Marcus Almeida is a 17-time Brazilian jiujitsu world champion and with six of those titles achieved in the open-weight category, “Buchecha” (meaning “cheek”) is an undoubtedly record-holding icon of the sport.
Having dominated BJJ for over a decade, the 32-year-old signed with ONE Championship in 2020 to begin his MMA career, and will be looking to improve on his already impressive 3-0-0 record when he faces Kirill Grishenko (5-1-0) during the promotion’s highly anticipated return to Amazon Prime Video.
Marcus Almeida sat down with M&F to discuss the injury that delayed his MMA debut, how it made him a better fighter in the long run, and why he’s enjoying life in a new sport.
Congratulations with how things have been going at ONE. How are you feeling right now?
I’m feeling really great. I’m going into my fourth fight and got the job done on the previous fight (against Simon Carson), so I am really comfortable right now in the new sport. I’m really enjoying the ride.
You first started talking about making the transition to MMA in 2015, but it was 2021 when you finally debuted with ONE Championship. I guess life had other plans, right?
Yeah, 2015 was when I was planning to fight my last (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) championship, but unfortunately I got hurt and I tore my left knee, and I had to [have] surgery and that took me a year to come back. So, then all my plans changed because of the surgery and in my head, I had to come back and fight jiujitsu again because leaving the arena like that wasn’t the last memory that I wanted to have in Jiu-Jitsu. I came back, I fought, in 2016 I won but I wasn’t so dominant [and I thought], you know what? I can squeeze in one more year. Then one more year, and one more year, until 2019, so that’s when I ended up breaking all the records and becoming the biggest champion (of the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu championship). In 2020, I felt that my mission was done in the Jiu-Jitsu sport and competition, so I don’t have anything else to prove and it’s time to move on, it’s time to go to MMA because I always wanted to, and here we are.
Do you think that you continued with BJJ so that you could gauge how the knee injury was healing, and did the process actually help to make you a better fighter?
Oh yeah, totally, because the injury changed me so much. After the injury, it changes the person, the athlete, everything because it made me look at everything with a different point of view. Of course, I wouldn’t be confident to kick with my left leg (in MMA) right away after the surgery, so staying in Jiu-Jitsu gave me the confidence back that I needed. Now, when I’m training, I don’t even think about it anymore.
Did the injury force you to learn how to become a more defensive fighter?
Yeah, my game changed so much. Before the surgery I used to go forward, like to attack so much with leg locks and foot locks, but every time that you attack somebody’s foot, you kinda expose your foot. So after the surgery I played a much safer game to protect my knee, but on the other hand I was matching everyone because I was controlling so much. I learned how to use my bodyweight so much better, and that’s when my passing and my pressure game started getting better, and I started arm-barring everyone (laughs). I think 2016 was the year I won almost every fight by submission from an armbar.
Learning not to expose yourself so much must be an important lesson for helping your career in MMA?
You don’t wanna get exposed and get really hurt so I think the mindset kinda helped for this. The way that I was using the jiujitsu (post injury) is what I am trying to apply to MMA because I want to use the pressure. I want to use my weight.
What is it that you are loving most about MMA?
I have been doing (BJJ) since I was 13 years old. It’s been almost 20 years and so there is not much change or excitement besides the learning. MMA, for me, every day is like something new. Every day I am learning faster, so I see the difference after every training [session]. In MMA, I feel like a white belt in a new sport. There’s this fire to try something new.
In MMA, you need to strike your opponent as opposed to BJJ where it is mostly disallowed. How have you found this transition?
When I came to MMA, I did zero striking. I had some wrestling [experience] but now everything is like starting from scratch.
How are you working on increasing the power of your strikes?
Almeida: Being honest, the training that I like so much is the sparring sessions. Of course, being a heavyweight, you have to be careful with the sparring sessions. I train with bag work, pads, but what I really like to do is to go and put the gloves on and do a sparring session with another big guy, like me.
Your old BJJ rival Gordon Ryan has reportedly signed with ONE Championship but hasn’t fought yet. Would you be interested in fighting Ryan in an MMA environment if it was offered?
Yeah. Being honest, I don’t even know if he’s fighting there anymore but of course, for MMA I would fight him and it would be a fun match to do because we are both from a jiujitsu background. But now I have more experience than him. I’m going into my fourth MMA fight and he doesn’t have any, so I think it wouldn’t be the best debut for him but it would be a fun fight and of course, I would fight him. I’m looking for higher opponents who can put me in a better position to fight for the belt. That’s the goal.
It is an exciting time to be part of ONE Championship with events being broadcast on Amazon Prime Video. How do you feel about fighting on that platform against Grishenko?
That’s a huge step for the ONE organization, for the athletes, and a great opportunity because I think [Amazon Prime Video] is one of the biggest platforms in the world and so this will be even bigger, especially for the U.S. audience. We can show the way that we see martial arts. We are going out there and trying to show our skills with a lot of respect. That’s the whole point of the organization and one of the reasons why I love ONE Championship so much.
I’m always confident if I step out there. I have the skills. [Grishenko] is really tough. He’s going to be the first wrestler that I’ll fight. People think that I won’t go out there and try to take him down but I’m an MMA fighter now. I know that I have to strike, I have to do everything, and that’s why I am training so much. I know he’s ready for me, and I’m ready for him.
Marcus Almeida will fight Grishenko on the main card under Moraes vs. Johnson II, live from the Singapore indoor Stadium from 10pm EDT on August 26 via Amazon Prime Video 1. The lead card kicks things off from 8pm EDT. More for info visit www.onefc.com.