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UFC heavyweight Gabriel Gonzaga & the power of joy

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UFC heavyweight Gabriel Gonzaga (Getty)

Back in 2007, Gabriel Gonzaga was a red-hot heavyweight title contender. He knocked legend Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic out and looked to be well rounded enough to pose a serious threat to then-champion Randy Couture when they squared off at UFC 74.

The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt would lose to Couture via TKO in the third round, however. Gonzaga then lost his next fight, against Fabricio Werdum and would then bat .500 in the UFC for the next couple years before being released in 2010 and subsequently retiring.

“Napao” returned to fighting in 2011 and has won five out of six fights since his comeback, including four out of five in the UFC. Now, he finds himself on the cusp of title contendership once more as he is set to face Stipe Miocic Saturday in Chicago at UFC on Fox 10.

It would appear that Gonzaga struggled mightily after his loss to Couture back in 2007. However, Gonzaga tells Yahoo! Sports that it wasn’t the title defeat did not affect him psychologically.

“The title shot [loss] wasn’t a problem,” Gonzaga explains.

“I had the fight of the night that day. I had an accident that broke my nose in the first round (Couture accidentally head butted Gonzaga on the tail end of a take down and broke the challenger’s nose) so I am really glad for the fight. It was an awesome fight. But in my personal life, I had a different situation. I was adapting to moving from Brazil to the United States, to a different culture with no [extended] family, just my wife and kids and it affected, a little bit, my training.”

The heavyweight was able to pin most of the blame for the loss to Couture to the accidental head butt that broke his nose and affected the rest of the fight and so he didn’t dwell on the defeat too long. Similarly, when Gonzaga retired from MMA competition, he did so because he didn’t enjoy the sport any longer, not because he didn’t think he could still do well.

“When I get out from the UFC I was not looking for MMA anymore. For a brief time I did retire. For six months. But, my friends had fights scheduled and training them to help them through their fights, going to the fights with them motivated me to come back. I knew I had the skills to come back to a bigger organization,” he remembers.

Motivated, and enjoying his training for once, Gonzaga was one of the UFC’s most active fighters in 2013, winning his last two by KO. According to the 34 year-old, being able to have fun fighting has made all the difference.

“Yes, definitely,” he says.

“When I came back, I came back with my friends, family, students and training with them is amazing. I have fun training. Before, I wasn’t like that. Before, [training] was an obligation to pay the bills. Once I situated myself, I [started to] have fun.”

Gonzaga didn’t come back to MMA for money or for glory. He did it because he was enjoying training too much not to fight again. The Team Link leader knows he’s slowly getting closer to where he was back in 2007.

Gonzaga can’t say he expected it, but he isn’t surprised.

“The dream of every fighter is to come back for a title shot but I did not know if I was going to have a good run,” he admits.

“But I definitely knew I could be here.”

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