Rafael “Indio” Nunes (11-1) believes fate is finally on his side.
After a series of unfortunate injuries and personal issues sidelined him for nearly four years, the Brazilian made a thunderous return to ONE Championship in January.
The São Paulo, Brazil native defeated former ONE Featherweight World Title challenger Eric “The Natural” Kelly at ONE: GLOBAL SUPERHEROES, and kicked off the latest stage of his career in spectacular fashion.
“It felt great,” the 30-year-old says. “It has been about a four-year gap out of the cage, but now I am back with a victory, and I am doing what I was born to do.”
Though Nunes was kept away from competition, he never stopped training. That showed when he returned to the ONE cage for the first time since July 2014.
The Brazilian stood toe-to-toe with Kelly in the opening round, which made for a competitive five minutes.
He brought the contest to the mat in the second stanza, where he was able to submit “The Natural” via D’arce choke.
“We had this plan to work my boxing skills at the beginning of the first round, and then grapple and submit him,” Nunes explains.
“It was a good fight, and it all worked fine for me. Those front kicks he threw surprised me, but it turned out that I was able to grab his foot, bring him to the floor, and submit him.”
For Nunes, the win came at a crucial point in his career.
After all, in the bout just prior to that, the Brazilian stumbled in his promotional debut, and suffered his first-ever professional defeat.
He faced Koji “The Commander” Ando in a lightweight affair, and an ill-advised single-leg takedown attempt led to a rear-naked choke.
Following a lengthy hiatus, “Indio” was determined to erase that tainted memory from the minds of fans across the globe. He moved down a weight class to get a fresh start in a new division, and began his campaign toward the ONE Featherweight World Title on solid footing.
“It was a big deal to show everyone my potential as an athlete,” he explains.
“I was not able to show it in the match against Koji Ando. I made a mistake, and lost the fight. I had some personal problems right after that match, which took me out of competition. But now, I am officially back.
“This victory over Kelly was important to my career, to my mind, and to my soul. I am back at full strength and focused on ONE Championship. My goal is the World Title – the featherweight belt.”
Yamada, a ZST Welterweight Champion who trains out of Tiger Muay Thai & MMA, is a well-rounded athlete who has nine knockouts and nine submission wins under his belt. In his most recent bout, he also submitted Kelly – in March via first-round rear-naked choke.
“He is a tough opponent with a lot of experience, and he has already had matches with champions. He is also a skilled grappler,” Nunes acknowledges.
“This is going to be a good match for me. I am going to show how good of a striker I can be. He has a very strong kick with his left leg, so this is something I will pay attention to. I will avoid his grappling, his takedowns, and his submissions.”
While Nunes wants to display his striking for the masses inside Yangon’s Thuwunna Indoor Stadium, he is aware the best-laid plans can go awry.
That would be fine with him, however. He is more than willing to test out Yamada’s grappling ability against his own high-level Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
“I am an old-school black belt, so this is where I feel most at home,” he says.
“But I am focusing now on my striking skills. This is what I have been training for quite some time. I want to see if he is going to stand with me.”