Photo by Warren Little/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
Just over five years ago at UFC 97, Thales Leites squared off with Anderson Silva for a shot at the UFC middleweight title. At the time, he was on a five-fight winning streak in the UFC, and while he was a sizable underdog to the champ, winning that fight would have secured him a place in the MMA history books. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. After five rounds of scooting around on his ass, trying to goad an uninterested Silva into his guard, Leites had done more than lose. He’d played the co-star in one of the most unspectacular title fights in UFC history. The fans felt cheated, and UFC president Dana White was irate. "I’ve never been embarrassed of a UFC fight like I was in the main event tonight,” he said of the affair.
If Leites had a chance to redeem himself, it was against hot-and-cold veteran Alessio Sakara at UFC 101. But after three boo-inducing rounds, he again found himself on the wrong side of the judge’s score cards. His next stop was the unemployment line.
From there, Leites dropped off the radar. Die-hard fans may have noticed him competing against fellow UFC outcasts like Jesse Taylor and Jeremy Horn in local shows, but the former challenger’s descent into obscurity seemed final. He would be remembered as the guy who stunk up Montreal’s Bell Centre with Anderson Silva, and not much more. But in MMA, nothing speaks louder than a good, old-fashioned win-streak, and Leites quietly assembled one, with wins over Taylor, Horn, and other notables like Matt Horwich and Dean Lister. The streak, coupled with being vouched for by his teammate Jose Aldo, was enough to earn Leites a chance at redemption. In August of 2013, he was matched up with Tom Watson at UFC 163, in his hometown of Rio de Janeiro. This time, he didn’t let the chance slip through his fingers. He scored a unanimous decision victory— his first in the UFC since October, 2008.
Fast-forward one year. Leites has scrapped his way past two more UFC opponents, Ed Herman and Trevor Smith. Suddenly, he’s two wins shy of the UFC win-streak that earned him a title shot five years ago. And fittingly, his comeback has been marked by a match-up with a big-name opponent in Francis Carmont. The pair will duke it out on the main card of UFC Fight Night: Henderson vs. Dos Anjos, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this weekend.
Odds-makers have Leites pegged as an underdog, and rightly so. It wasn’t long ago that Carmont was being matched up with killers like Costas Philippou and Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza. While he’s since fallen from grace, he’s still a stark test for anyone. Factor in his imposing size, powerful grappling, and the fact that he himself may be cut from the UFC with another loss, and it becomes clear that Carmont has all the makings of a nightmare for Leites. A victory for the Brazilian would be an undeniable upset. But every card has its upsets, and if Leites helps fill this weekend’s quota with a win over Carmont, he’ll be on a four-fight win-streak since returning to the UFC. Considering the UFC already has him ranked at 15th in the division, that fourth win would give him the surprising look of a fighter who’s ready for matches inside the top-10.
Sure, it’s unlikely. Leites will probably come to a skidding halt against the formidable skills of his upcoming opponent. But what if he doesn’t? Matt Brown and Mark Hunt have shown us that Cinderella stories are not impossible. And while Leites isn’t riding a string of savage knockouts like Brown and Hunt did, a win-streak is a win-streak. If he can somehow beat Carmont this weekend, who might be next for the once-disgraced title challenger? Maybe the loser of UFC Macao’s main event between Cung Le and Michael Bisping. Perhaps C.B. Dolloway or Costas Philippou. And should such match-ups come to fruition for Leites, it’s not a stretch that he might also find himself headlining a Fight Pass card in Brazil. After all, a fight between Leites, and say, Bisping, would be no more outrageous than the recent headliner between Stipe Miocic and Fabio Maldonado.
Leites will probably never fight for the title again. If not by Carmont, his climb will almost certainly be halted by some member of the killer’s row that comprises the middleweight division’s top-10. But from the moment the final bell rang in his 2009 bout with Anderson Silva, his return to prominence has been an unlikely thing. A recovery from the losses that sent him packing from the UFC looked impossible, yet here he is, teetering on the edge of divisional relevance once again. Leites will have his work cut out for him this weekend, and with a win, his job will only become more difficult. But his mere presence on a UFC main card is somewhat of a wonder. He may just have a few more surprises in store for us.
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