Oliveira grateful for UFC opportunity

Ednaldo Oliveira seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. That ability is what helped him land a position as a security guard, then a spot in law school and, most recently, a spot Saturday against Gabriel Gonzaga on the preliminary card of UFC 142 at HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Oliveira, a rangy 6-foot-7 heavyweight known to his friends as “Lula Molusco” (Portuguese for “Squidward”), appreciates his good fortune. He met current UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos when both were learning jiu-jitsu. They became friends and training partners and it was dos Santos who recommended the 13-0-1 Oliveira to UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta.

Veteran Gabriel Gonzaga (above) will be waiting when Ednaldo Oliveira makes his UFC debut Saturday.
(Getty Images)

It should be the high point of his life, fighting on a significant card in front of a passionate sell-out crowd in his native land. But something will be missing a big when Oliveira walks to the cage.

His father, Edvaldo, a carpenter who toiled long hours for low wages in order to support his family, is battling cancer.

It’s a collision of one life-changing moment with another, the contrast of the high of earning a contract with the UFC and the potential to become a star, against the devastating low of his father’s life-threatening illness.

Oliveira has so impressed dos Santos that the personable UFC champion literally gushes when he talks about his friend’s potential. He’s an elite boxer with long arms as well as terrific ground skills.

“He’s a very good fighter,” dos Santos said. “He’s helped me a lot and he’ll pose a big challenge for anyone.”

Luiz Dorea, Oliveira’s highly regarded boxing coach, had been desperate to get him into a major promotion. It was just good fortune that dos Santos ran into Fertitta when Fertitta was in Brazil on a business trip.

Getting his shot, though, is one thing. Adapting to the UFC is never easy, and it’s not going to be made easier by fighting in front of a home crowd which will have very high expectations.

As Oliveira’s prepared for his debut, however, he’s had to keep one eye at home, where his father is in the only fight that really counts.

“Training has been a little tough because obviously I want to take care of my Dad,” Oliveira said. “I’d like nothing more than to be able to give him a win given everything he’s going through.”

Life has been hectic the last few years for Oliveira, who was able to parlay a job as a security guard at FACET, a Brazilian college, into a spot in its law school.

His jiu-jitsu coach, Yuri Carlton, had introduced him to someone who ran a third-party security company and that person gave Oliveira the job at the college. But then the college took its security in-house and hired Oliveira.

One of the perks of being employed by FACET is that employees got a free education. And so, Oliveira decided to take the opportunity, becoming the first in his family to attend college.

He is fascinated by criminal law and hopes to be an attorney.

As his MMA career progressed, though, he had a decision to make: He would never be able to hold a job, attend school and train full-time. If he was going to be a fighter, he had to commit to it totally and it forced him to suspend his studies.

But by that point, he had become friends with FACET owners Joao and Sandra Caleia, who told him he could resume his education for free once he was done with his fighting career.

“I’ll be forever grateful to them for their support,” he said. “They said to me, ‘Lula, you’ve been here for seven years. You’re family. Even if you’re not working here, you will graduate here. We want you to finish.’ ”

He said that motivated him to become the best he could be, not only as a way to make his ill father proud, but to repay the Caleias for what they’d done for him.

Dos Santos has sparred with Oliveira for years and said he expects that Gonzaga will find him to be more than a challenge.

“He’s a very distinct fighter and his reach is a great tool he has,” dos Santos said. “He and I spar a lot and his reach definitely makes things a lot harder for me. I think that will be the same for any opponent they put before him.”

Gonzaga has fought some of the best in the world – his head-kick knockout of Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic at UFC 70 in 2007 remains one of the most memorable finishes in UFC history – and is a formidable, well-rounded foe, even if he is no longer the fighter he was at his peak.

Gonzaga was cut by the UFC after he’d dropped three of four fights, but he has the all-around game to be competitive with anyone.

Oliveira, who raves about Gonzaga’s skills, has great motivation to win in order to honor his father. And dos Santos has no doubt he’ll be able to do it.

“I expect a good show from him,” dos Santos said. “He’s ready for this and I think he’ll put on a very good show.”

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Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jan 9, 2012