Love of MMA keeps Cristiano Marcello involved as fighter and coach: 'I would do this for free'

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

Mike Tomlin isn't going to quit coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers and try to make it as a player in the NFL. The notion sounds absurd. That, though, is exactly the transition that Cristiano Marcello made in mixed martial arts.

He was a highly regarded coach at age 22, overseeing the jiu-jitsu training of the iconic Chute Boxe team. Marcello, who once lived with the legendary Rickson Gracie, taught MMA stars such as Anderson Silva, Wanderlei Silva and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua jiu-jitsu when he was barely into adulthood himself.

"I love to coach," Marcello says.

And he's still coaching. His Curitiba, Brazil-based team, the CM System Fight Team, is highly regarded in the mixed martial arts world.

But Marcello, now a grizzled veteran at 34, hasn't lost the desire to compete. And so, Marcello will fight at UFC 153 at HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro. He'll meet Reza Madadi in a three-round lightweight bout.

"I always wanted to be a fighter, from the early days, but there wasn't a lot of competition in my division and not a lot of money," Marcello said.

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Marcello fought in Vale Tudo fights in the mid-to-late 1990s before MMA gained widespread acceptance. The risks were high and the rewards weren't much to speak of, even for winners.

Marcello said he took one Vale Tudo fight that lasted 37 minutes and was paid just $200. He said he loved the sport and the competition, and was never driven by money.

It was a dangerous way to chase a dream.

"Extremely," he said. "You could headbutt, you could stomp, you could soccer kick. You could do whatever you wanted, basically. You were paid very little. If you broke your nose, or maybe you broke a tooth, you had to fight 10, 12 times just to [earn the money to] be able to fix it and put it back together."

There weren't many opportunities for smaller fighters in those days, so he focused on coaching.

Now, as MMA has become big business, more elite athletes are trying it, increasing the level of competition. Still, Marcello finds something a bit distasteful about a segment of modern fighters.

"The money today in the sport is good, but it is also creating an issue," he said. "A lot of guys are getting into this sport for the money, without the love of the game. They are great athletes and they can learn and do a lot of good things as [fighters], but they're not going to be around a long time if they don't love it. That's the difference between the old school and the young school guys.

"People do it now to be famous, to be rich. I don't see nothing bad about that in and of itself, but you need to love what you do to really be your best. If there is not that passionate fire inside of you driving you to do it because you love it, you can't reach your limits."

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Marcello, who fought on Urijah Faber's team earlier this year on "The Ultimate Fighter Live," will share the card with Anderson Silva. Now recognized by UFC president Dana White as the greatest MMA fighter ever, Marcello saw Silva back in his developmental days.

And though Silva was nowhere as complete of a fighter as he is now, Marcello saw the greatness in him. In 1997, as now, they fought on the same card and Marcello was convinced that if Silva kept with it, he would become a legend.

"I saw Anderson then the way other people see [UFC light heavyweight champion] Jon Jones right now," Marcello said. "You look at Jon Jones now and you see how good he is, but it is obvious that he can learn a lot of things more. It is clear that Jon Jones is going to be a lot better in a couple of years than he is right now. Well, it was the same thing with Anderson then.

"His standup was so good, above other guys' level. But he was still getting better at it. His ground, his wrestling, same thing. Anderson wanted so badly to be great. When the training session was over and everyone had gone home, Anderson was still there, working hard to get better. Every day he did that."

Marcello has nowhere near the talent that Silva has, but he, too, continues to work hard to improve.

He lost his second-round fight to Justin Lawrence on TUF Live and then was knocked out by Sam Sicilia in the TUF Finale on June 1 in his official UFC debut.

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There would seem to be pressure on him to perform to retain his job, but he laughs it off.

"I just love to fight and when you love what you do, there is no pressure," Marcello said. "I'm 34 years old. I'm successful with my business in Brazil. I don't need to do this. I do it because I love it. To me, there is nothing I would rather be doing."

A gregarious sort, Marcello laughs heartily as he finishes his thought.

"You know, don't tell Dana, but I would do this for free," he said. "I love it and it's a great opportunity to compete. All my life, I've wanted to do this and now I really am living out a dream."

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