Curitiba is a city saturated in fighting history, a powerhouse producer of combative talent. Some of MMA’s most enduring legends have come from this south-eastern Brazilian city.
But, for one of Curitiba’s current crop - the light-heavyweight Saulo Cavalari (28-2, 18 KO’s) - it is only the striking arts which interest him.
"I just always wanted to be a kickboxer. This is the kind of fighting I like. I trained some jiu jitsu and I respect the ground-fighters but I don’t like it, it is not for me. I like striking fights," he says.
"Look at all the fighters from my city; Wanderlei Silva, Anderson Silva, Jose-Pele Landi Jons, Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua and everyone. They all started with Muay Thai or kickboxing and did that for four or five years before they went into jiu jitsu and MMA."
"If you are from Curitiba, the striking is in your blood," he explains.
"Carrying the flag for Curitiba is a big motivation for me, for sure. But what is an even bigger motivation is that all these legends from Curitiba, they were champions in MMA.
"We didn’t have a world champion in kickboxing yet, and that is what I want to be. I want to be the first fighter from Curitiba who brings home a world title in kickboxing."
This Saturday April 12, Cavalari gets his shot at gold. He is one of four fighters taking part in the GLORY 15 ISTANBUL Light-Heavyweight Championship Tournament. On the line is the GLORY World Light-Heavyweight Title and a life-changing prize of $200,000.
Cavalari faces Tyrone Spong (90-5, 60 KO’s) in the semi-finals. Spong is ranked #1 in the world at this weight and is by far the favorite to win the tournament.
At the pre-fight press conference Cavalari sat next to local hero Gokhan Saki (79-16, 56 KO’s), who faces Nathan ‘Carnage’ Corbett (57-4, 45 KO’s) in the other semi-final.
Those three are household names in the world of kickboxing, while Cavalari is a virtual unknown.
He has gone 2-0 since joining GLORY last year and it was his GLORY 12 NEW YORK stoppage of the veteran Mourad Bouzidi - a brutal KO which was in the running for ‘Knockout of the Year’ - which earned him this tournament spot.
"I don’t feel overwhelmed or star-struck or anything. This is where I want to be, this is the mission. And I feel good, there is no pressure on me," Cavalari says about being part of the illustrious line-up.
"Can you imagine how it is to be Saki or Spong right now? They are under so much pressure, expected to win. I don’t have even half of the pressure that the other guys are under."
"I am feeling ready for war. My fight isn’t with these guys, my fight is with life. For me this is life or death. I don’t care about the belt, I don’t care about the money. I am fighting for the victory. After the victory, everything else will come."
The thread of Chute Boxe runs strongly through Cavalari. He joined the gym as a youth and his trainer Fernando Falkenbach, now head coach of the Thai Brasil facility which Cavalari calls home, was one of the team’s first fighters before moving into coaching.
His coach was the same coach who trained Anderson Silva, Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua and other legends of the MMA world. He himself has been coach and sparring partner to some of MMA’s all-time greats.
"I started with Chute Boxe, same time as Anderson Silva, Wanderlei Silva, ‘Shogun’ Rua. I trained boxing with Osmar Diaz. I trained with Rafael Cordeiro, a lot of different guys. Saulo was at Chute Boxe as well but a while after me, and he was only young," he says.
"Then seven years ago I left and opened my Thai Brasil gym. It was just before Wanderlei left Chute Boxe. I used to train a lot with Wanderlei. We used to train and spar a lot. I got my black belt in Muay Thai from Chute Boxe while I was training with Wanderlei, in 2004.
"I never went to PRIDE FC as a corner man but I helped a lot of the guys prepare. I helped ‘Shogun’ for his fight with ‘Minotauro’ Nogueira, for example. I trained with him for three UFC fights as well, Mark Coleman, Chuck Liddell and Dan Henderson.
"Then I went to American Top Team for like a year and a half, worked with guys like Thiago Silva, Mike Brown, Jorge Masvidal."
Having known Anderson since the former UFC middleweight champion was but a youth, Falkenbach felt the pain of his recent loss to Chris Weidman keenly. Anderson broke his left shin in half when Weidman checked a leg kick, and his ability to return to competition is being questioned.
"I think Anderson can come back to the top level. He is a big player in the game, he is different," says Falkenbach. "He is like Michael Jordan. There are two MMA’s now: MMA before Anderson Silva and MMA after Anderson Silva.
Before him, it was all about finishing fights on the floor. After Anderson, everyone wants to finish the guys with elbows and knees.
"His style was so different, so exciting. I think he will come back. Will he be champion again? I don’t know. But he will come back and have big fights on big events before he finally decides to end his career."
With so much experience under his belt and so many years training with some of the top names in the game, Falkenbach knows a thing or two about fighters. In Cavalari he believes he has an athlete who has what is needed to go all the way.
"Saulo Cavalari was made for the fight game. Everything in his life has brought him here," he says. "He never had his father in his life, his mother died several years ago. It has been difficult sometimes. He has had no money, life has been hard. No parents to pay for his training or anything.
"But he has been very, very dedicated and he has been training for this dream. Everybody who sees him says he was born to fight, he was made for this.
"Fighting for him is everything. It is do-or-die. He is very, very hungry, incredibly hungry. This is his total focus. This weekend’s tournament at GLORY 15 ISTANBUL is what it has been all about. The road he has walked has brought him here.
"Curitiba does have favelas, not as much as Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paolo, but it is there and life can be hard. It is a more difficult place to achieve your dreams than Europe or the USA. But I think this is good for him, it creates more hunger, more fire.
"His focus is perfect. He wants this. And so this weekend we achieve the dream, starting with the fight against Spong."
GLORY 15 ISTANBUL takes place this Saturday April 12 at the Ulker Sports Arena, Istanbul, Turkey. The event airs in the US on SPIKE TV and in over 150 territories worldwide.
Also on the card is a lightweight contender clash between Robin Van Roosmalen and Marat Grigorian as they seek to stake their own claims to inclusion in the title-shot picture.
Picture courtesy Glory Sports International Ltd.