The first time I saw Rafael Natal in the Octagon, I thought, “This is a man at home.”
This was late January, at UFC on Fox 6 in Chicago. Natal's opponent that night, Sean Spencer, was fighting his first UFC fight, and he came into the cage with almost uncontainable energy. Or maybe it only seemed that way compared to Natal, who was making his sixth appearance for the promotion. The Brazilian wasn’t passive, just content to let the moment sit until the next move presented itself and then respond, until finally Spencer was underneath him, slapping his left shoulder blade in submission.
Natal’s stillness only broke when that hand hit his back, then he ran to a ringside camera, angled the lens to his face as easily as he had manipulated Spencer’s windpipe, and delivered a line that everyone, in a just world, should have at least one chance to utter: “I am Rafael 'Sapo' Natal! God will help me get there! I have the best coach in the world! I have a great body! I have a beautiful girlfriend!”
Now almost two weeks later, sitting on the steel bleachers at the Renzo Gracie Fight Academy in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Natal laughs about his post-fight declaration. “I don’t remember what happened,” he tells me. “A lot of fights I don’t remember. I was backstage with my coach when he told me I had put the arm triangle choke on. I said, ‘I did?’”
Natal has just wrapped his Thursday night MMA class. and as the students walk out with their gym bags one by one they come to him to shake his hand and congratulate him, and he responds each time with a thumbs-up. Natal helped open the gym last year and the draw of learning from a successful UFC fighter and former Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion is a big part of why it’s quickly become the most popular MMA training center in the borough.
The students at Renzo Gracie are something new for Natal to worry about. It’s hard enough fighting under the lights on national television with the UFC announcers analyzing your every move without having to face a class of hope-filled students four days later.
“It is pressure. They want to fight like you. They copy you and you tell them, ‘No, no, don’t do that,’” he says. “The things that work right for some guys are not going to work for you. A big guy he has the reach; maybe you don’t. You find the best way to be you.”
“I used to say ‘That person has what it takes to be a champion.’ Now’” – at this point Natal slaps his hands together then opens them again like a blackjack dealer handing over his table at the end of his shift -- “I don’t trust to know that. Guys come in and it seems they have what it takes, and then after a few weeks, nothing. Everyone wants to be a champion; nobody wants to do what you have to do to be a champion.”
It’s not until he sees a would-be fighter take a hit that Natal knows what he’s working with -- that's when he can see if they fight back or collapse in on themselves.
“More than anything else they have to have heart,” Natal says. “Some people say you can’t learn that, but you can. Some people can.”
Interview enough fighters and you get used to certain dependable clichés when they try to explain what happens in the ring: Train hard, condition yourself, spend it all in the fight –- nothing you can’t get from a Nike commercial. Sports psychologist will tell you this is a symptom of fighters taking so much punishment that their brains shut down and they’re forced to go on autopilot, thinking with their spinal cords and muscle memory. But the another explanation for why so many fighters -- and athletes in a half-dozen other non-contact sports, for that matter -- respond to interviews with platitudes is because they have to step out of themselves to compete at their best. But Natal isn't above deconstructing fighters' cliches if he feels they don't speak the truth.
“You say you fight for your family and your friends. That’s true before a fight: Those people are the ones pulling you along and after a fight it’s for them,” he says. “But when you’re in there and you’re fighting, it’s for you. It can’t be for anybody else. You leave everything behind you. If you aren’t doing it for yourself, you’ll lose.”
I ask him if he ever wonders what goes through the minds of his opponents.
“No,” he says. “No. I know how it is for all fighters. It’s the same for everyone.”
“Oh,” he says before I leave. “I go to church a lot, too. Maybe that’s why I am comfortable. I spend a lot of time in church.”
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