UFC lightweight contender Edson Barboza overcame overwhelming odds at birth
Edson Barboza Jr. stepped off a plane in Miami five years ago and entered a new world. He was 23 years old and by himself. He didn't speak the language. He didn't have any friends. He didn't know how to order food in a restaurant or get from Point A to Point B.
But it was no big deal to the UFC's lightweight contender, who had been used to solving problems since his birth. He'll face tough Danny Castillo on Saturday at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif., on a Fox-televised card in a bout in which a win moves him a step closer to title contention.
Barboza's story is one of perseverance, faith and survival, of a man repeatedly overcoming monstrous odds against him at almost every turn.
The fact that Barboza was even born is a miracle, but that he survived to become one of the world's best fighters is a storyline that would be hard to believe even in the movies.
Barboza was a premature baby, born at 28 weeks, and had a roughly 50-50 chance of survival under the best of circumstances.
But Barboza's father had to make an agonizingly difficult decision. His wife's pregnancy was difficult, and the doctor came to him and said he could not save both the mother and the baby: Edson Barboza Sr. would have to make a choice.
He was faced with perhaps the most difficult decision a man must make, choosing between his wife, the love of his life, and his newly born son. He chose his wife.
And that's when Edson Barboza Jr. first showed signs of the fighter he would become: He, too, survived.
The tiny baby who once fit into a shoebox fought for life, and against the odds, he made it.
Amazingly, the choice that his father made never impacted the relationship between them once he learned about it.
"Not at all," Barboza said when asked if his father's decision to save his mother over him ever harmed their relationship. "The decision he made was the most right decision. I don't even think about it. I didn't have much strength at the day of my birth. At the point in Brazil, it was hard for a premature child like me to survive, but God is so faithful that He gave strength for both my mom and I to survive."
Brazil has made great advances in many areas, including in medicine, in the last quarter century. But at the time of Barboza's birth, the medical facilities weren't quite as good, which decreased the likelihood that he'd survive.
His family lived in a favela, a poor neighborhood in Brazil, crammed into a tiny home with one bedroom, one bathroom, a kitchen and nothing else. The family did not own a table to sit at to eat their meals.
But Barboza somehow managed to avoid the problems that plague the young in such poverty-stricken areas. His parents made sure he always had enough to eat. They preached education, and they did their best to urge him to avoid drugs and a life of crime.
He was surrounded by danger on all sides but managed to escape unscathed.
"I grew up in a favela, in a very poor region, but I can not say that it was difficult at all," he said. "I had a house, I studied, I had food on the table every day, I had clothes to wear, and I had parents who were giving their best to give me the best they could. So, when you have all those things, you may not say that you had a difficult life.
"Yes, I watched some of my friends being killed by the crime, and some others used to use drugs. I was a child when I watched those things. My parents were always telling me to not do those things, that it was a very bad decision. I have never, ever in my entire life used any drugs or gotten involved with those things. I hated what I was watching."
When he was eight, his parents sent him to a gym for poor children near his home, where Muay Thai classes were being given for free. His parents couldn't afford to pay for classes to put him in jiu-jitsu, which is huge in Brazil, so they took advantage of the free classes to allow him to burn off some energy.
It turned out to be much more than burning off his energy. Barboza was a natural at Muay Thai, and it was as if at age 8, he'd discovered his calling. He snapped kicks off with effortless power. He moved easily around the ring, as if he'd been born with the ability.
And like that, his future was determined.
Eventually, Barboza would become an elite Muay Thai fighter, feared in the region for his powerful kicks. He also competed as a kick boxer.
But as his teenage years ended, a future as a Muay Thai fighter or a kick boxer in Brazil didn't seem as bright. He talked with noted mixed martial arts manager Alex Davis, who suggested Barboza try MMA.
After mulling it over, he realized was going nowhere in Muay Thai and knew Davis' suggestion was wise.
"When I was 21 years old, I became the best Muay Thai fighter in Brazil, but I no longer had any sponsors, fights or money," Barboza said. "I had to decide to either get into MMA or stop fighting. My manager, Alex Davis, knew Joseph Mullings, an American guy who was interested in hiring a Muay Thai coach for his gym [in Florida] ...
"My manager came up with this work proposal. In the beginning, it was very hard because I didn't want to leave my family, friends and my job as a Muay Thai fighter. But he convinced me that it was the best thing for me and as it turns out, he was totally right."
In January 2009, Barboza packed up everything he owned, which fit into a backpack, left his girlfriend (now his wife) Bruna Almeida behind and flew to Miami to start a new life.
Though Davis would eventually be proven right, as Barboza became a special MMA fighter, it wasn't so easy at first.
But he persevered, as he had at all stages of his life when the odds were seemingly stacked against him, and found his way into the UFC a little less than two years later. Since debuting with a third-round knockout of Mike Lullo at UFC 123 on Nov. 20, 2010, Barboza has gone 6-1 and recorded some memorable knockouts.
He's already caught the eye of UFC president Dana White, who said "He's a [expletive] stud."
As he makes his way toward the top, life couldn't be better. He moved his wife to the U.S. a year after his arrival. She now serves as his publicist, and they work closely together on a day-to-day basis.
He met her when they were both 17. He was the tough kid from the favela and she was the pretty girl from the well-to-do family, but they had a connection early. And Barboza knew when she gave him her bus money so he could get to training that this was the woman for him.
"I met Bruna when we were 17 years old and she came to the gym to train Muay Thai," he said. "Everyone was interested in her. She was like a baby girl, very young and beautiful. She used to work as a reporter for a local TV [station] in my hometown, and her brother was a good friend of mine. I asked him to help me with her. I tried one time to get closer to her but she didn't want to. Some months later, we became closer and started dating.
"She is a very funny and smart woman. I think I realized that she was made for me because she was always by my side and supporting me, no matter what would happen. When I was 21, and I had no more fights and no money, I lived away from the gym. She used to give me her tickets for the bus so I would able to go training, and she would walk to her job. As I always say to her, 'She is perfect for me.' "
It's a true partnership. They are together so much, and get caught up in their jobs so much, that it occasionally creates tension.
But Barboza is smart enough to understand when he has it good, and he knows he picked the right woman for him.
"It is hard because she thinks that I have to do what she wants all the time, but I need her by my side," he said. "She does everything possible to let me stay focused on training."
Life is good now, and Barboza has assimilated into the American culture. But as his success increases, he hasn't forgotten where he came from.
He recently fulfilled a dream to buy a home for his parents, though he has yet to get back to Brazil to see it, and he's started a Muay Thai clinic that provides free instruction to children in Brazil.
It was a miracle nearly 28 years ago when he survived, and then made himself a success despite formidable odds against him.
Now, he's trying to give another young person the same chance he had.
That's a champion, belt or no belt.