Among Brazilian Jiu Jitsu stylists making their way to MMA, few are more intriguing to long time grappling fans than Rodolfo Vieira—who makes his UFC debut this Saturday, August 10th, on ESPN+. While there have been many champion grapplers who have made the jump to cage fighting, few bring with them the sort of pedigree (5x world champion, ADCC gold medalist), raw athleticism, and takedown acumen that made Vieira a phenom from the moment he burst on the BJJ scene.
Rodolfo first made a name for himself as the ‘Black Belt Hunter’ in the late 2000s when, as a brown belt, he beat multiple time world and ADCC champion Braulio Estima—as well as several other high level black belts at the Abu Dhabi World Pro. Sidelined with injuries for a little over a year, he roared back to dominance—winning four straight weight division Mundials gold medals, as well as one absolute division crown between 2011-2014. But, it wasn’t just the wins that made Vieira a star. It was the way he competed. Mixing dynamic takedowns with a diverse and athletic passing game rarely seen at the heavier weight classes. Combined with his propensity for taking the back off those passes, and a high finish rate, Rodolfo’s game was one of the most aesthetically pleasing in the sport.
Here we see an example of Vieira’s explosiveness on the takedown. He drops under fellow multiple time world champion Xande Ribeiro with his trademark cross grip seio nage and, when Ribeiro manages to spin out, he immediately comes in again—upending his opponent for two points and top position.
Rodolfo’s dynamic passing in action. Starting with a double pants grip, he moves to his right with a torreando—redirecting his opponent’s legs to his left. Vieira tries to establish knee on belly, but the bottom player manages to make some space and start recomposing his guard. Feeling the position slipping away, Rodolfo pins the legs to the mat and hops over towards his opponent’s back—continuing to turn the corner until he can get a collar grip and consolidate for three points.
Transition to MMA
In 2016 Vieira announced he was retiring from sport jiu jitsu to pursue a career in MMA. He joined the large stable of fighters at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida, and took his first fight in 2017—against Zarylbek Daniyar in Arzalet Fighting Globe Championships. As might be expected from a BJJ savant with no striking background, Vieira looked a little awkward on the feet. But he did show some good use of the jab, as well as some convincing feints to kick off round one. A clean reactive double off his opponent’s first committed punch led to a swift rear naked choke finish.
His second fight, against 2-3 Fagner Rakchal at Shooto Brazil, was far less impressive. Vieira came out very tentative with his chin high, throwing almost nothing and retreating in straight lines whenever his opponent threw a strike. The fight was extremely slow, consisting of single shots from Rakchal interspersed with long periods of stalled double legs up against the cage from Vieira. Rodolfo showed very little aggression, and not much in the way of chain wrestling. Rakchal was able to consistently stop the takedown with his first layer of defense for the first 2.5 rounds. Finally, in the third, Vieira opened up a little and was able to get the takedown. But he let his opponent get to the cage and stand up a few times, before finally sealing the deal with an arm triangle late.
Following that fight, Vieira made his promotional debut with ACB against the 3-2 grappler Alexander Neufang. Rodolfo looked a lot better this time out, seemingly much more relaxed on the feet, not overreacting to every strike from his herky-jerky opponent, and hitting a clean outside trip single leg off a 1-2. Neufang showed good flexibility and positional awareness on the ground, stifling Vieira’s initial passing attempts. But, Rodolfo was able to land some nice ground and pound in transition, culminating in a finish with strikes from the back.
Soon thereafter Vieira was matched up with Jacob Holyman-Tague at ACB 88. In this fight the Brazilian showed off improved chain wrestling, and better control during the transition from standing to the mat. This sequence in the middle of the first spelled the beginning of the end for Holyman-Tague:
Having pushed his opponent to the cage and stifled in his initial double leg attempt, Vieira rotates Holyman-Tague towards the center, slides up to a body lock, and hits a nice inside trip to take the fight to the mat. Rodolfo maintains the body lock, keeping his opponent down, while moving to over/under control in top half and setting up the pass.
Once the fight hit the mat, Vieira wasted little time in passing to the back and sinking in the choke for the first round stoppage.
After nearly a year long break, Vieira would get his first real step up fight against Vitaly Nemchinov at ACB 96. The 10-1 Russian was by far the most experienced and dangerous opponent Rodolfo had yet faced, and in the early going the gulf in striking acumen was clear. Nemchinov pressured Vieira to the cage and landed clean shots to open the fight. Rodolfo showed some decent angular footwork getting back to the center of the mat and started landing some jabs and feinting Nemchinov off a bit, culminating in a nice head fake to double leg.
Coming forward with good head movement after weathering some early pressure, Vieira feints a jab and ducks in for the shot. After driving Nemchinov to the cage Rodolfo is able to scoop the legs and secure the takedown by immediately going to the leg ride.
Having hit a clean double to a leg ride, Vieira does a nice job combining ground and pound with positional advancement—moving up Nemchinov’s body towards the back while throwing heavy leather.
It only takes a few shots for Nemchinov to give up his back. And just like that Vieira extends his record to 5-0 with another rear naked choke finish.
Getting the Call Up
After the Nemchinov win the UFC came calling. Vieira is slated to face Oskar Piechota at UFC on ESPN+ on August 10th in Montevideo, Uruguay. So how can Rodolfo be expected to do in the UFC’s middleweight division?
With his elite grappling and improving wrestling he’s a danger to almost any un-ranked fighter, but his limited experience and lack of demonstrated striking acumen also means he’s probably due for a bad loss relatively early in his tenure. While the Nemchinov fight showed improved ability to connect his takedowns to his passing and top control, in some of his other fights he’s shown too much willingness to let his opponents move under him—counting on his scrambling ability to keep him on top and open up opportunities to land strikes. Against higher level fighters, who are more adept at using any space on the ground to get back to their feet, Vieira may well find himself spending a lot of energy on the takedown for very little gain. It remains to be seen if he’s really made the transition from a sport style passing game to one more suited for MMA—as discussed at length in my previous study of passing for MMA.
Rodolfo Vieira’s record is very thin, with only one fight against credible opposition. And his chin, cardio, and the depth of his striking remain huge unknowns. For anyone who watched his meteoric rise through the sport BJJ ranks, it’s exciting to see him with MMA’s premier promotion, But, he’s going to need to show a lot more development in facets of his game other than grappling if he’s going to be a serious contender in the UFC middleweight division.