Prior to UFC 163, middleweight jiu-jitsu ace Thales Leites hadn’t fought inside the Octagon since losing to Alessio Sakara at UFC 101 in 2009. That split-decision loss came just months after Leites battled middleweight champion Anderson Silva at UFC 97. For many, the release came as a surprise, as Leites was touted as one of the more highly praised ground players in MMA at the time.
On Saturday night at the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Leites found himself once again fighting inside the Octagon, having toiled in various promotions for the past four years. During his time away from the UFC, the Nova Unaio product managed a 6-1 record, scoring wins over UFC vets Matt Horwich and Jeremy Horn, earning his way back into the world’s premier fighting organization.
English brawler Tom “Kong” Watson was the fighter given the job of welcoming Leites back to the cage. And as far as Watson was concerned, it certainly wouldn’t be a friendly welcome.
Round one saw the Rio native, Leites, open up with the aggression you would expect from a man who probably spent the last 50 or so months wondering if he would ever be fighting for divisional relevancy again.
Leites clinched with Watson early, pushing him against the cage, and dragging him to the canvas moments after the opening bell. For the remainder of the frame, Leites dominated Watson with workmanlike control, holding Kong’s back, working chokes, and unleashing thudding ground and pound. By the end of the first five minutes, Leites had Watson bloodied, winded and in serious trouble.
Round two was more of the same for the Brazilian, as he rode Watson and dominated him with his black belt ground game. At one point, Leites had Watson deep in an armbar that had the Brit straining against the cage. The giant Englishman powered out of the submission attempt, however, and began a 60-second onslaught of his own.
As the second round came to a close, Watson pressured his visibly gassed opponent with a set of power punches. At this point, you didn’t know if Leites had enough to make it out of the round. But the bell sounded and Leites headed back to the corner, gassed, but still winning the round.
The final frame saw Watson needing a finish to secure a victory, as Leites was undoubtedly up 2-0.
This is where Leites showed his grit and determination. Despite being winded at the end of the previous round, the returning UFC vet powered through and scored an early double-leg takedown on Watson, whipping him to the canvas.
And for all intents and purposes, that is exactly where the rest of the fight took place. Leites controlled the final five minutes, leaving Watson little chance at scoring an upset. As the seconds ticked down on the final bell, Leites had Watson in an arm-triangle choke that likely would have seen a lesser fighter tapping.
The scorecards read 30-27 on all fronts, but as is often the case, the fight was much harder fought than the record will show… something Leites attested to post-fight.
“This was more strategy,” Leites said. “This was our plan, but at the end of the fight, I had to fight and stand. He’s a tough guy. I took him to the ground several times, but he blocked it. He’s very tough.”
With a return to his fighting home, Leites feels invigorated, finally back where he belongs.
“I’m back; back in the UFC where I belong,” he exclaimed. “I spent four years away from the cage; surgery in both knees. Now I’m back in the cage, in my home. I couldn’t feel better.”
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