all legitimate options for Leites. But with a win, well, now things really heat up.
If you look at his current resume, it’s fair to start putting Leites in the contendership conversation along with Jacare Souza, Yoel Romero, and Gegard Mousasi.
A win over Bisping would make it six straight, and three consecutive over ranked opponents, which is more than can be said of Souza, whom everyone is riding as the next title contender after Luke Rockhold.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves …
There’s still tomorrow night’s bout with Bisping, who is 5-0 inside the Octagon when fighting in his native U.K. Bisping is always a tough foe, a crafty UFC veteran who is looking for his own resurgence in the post TRT era (Bisping was never a TRT user, but faced a lengthy list of combatants who either used testosterone or were busted for PEDs).
First, let’s see how Leites fares for his stiffest test since Silva. Afterward we can pontificate and project. And no matter the outcome, we must remember that Thales Leites is legit, and that sometimes, things are much clearer upon second sight.
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