LAS VEGAS – Opulence surrounds Junior dos Santos in his suite on a top floor of the largest casino in the gambling capital of the world. His luxurious digs at the MGM Grand are symbolic of the startling transformation he's made in his life.
The UFC heavyweight champion grew up in humble circumstances in Cacador, a small town in southern Brazil, unaware of the riches that lay beyond the city's limits.
Now, more than a decade later, another poor Brazilian child has left his destitute surroundings for the bright lights of Las Vegas. Nine-year-old Breno Luis Ferreira de Carvalho arrived at McCarran International Airport on Wednesday with his mother, Simone, and his older brother, Pedro Gabriel, and checked into his own room at the MGM.
They are guests of dos Santos, the star of the show Saturday who will defend his title against Frank Mir at UFC 146 at the MGM Grand Garden.
Dos Santos befriended Ferreira at his gym in Salvador, Brazil, and granted his wish to watch the fight with Mir at cageside. The experience has been overwhelming for Ferreira.
"It's just so exciting being here," Ferreira said Wednesday upon his arrival. "Even to get to sit on an airplane was like a dream. I could see all things out of the window, big buildings and we were really high above them, flying like a dream. But I'm here to help Cigano [dos Santos' nickname] defend his title."
Dos Santos sees a lot of himself in Ferreira. As a boy, dos Santos was not particularly athletic and never gave a hint of what he'd become. When kids in the neighborhood would choose sides for a game of soccer or basketball, they'd pick dos Santos first because he was bigger than most.
"After they saw me play once, though," he said, chuckling at the memory," that changed. Then I was always [picked] last. … I was never any good at games, at [sports]."
Though he wasn't athletic, he was inquisitive. Dos Santos would wander into a dojo and pepper the judokas with questions about their sport. His mind was on overdrive, and he was filled with a curiosity that could not be sated.
His childhood memories were fresh this week as he prepared in the northeastern Brazilian city of Salvador to face Mir, a two-time former champion. Dos Santos, 27, trained with several other professionals at coach Luiz Carlos Dorea's Champions Gym in Salvador, and a ragtag group of local children hung out with them.
That in and of itself isn't unusual, because for more than two decades Dorea has kept the doors of his gym open free of charge. Dorea is a noted boxing and MMA trainer in Brazil, but his full-time job is as a crime investigator for the civil police.
He's worked on cases ranging from petty theft to rape and murder.
The one common denominator among the crimes, Dorea said, is drug usage. Salvador is Brazil's third-largest city, behind Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. And though there is great wealth in Salvador, so, too, is there extreme poverty.
The gym is near one of the favelas, or shantytowns, a crime-ridden area in which few residents have a realistic hope of escaping. Dorea allows free access to his gym as a way to give kids an alternative to using and selling drugs.
One child in particular caught dos Santos' attention. Breno Ferreira has been as regular as the sunrise at the gym for a year. When school ends, Ferreira appears.
Unlike most of those who wander in to watch, Ferreira is not intimidated by the adults. He asks questions, plenty of them, and always wants to be involved in what they are doing.
"When I thought of it, I said to myself, 'He reminds me of myself when I was his age,' " dos Santos said. "I was quieter, and he's definitely not quiet. He likes to talk a lot, but he has the same curiosity I had. 'Why do you do this? Why do you do that?' He loves to watch us spar and he wants to try it, too. Every day, though, he is there and talking and asking questions."
Unlike a young dos Santos, Ferreira is getting the chance to live out his dream.
Ferreira blurted out toward the end of a training session that he'd like to travel with dos Santos to Las Vegas for the fight.
Cameras for "UFC Primetime," the preview show for the dos Santos-Mir fight, were rolling as Ferreira begged dos Santos to take him. When the affable champion didn't object, plans were made to bring Ferreira, along with his brother and mother.
The family is so poor they not only didn't have the required travel documents, they didn't own luggage. They live in a tiny apartment that measures about 16 feet by 23 feet, covered by a thin corrugated metal roof.
When the decision was made to bring them along, someone had to find them. No one knew for sure where they lived.
Sophia Ribeiro, a producer for the TV show, went into the favela with a bodyguard, carrying a photo of Breno Ferreira.
"It is an extremely dangerous area," she said. "There is so much crime there, and you could never go there without a bodyguard."
It's not unusual to see children, some not much older than Breno, carrying weapons. It is, Dorea said, all part of the drug trade.
Dorea hopes that the success of local fighters such as dos Santos and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira will motivate neighborhood children to avoid drugs.
Ferreira, though, doesn't have a concept of the world outside the favela. He didn't grasp the concept of a television camera. When he spoke in Portuguese to Ezra Edelman, the American producer for the TV show, he was puzzled when Edelman didn't answer.
Edelman doesn't speak Portuguese and didn't understand him, but Ferreira wasn't aware languages other than Portuguese existed.
"[Ferreira] asked me, 'Hey, why won't this guy talk to me?' " dos Santos said. "I explained about the language and he was very confused. He said, 'Why? What are they doing here?' "
As usual, dos Santos was unfailingly polite and explained to Ferreira the preview show and his circumstances and why he would be leaving town for a while.
Edelman, who hadn't met dos Santos prior to working on the Primetime show, said he was amazed not only by the champion's popularity in Brazil and in the U.S., but by his humanity.
"People gravitate toward him," Edelman said. "You can't imagine his celebrity. It takes him way longer to get where he's going than it should, but the thing that impressed me was how easygoing and patient he was.
"He talked with everyone. He signed autographs. He treated all of them like it was a thrill for him to be meeting them."
Dos Santos is still adjusting to his own celebrity. In Los Angeles, he met actor Wes Bentley, the star of the movie "The Hunger Games" and was shocked when Bentley wanted his autograph and asked dos Santos to pose for a picture.
It's that easygoing nature that led dos Santos to agree to have Ferreira and his family travel to Las Vegas. The bout is important for dos Santos. Mir is a two-time champion who in December broke the arm of Nogueira, dos Santos' mentor, with a Kimura shoulder lock.
The bout is the first defense of his heavyweight title and is expected to be a big seller on pay-per-view. The UFC has given dos Santos a heavy workload to handle pitching the fight.
He knew what he was up against before he left Brazil, and the easy answer, maybe the smart answer, would have been to leave Ferreira at home.
That's not how dos Santos operates.
"This is a good kid who needs a break," he said. "He had a dream. Why not do it if we can?"
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