The Tornado and the Beach

Fightland Blog

By Eugene Robinson

The story is as crucial as crucial could have ever been. We're talking Grimm's fairy tale crucial. A family goes out one day, in this instance to a beach, and a boy, their boy, falls asleep, face down in the sand. Then all of the things you'd expect from a story about the beach: waves, warmth, the play of sand against his face.

But then the boy wakes up into a brand-new world with little more than the clothes on his back and the complete and total absence of the family that took him to the beach. You see, they're gone. As in fled, disappeared. The boy is 5 years old. Or 6. He's uncertain about the age even though he's quite sure that his name is Carlos Eduardo Rocha and as far back as his earliest memories go? It's always here, to this.

"In Brazil, sometimes, if the family is big and poor … this happens,” Luta Livre great Leopoldo Serao says. Rocha shifts from foot to foot and nods his head. He's training with Serao and planning/plotting his return to professional MMA after an unceremonious departure from the UFC following two straight losses. But the image of a kid on a beach full of nothing but sand still haunts him. "I'd eat what was left on the beach," Rocha says while wrapping his hands. "There were a lot of us living there. Stealing to eat, eating food left over, from garbage cans." And so from month to month for years Rocha lived on the very fringe of the fringe. No school. No bed. No clothes, blankets, holidays, nothing.

Then one day some guy came down to the beach and told Rocha, if he wanted, he could come to his school and eat for free at least once a day. Which sounded like a good deal to Rocha. And the fact that it was a fight school made it even more so. "I don't know what he saw in me,” Rocha says. “But that's where I got my fight nickname from: Ta Danado. You can't really translate it from Portuguese, but it described me as a kid. I was like a tornado. All over the place." The man was Darlynson Lira and the school was Team Darciolira and the homeless kid had found a home.

Which is to say suddenly a training schedule that was 24 hours a day. And the energy to back up everything Lira had to teach him. So the years passed and like fate had intervened once before, a chance to flip the script: an offer to come to Germany and train a German champion preparing for an MMA match. So with no German language skills and nothing but a passport and a plane ticket they had purchased for him, Rocha took off to Hamburg to train a guy for a big MMA fight, a guy he himself could have beaten.

But fortune is wild and when Rocha’s charge got injured right before the fight, the Free Fight Association (FFA) Germany offered the gig to the now-fluent 170-pound Rocha, who took a whole 2:18 to rear naked choke Johannes Kunze. But just as easy as Rocha had had things in Germany up until then, he suddenly had things not so easy again. "The guy who was supposed to fight who I was training suddenly had no more money for me and no place for me to stay and suddenly no reason to keep me there,” recounts Rocha. “So I was homeless again." Which was fine in a country with warm beaches but maybe not so fine in Germany. Rocha took to sleeping on park benches.

The win over Kunze, though, had made a mark, and in short order the FFA got him a fight with a Golden Glory fighter named Steve Mensing. And 1:20 later Rocha had leglocked his way to another win. Then it was officially on: two more fights before 2008 was out, two more wins and enough cash to get a room and get off the park-bench circuit. Four more wins after that and Rocha was fielding calls from UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, leading to his first time in the big show at the Yushin Okami v. Nate Marquardt UFC 122 event in Oberhausen, Germany. "I fought this American fighter Kris McCray," Rocha says, though not for long: At 2:21 of the first round Mr. McCray tapped out to a knee-bar.

And then the big call: Come to Vegas to fight on the UFC 126 Anderson Silva v. Vitor Belfort card, against Jake Ellenberger. And just as quickly the worm turned again for Rocha, resulting in an injury-plagued camp and a tough decision loss to the very tough Ellenberger. Which then saw Rocha sitting out for over a year, moving to the back of some imaginary line before getting that "one last chance call." This time for UFC on FX3 against Mike Pierce. And just as quickly, after another decision loss, an invitation out of the UFC. So, unemployed, in June 2012 Rocha made the move to Northern California to rejuvenate, rehab after surgery, and ready himself for his next shot at something/anything.

"My life's been pretty lucky," Rocha says. "So we're hoping for another chance. Another call." Until then, training, developing up-and-coming fighters, some who have made the move from Germany as well, and sharpening what amounts to a very sharp sword.

When I ask him what he thinks his family would think about his journey since they last saw him on that beach where they left him -- the international travel, the championships, Vegas, television, sponsorships, the whole nine -- Rocha says, "I don't have any memories before the beach that don't include my coach."