The list of fighters who fought for a title is small. The list of fighters who fought for a title, yet didn’t compete in MMA for more than five years? Even smaller.
I suspect that Renato ‘Charuto’ Verissimo, with a career record of 7-5-1, would have avoided a place on this column if his career lasted longer. It didn’t. In fact, the ensuing years he did get were somewhat insulting — at least in proportion to where his welterweight career began. Or maybe he just got out just in time to become the first half of the phrase ‘you either die a hardcore fan’s hero, or you live long enough to see yourself placed on an unflattering listicle.’
Verissimo only had four professional fights before entering the UFC. Two things helped him get noticed. For one, he started out fighting in Rumble on the Rock, which was bolstered by the promotion behind K-1 and DREAM. As a result, ROTR brought in quality talent. Having a promotion in Hawaii also meant showcasing Hawaii’s most famous fighting son, B.J. Penn. And Penn was one of Verissimo’s students.
To be fair to Verissimo, he was more than just the pieces in his orbit. Before fighters were “well-rounded” there was Murilo Bustamante. Bustamante was MMA’s own Goblet Illusion if the Goblet represented tactics, and the shapes were semi-congruous fists and armbars. On another Earth, he’s got wins over prime Chuck Liddell and Quinton Jackson. Verissimo had some of that Bustamante musk.
He wasn’t a great striker, but he was 6’1 for a welterweight, which was and is quite tall. He had that tall-man torque on his punches, wielding physics more than mechanics to puncture livers and nervous systems. Six of his seven wins were by TKO. As Penn’s instructor, he was a certified grappler, with some useful experience at the highest levels (fast forward to 7:50 for one of the slickest backtakes you’ll ever see, although not by Verissimo). His grappling was technical, but also aggressive. It’s not hard to imagine fighters like Charlies Oliveira and Rafael dos Anjos borrowing from Charuto’s playbook.
When he debuted, he fought Carlos Newton. Newton was a veteran of both the UFC, and Pride. He fought through a veritable thresher of martial arts competition, having engaged in classics with Matt Hughes, Dan Henderson (I thought Newton won, personally), and Kazushi Sakuraba — and suffered classic violence at the hands of Anderson Silva and Pele (though he won). Verissimo made dominant work of Newton, even coming close to finishing him in the first round with a sustained mount attack.
It earned him a shot at Matt Hughes at UFC 48. Unbelievably, the bout was seen as a tougher fight for Hughes than it was for Verissimo at the time. Hughes had started to look vulnerable back then. First it was Sean Sherk. Despite Hughes’ reputation as a “boring wrestler” Sherk was only his second decision win in the UFC, and it was a fight Sherk made more competitive as the fight wore on. Then Frank Trigg, who had Hughes on the ropes at UFC 45. Then BJ Penn at UFC 46. Verissimo had easily run through one of Hughes’ old rivals, himself stinging from one the sport’s biggest upsets ever, and was a tough stylistic matchup to boot.
The fight would be a turning point for both men’s careers, though not in the way you’d expect. Verissimo looked confident, poised, and aggressive that night. Though Hughes didn’t give him a chance to keep it on the feet, Charuto pressed the action, even locking in a triangle for what felt like an eternity. Hughes won, but a case could have been made for Verissimo. In fact, Verissimo had some stern words for the icon.
“I would welcome a rematch with Matt, but if he fights the same way that he fought me last time, I will choose somebody else,” he said at the time.
But he also understood, much to his chagrin, that MMA was still a fledgling sport. “As far as attacking is concerned, I think I tried to do a little bit more than Matt did. But I think it was a bit of a wake-up call for the judges. I think they need to follow some sort of rules or agenda when judging, because I don’t think they have any ground contact experience.”
Verissimo had an unlikely profile for a premiere mixed martial artist. He wasn’t some crazed savage. And he wasn’t an athletic savant, like Michael Phelps who has a hyper-jointed chest, and produces lactic acid at a rate that would have made Shane Carwin a mythical creature. He got into the sport after playing water polo. He liked to hike, swim, and body board. He felt, in his own words, that it was better to be outside of the gym than in it.
I suppose some people might see correlation and causation there given where Verissimo ended up. He’d go 3-4 in his last seven bouts, losing to elite fighters at the time in Trigg, Carlos Condit, and Jake Shields. And losing to non-elite (though extremely underrated) fighters like Kuniyoshi Hironaka.
I see more correlation. Every fighter is built different. Being a gym rat doesn’t guarantee performance, just as not being a gym rat doesn’t guarantee malaise.
Verissimo was an interesting, though fleeting piece of welterweight history. His mark on the division was less about his own, and more about what his mark said about other fighters. For example, Hughes’ win over Versissimo would springboard his second run, eventually cementing his legacy as one of the greatest welterweights of the common era.
For just a split second, a veteran of water polo was the man standing in his way.