Monday, March 26, 2007

Wander Braga Stuck in Bureaucratic Limbo

By John Buhl

For nearly 14 years Wander Braga has dreamed of fighting in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. That dream brought him from his native Brazil to the United States about six years ago, and it seemed like it would become a reality when the UFC offered him a contract this past September. However, bureaucratic red tape has twice put a fight with lightweight prospect Kurt Pellegrino on hold, and left his would-be UFC career in legal limbo.

Braga’s manager, Brendan Cosso, explained that even though Braga already runs two Brazilian Jiu Jitsu schools in California, he needed to renew his work permit with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to fight Pellegrino in October. What should have been a routine procedure took several weeks longer than expected, forcing Braga to pull out of the fight.

With a three-fight UFC contract on the table, Braga decided to pursue full U.S. citizenship and have long-term stability for his fighting career. Cosso said that they were assured by government officials that Braga’s application would be approved without any complications and completed in time to face Pellegrino on the UFC’s April 5 Ultimate Fight Night show. However, Braga’s final interview with the INS has been postponed twice, and is now scheduled for May 19.

“He’s got two businesses, a social security number and driver’s license, pays his taxes and has two children who are citizens,” Cosso said. “This whole situation is just frustrating.”

Cosso said that they explored every possible option to allow the fight to take place, but they didn’t want to do anything that would put Braga, Pellegrino or the UFC at legal risk.

Rumors circled on the Internet that Braga was hesitant to face Pellegrino. Braga said that he didn’t think Pellegrino or any of the other fighters at the Armory were behind the rumors, but wasn’t fazed or concerned with what others were saying.

“To tell you the truth, I really don’t care what people say,” Braga said. “If people want to say that, then that’s fine. If I was afraid to fight anyone, I would find something else to do.”

A True Vale Tudo Warrior

Given Braga’s background, it’s particularly difficult to believe that he would be afraid of any opponent. At the age of 12, Braga had his first taste of combat, taking on his peers, some as old as fifteen, to test himself.

Asked why he gravitated towards Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at age 13, he replied: “I was pretty much getting my ass kicked, and I didn’t want to get my ass kicked no more.”

Four years later he earned his purple belt under Jorge Pereira and had his first vale tudo match in Sao Paulo. He wasn’t scheduled to fight, but when his teammate failed to make weight, the show’s organizers offered the fight to Braga. He took the opportunity and hasn’t looked back, amassing a 16-0 record that includes several fights without the luxury of the unified rules of MMA used today in the U.S.

“I’ve fought without gloves, without a mouthpiece,” Braga said. “So I’ll fight anywhere, anytime; it doesn’t matter.”

Being Patient and Focusing on his Goal

At 32 years old, this isn’t the first time Braga has been forced to put his MMA career on hold. Suffering from vertigo-like symptoms after his last match in 2004 – his second King of the Cage appearance – Braga had to spend over a year away from fighting. Now he’s healthy, ready to go, and trying to stay positive.

“I’ve just kept training, and kept my head held high,” he said. “I apologize to my team, the fans and everyone else. I feel really bad about what’s happened, but I’ve done everything I possibly can” to make this fight happen.

Although Braga is eager to finally fight Pellegrino, he said he’s ready to take on whoever gets put in front of him.

“[Pellegrino] would be a great fight for me,” said Braga. “But when my manager asks me who I want to fight, I say, ‘It really doesn’t matter.’ And in the UFC, everyone’s tough; there aren’t any easy fights.”

Trying to keep up with two grappling schools and a training regimen has been difficult, but with more than 20 years of Jiu Jitsu and five years of boxing training, Braga feels that the effort is worth it.

“It’s hard to fight, teach and do all of the other stuff, but this is what I want to do.”


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