Bibiano (The Flash) Fernandes really is a champion in waiting these days.
The One Championship bantamweight title-holder spends his days at home in Vancouver, attending to dad duties with limited mixed martial arts training available during the pandemic. The Brazilian-born Fernandes says while there is more fight in him, he's not sure when he will defend his 135-pound crown next.
One Championship, an Asia-based MMA promotion, held its last card Feb. 28 — a closed-door affair in Singapore. There has been no announcement on the next show.
Fernandes' last action came Oct. 13 in Tokyo, when he submitted former champion Kevin (The Silencer) Belingon in their fourth encounter. It marked Fernandes' third win over the Filipino — and his eighth successful title defence.
He says he has been restricted to one-on-one training of late. "(Hitting) pads and conditioning, that's it," he explained.
With kids aged seven, nine and 14 and a wife who has some health concerns, the 40-year-old fighter is not taking any chances.
"I have to look after my family," he said.
No fights usually means no income in the unforgiving world of mixed martial arts. Fernandes says he is surviving because he made some smart investments along the way.
Still, he misses his sport.
"I wish I could focus 100 per cent on my training ... I miss my friends, my coach, my guys," he said.
Fernandes (24-4-0) is no stranger to hardship. As a seven-year-old in Brazil, he was sent to the Amazon jungle to live with his aunt when his mother died. A bout of malaria almost cost him his life.
He returned to Manaus and started learning jiu-jitsu at 14 after he and a friend saw a jiu-jitsu school in the neighbourhood. He was selling ice cream and cleaning houses at the time and didn't have the money for lessons.
The mother of a friend offered to pay. And when that dried up, his coach agreed to keep teaching him if he cleaned the gym.
Fernandes kept training and getting better, eventually becoming a BJJ champion.
He began his pro MMA career in 2004, a slow start that saw him fight just three times in three years with two losses — albeit against much more experienced opposition in Urijah (The California Kid) Faber and Norifumi (Kid) Yamamoto.
After five fights, he joined Japan's Dream promotion and went on to win featherweight and bantamweight titles. In 2013, he switched full time to One Championship and won the interim bantamweight crown by defeating Japan's Koetsu Okazaki before beating South Korea's Soo Chul Kim to unify the title.
Fernandes defended his championship belt seven times — in China, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand — before losing a split decision to Belingon in March 2019. He won the title back four months later in Tokyo when Belingon was disqualified for illegal elbow strikes and dispatched the Filipino for a third time when they faced off in October.
Fernandes, who believes he should have got the decision that went to Belingon in their second fight, has little interest in a fifth matchup with the Filipino who remains the promotion's No. 1 contender. And for that to happen, Belingon would have to win a few fights first, Fernandes believes.
The November 2018 loss to Belingon is the lone defeat in his last 17 outings.
Fernandes, whose chiselled body belies his age, remains a tough MMA out. No fan of trash-talking, he respects his opponents and says he remains a work in progress.
"I'm a true mixed martial artist ... I'd like to fight until I die," he said with a laugh. "That's the mentality. I don't think about social media. I have it, but that's not my priority. My priority is getting better as an athlete, getting better as a person — be a better human being.
"That's mixed martial arts. People don't understand that. Maybe one day, people are going to get it."
After training in the U.S., he visited Canada the first time in 2003 and eventually settled on the West Coast in 2005. He married a Canadian and became a citizen two years ago, saying he feels very connected to Canada.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2020.
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