Packed inside the Theatre du Léman in Geneva, you can feel the electric charge in the air. The evening is slowly percolating towards its apogee, as the sold-out crowd anxiously awaits the main event. At last, a wave of cheers erupts from the back and travels across the room as both fighters emerge and start making their way down to the Octagon. A few formalities, the ring announcer reminds us this is for the Strength & Honor Championship (SHC) lightweight belt, the always attractive ringside girl struts around showing the 1st Round card, both fighters touch gloves and “fight!”
Olavo Belo bobs and weaves, bouncing on the balls of his feet, never coming on a frontal attack but looking for angles, fainting, setting traps for his opponents, and like a snake slithering closer to its prey, when the moment is right, he uncoils a vicious combination, leaping forward with the precise and devastating effect of a venomous bite.
Just like that the fight is over. The official result is a Technical Knockout (TKO), in less than 5 minutes, a resolution to what took 2 months to train and prepare for. Such are the facts of an MMA fighter’s life, a true example of the iceberg principle. It takes a lifetime not only to develop your skills in such a multitude of disciplines but also to train your body to endure the punishment.
Mixed Martial Arts, MMA as it is commonly known, is true to its name. It is a combination of many fighting styles and techniques : Wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, Karate, etc. Originally, it was something akin to Jean Claude Van Damme’s action movie “Bloodsport,” a competition between practitioners of different styles to see whose style would reign supreme. During it’s infancy in the 90’s, it was a bit of a freak show, trafficking in shock value and raw violence. It had an underground feeling to it. The only way to see it was to rent a VHS tape (remember those) or borrow it from a friend. As the sport matured, the rules and judging criteria came closer to boxing with the development of weight classes and judging based on a per round score of 10 for the winner and 9 or less for the loser.
Still some of the original mystique has been hard to shake off, critics accuse it of being barbaric, bloody and unfair, while supporters see it is the natural evolution of the purest form of athletic competition, a fight. Between both extremes lies the reality that these are professional athletes. “Anyone who goes inside the cage has trained himself to absorb punishment and to defend against it. This is not a street fight.” says Olavo
Ask Olavo what he felt in the moments before the fight and you would be surprised by the equanimity of his answer. “Training for a fight is like a spiritual journey,” he says. “When I prepare for a fight, it’s like being in a bubble for two months where all you focus on is training three times a day, eating the right way and not letting any negative thought in. This is only possible with the help of my family and friends. So when i go in the cage I am at peace.”
“I feel like a time traveller,” he continues, “I visualize how the fight will unfold so that I am able to harness the fear, to control it and perform.”
Like so many of the top fighters in the world, Olavo started with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). Born in Angola but raised in Portugal and Geneva, he discovered BJJ as a teenager and was so enamored with the sport that he moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to study at the legendary the Gracie Humaitá Academy, earning a black belt under the tutelage of Andre Negão. “For me jiu-jitsu is a way of life,” he says with a reflective tone. “It brings me closer to nature, to people, to myself. It teaches you that your biggest opponent is yourself.”
His passion is evident when you see him teach at his recently opened gym in Geneva, “New Nation Jiu-Jitsu Academy.” Today, there are seven other fighters working their craft on the gray tatami floor. They are all sweating, grinding, looking exhausted and ready to stop and suddenly, finding another gear and continuing to push. One can’t help but to admire and respect the mental strength of a fighter.
To watch Olavo teach, is to see the beauty of one who has mastered a discipline and is able to distill complexity to its essential elements. His voice cuts through the murmur of clanging weights and the distant radio of the gym. It is effortless and deep, a confident sound propelled by the knowledge it imparts. “Either you are the prey or you are the predator but you can’t be both at the same time,” he explains about establishing the right fighting distance from your opponent. He dissects the correct leverage and bio mechanics of a “takedown” with the same clarity and anatomical exactitude of a yoga teacher explaining sun salutations. “Drop your hips, transfer your weight from back leg to front, attack the core your opponent, push hips forward,” he commands – see video below.
From the outside, a fight looks messy, chaotic, split-second violence unleashed on your opponent. But below there is the calm of repetition, of muscle memory, of a hardened mind that has overcome many unattainable situations. The fight game bridges the gap between the physical and the spiritual. It is a gateway not only to be a better athlete but also a more complete human being, one who has learned to traverse the pains of the body to emancipate the spirit. It is a sport, a profession, a way of life. In the end, the real fight is against yourself. Success is measured not in wins and losses but in surpassing your own hurdles and strengthening the totality of your being, to achieve the unexpected.
By Armando Gonzalez Besa
A Cuban-born, Miami-bred dancer with the Ballet of the Grand Theatre de Geneve. Before embarking on a successful international dance career he studied Journalism at Florida International University.