The last time UFC fans saw Chris Wilson in the cage, he was tapping out against Randy Couture training partner Mike Pyle. That was September 16, 2009, almost a year ago. Since then Wilson, in his fighting prime, has been missing in action. I talked to Wilson about his time off, the struggles of a UFC veteran trying to make it back to the top of the sport, and the economic plight of fighters in Brazil.
Jonathan Snowden: How did you end up living and training in Brazil? Since Rorian Gracie made the move to LA in the 1980's, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu stars have been making the move from Brazil to the United States. You had the opposite migration.
Chris Wilson: I was raised here for more than half my life. To me it wasn't really a migration, just a return to another home. We missed our friends and my wife's family is all here. She's Brazilian. Like you said though, since the 80's lots of top BJJ guys have moved to the States and now there is plenty of American and Brazilian top level BJJ talent there. Brazilians see the US as an opportunity. Frankly, for the BJJ guys at the time, there really was a huge market to be explored. Perhaps a little less nowadays with the saturation but the top guys will always be sought after. Brazilian fighters nowadays are looking at bigger show and payday opportunities.
Jonathan Snowden: What is life like there, as a martial artist particularly?
Chris Wilson: Life as a martial artist is no different than life as any other kind of artist. You are usually starving and out of work unless you work some other job to support your "art" until the "art" can pay the bills. As you know, that happens for relatively few artists. So it's not easy.
Jonathan Snowden: How does the training differ from that at Team Quest?
Chris Wilson: Training here is different from training at Team Quest in that as with most American gyms there is a strong wrestling base there. Here there is much more emphasis on BJJ as a base with the occasional striker turned fighter or even more infrequently, a Brazilian wrestler turned fighter. The lessons I picked up at TQ were fundamental in making me the fighter I am today. Without at least a working knowledge or wrestling it is difficult to dictate where a fight takes place, regardless of where you prefer to fight (ground, clinch, standing).
Jonathan Snowden: Speaking of TQ, what were some of the best things about training there? Can you tell me more about training with Robert Follis, who I think may be one of the most underrated trainers out there.
Chris Wilson: Easily the team room was the best thing about training there for me. Not only because of the friendships I made and the level of training but because of the type of training. I got handled quite a bit because we were always working my weaknesses, wrestling. That made it easier to use my strengths, striking and some submission wrestling.
Follis is a good friend and was a great instructor, coach and even mentor for a time. He connects well to the situation and to the fighter's emotions and is easy to get along with in days leading up to the fight. He has a ton of experience so he can guide the younger guys through the do's and don'ts of weight-cutting, pre-fight workouts and the rest that goes along with it. He is also responsible for a ton of my ground game. Obviously I have evolved greatly with my current BJJ group here (Robson Moura Nova União) but he taught me some solid principles that I've built a style around. I still associate new techniques to those principles. I agree that he is a very underrated coach.
Jonathan Snowden: Since being cut from the UFC, we haven't seen you in the cage. Why has it been difficult to get fights?
Chris Wilson: Well, it kind of depends what fights you are looking for. I've had trouble with events not wanting to fly me and a corner up from Brazil and pay me the wage that I believe I am worth (perhaps half my UFC pay or less) on top of flights/room/board. I've made concessions in purse (I would accept less pay) and even offered to find a corner from the US and pay the difference between my hometown flight and the Brazil flight. Still have had trouble finding fights. Through new management and contacts I'm in talks with a couple of the promotions and hopefully I'll find a home with one of the larger events.
The other problem is that I'm coming off of 2 losses. It's not really abnormal but it seems more and more that everyone wants you to get some wins before they consider giving you a fight. If, for example, Bellator, Shine, MFC, Tachi Palace, SharkFights, Strikeforce, Sengoku, and Dream say "Get some wins," then where exactly do I fight to get some wins. Is a fighter who has made it into the UFC but hasn't broken top 10 not good enough for an upper-level or mid-level promotion? It doesn't make a lot of sense. It's almost sad really, that after leaving the UFC you have to start all the way back at zero in Mom'n'Pops shows. There are people in those and every organization that are true talents and deserve to be there but some of them would stand little chance against me but I can't fight them because I have losses in the UFC... the UFC. It's frustrating to say the least. Not all the promotions are guilty of this, it's just an example.
More with Chris Wilson, including the candid reason he doesn't fight in Brazil, after the jump.
Jonathan Snowden: With the cost of international travel making smaller shows impossible, what opportunities exist in Brazil?
Chris Wilson: Here in Brazil, fighting is like slave labor. As always, there is the risk of injury and of not getting paid in full, even from bigger shows. Top pay is generally around R$2000/R$2000 (US$1,100/US$1,100) for some of the best pros in Brazil (however most fighters make less or much less, I was being nice). Only the international athletes (former UFC or Pride guys) break out of that and fight on some of the biggest shows in Brazil which are few and far between and the pay is still relatively low compared to the US. The MMA scene is growing but pay is still an embarrassment. Getting those fights is also a who-you-know type deal.
Jonathan Snowden: Despite the pay scale, there are quite a few groups operating out of Brazil aren't there? Is Wallid Ismael still active there? I miss the crazy Rio Heroes shows that used to pop up online. Are they still around at all?
Chris Wilson: Yes, Wallid still promotes. Jungle Fights is his show I believe. He may also be involved in fighter management now but I'm not sure. I don't get to see him often and when I do, it's usually in passing. Rio Heroes is defunct as far as I know.
Jonathan Snowden: Are you working in the meantime while you wait for your next opportunity?
Jonathan Snowden: Why is it important not to establish a reputation as someone willing to fight cheap? I know that's important to you.
Chris Wilson: Well, some people say you are only worth as much as someone will pay you. That is true to a point but there is also the bottom line which is that what I do has value and is worth at least X amount of dollars as a minimum for my financial and physical investment taking into account the level of work I can produce in my field. So the market decides your value but you do too. We need to actively control the market for self-preservation and self-respect also in a sense. If you won't even value me "this" much, fine. I'll go do something else and you can keep your dime-a-dozen fighters...At some point, you get what you pay for.
Jonathan Snowden: You fought everyone close in the UFC. What would be different if you got another chance? How do you take "almost" to the next level and win some of the close fights?
Chris Wilson: Well, I feel like I went through one of my worst phases in my career when I finally reached the UFC. I think I would have a different run there if I went back but saying that doesn't mean anything. I'll go fight elsewhere, win, go back and prove it. I honestly doubt that everything that happened in my life while I fought in the UFC could happen again... The point is, I should've won all my fights but dropped some for one reason or another. The reason doesn't matter though, only the result, right? Unfortunately, the adage about only being as good as your last fight is true in this business even though it doesn't really reflect a fighter's skills.
Chris would like to thanks his sponsors: RevGear, BornStronger, AdapTx Labs, and Throwdown. Jonathan Snowden is the author of Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting and the upcoming The MMA Encyclopedia. Follow him on Twitter and right here at Bloody Elbow.