Carlos Eduardo Rocha took a circuitous route to the UFC. Yet, even after just one fight with the organization, he sports a tattoo on his shoulder that reads, "UFC is my life."
This tells you all you need to know about how happy Rocha is to be fighting at the highest level in a sport he never intended. And to know just a little bit of his backstory, it becomes amazing that the tattoo sits in a place where a chip might be more suitable.
"I grew up having nothing; often I had nothing to eat, no place to sleep," Rocha said of his early childhood in Fortaleza, Brazil. "I only had an iron will to survive. My master, Dárcio Lira, picked me up from the streets and taught me Brazilian jiu-jitsu at his gym. It was my way out."
As an orphan in his native country, Rocha often slept on the beach with scant possessions and literally nowhere to turn. When Lira, a ninth degree red belt from Fortaleza, gave him shelter and a focal point -- learning traditional Brazilian jiu-jitsu -- his life took on new meaning. By the time he was 15, Rocha was competing in the Brazilian tournament circuit, where he won more than 50 trophies and medals over the next decade.
Though he has a nickname that forever tethers him to those tumultuous times -- "Ta Danado," which means "The Injured One" -- Rocha doesn't like to talk about it that much today. Edu, as his friends call him, would much rather speak of how it all came out. "I have a room full of accomplishments," the 29-year-old said, "and I'm only beginning. I'm still hungry to add more."
In some ways, Rocha's big welterweight fight against Jake Ellenberger at UFC 126 on Saturday in Las Vegas is a microcosm of how Rocha got there. In 2007, without any training in the "mixed" aspect of martial arts outside of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and judo, he got a call asking him to come to Germany and fill in for a spot on a Free Fight Association (FFA) event. In need of work and already idolizing Brazilian fighters like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mario Sperry and Anderson Silva, he said why not.
"I came to MMA by accident," he said. "A friend of mine was supposed to fight in a tournament in Germany and got hurt in practice, so I filled in for him on short notice. My management team scouted me before my second fight with veteran Steve Mensing, and it's led me into the UFC within two years."
It's turned out to be a very happy accident; he beat Johannes Kunze with a quick rear-naked choke.
Since then, Rocha has become a globetrotter of sorts, training between Germany, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Fortaleza in Brazil, and San Francisco with master Dárcio Lira's son and cornerman, Darlynson Lira. He's undefeated in nine fights, with eight of them ending in submissions and only one reaching the second round. A resident of Hamburg, Germany, Rocha's UFC debut was at UFC 122 in Oberhausen, where he performed exactly as he did on the local circuit -- by submitting "The Ultimate Fighter" Season 11 alum Kris McCray via knee bar.
Which leads him to Ellenberger. Rocha again got the call to fill in for a fight -- this time, though, it was to be on one of the biggest MMA cards of the year, UFC 126 on Super Bowl weekend. When Jon Fitch was reslotted to headline the UFC 127 card against B.J. Penn in Australia, Rocha was all-too-happily thrust into the spotlight of the main card. He says this is a chance to showcase his slick jiu-jitsu and make a name for himself in the States.
"It's a dream come true, the dream of my life to test myself against the strongest fighters on the world's biggest stage," he said. "My next goal is to make an impact in the UFC and represent my master Dárcio Lira and my country of Brazil well, to make my countrymen proud."
Rocha knows his bout against Ellenberger, who is riding a two-fight win streak after beating John Howard in August, will present a difficult stylistic matchup. And it's no secret that he'd love nothing more than to force Ellenberger into a mistake, then close things down like a flytrap.
"Ellenberger is a strong wrestler, very powerful and he throws hard punches," Rocha said. "But he has shown weakness on the ground in his fights."
Ellenberger has seen enough film on Rocha to know what's in store, yet he says facing a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt is nothing new -- especially after training with fourth degree black belt Rodrigo Vaghi heading in.
"Rocha's definitely more of a submission guy, and I can tell from his record and how he wins what he likes to do and where he feels comfortable," Ellenberger said. "But I'm definitely strong on the ground myself. A lot of how jiu-jitsu works is capitalizing on mistakes and punishing complacency. For me, I've been fighting awhile and I've had quite a bit of experience, so I don't see where he's going to sweep me or put me in a position to submit me."
For a wrestler with very game standup ability, Ellenberger says it will be a case of dictating where the fight takes place, which he believes he can do.
"As far as strategy goes, if that's the only way he can beat me, I might as well take away the only way he can beat me and beat him everywhere else," he said.
And what happens if he forces Rocha to fight his fight?
"Like a cheap piece of lawn furniture, he will fold up," Ellenberger said.
Rocha invites the challenge, and really -- for a guy who confidently says his ultimate goal is to "submit Georges St. Pierre and win the UFC welterweight title" -- there's a lot of built-up trust in the Dárcio Lira style he has honed for so many years.
"When I knock on the gates of heaven when I'm done with my duty on the Earth, I want to present my trophies, my achievements and my good deeds," Rocha said. "I don't want to come to God with empty hands."
His hands will be full this weekend with Ellenberger. But as somebody who knows the feeling of emptiness, well, there's always that sense of having nothing to lose. Which of course makes for the most dangerous kind of fighter.
Chuck Mindenhall covers MMA for ESPN.com and is a features writer at FIGHT! magazine. He can be followed on Twitter at @ChuckMindenhall.