LAWRENCE — He was on the fast track to the bright lights and big stages in mixed martial arts but then it was taken away in a snap ... the snap of his ankle.
“I was training for a big fight in Pennsylvania,” said Rodrigo Almeida. “My sparring partner went to take me down and my ankle got caught on the fence. Someone rolled over on it and it broke.”
Almeida will represent Wai Kru-Intenze studio in Lawrence when he returns from an 18-month layoff in a professional lightweight bout tonight against 4-5 Josh Parker of Skowhegan, Maine. It’s part of the Combat Zone March Madness card at Rockingham Park.
At the time, the 25-year-old Brazilian native had compiled a record of 8-2-0 in impressive fashion, won a title belt in the WFL, and was overflowing with talent and potential. Nicknamed The Young Lion, Almeida notched his last win in September of 2011. There was chatter about him moving up to the UFC, WEC or Bellator. But the only place he was headed after the accident was to an operating room.
“I had to have surgery and get the metal braces, screws and everything,” he said about the total reconstructive procedure. “It’s now 100 percent. I left physical therapy (Tuesday) afternoon and they checked it and it still looks good. The doctors OK’d me to fight Friday night.”
During the year and a half of down time, Almeida, who lives in Woburn, had to get himself back into fighting shape. The mental ordeal was as tough as the physical one.
“After I broke my ankle, I had no money, no nothing. I didn’t know what I was going to do because I was getting ready for a fight and then everything was just taken away from me,” said Almeida, who will attempt his comeback at 155 pounds instead of his customary 145.
“I couldn’t even walk for three months and everybody thought I was done, that I couldn’t fight anymore. They said I was finished. I was mad. I cried a bunch of times and then I said ‘Screw this. I’m not going to quit. I can still make something out of this and out of myself.’”
It would be three months after the surgery even before he could walk again, and during that time he often found inspiration on Facebook, where he would check the sites of Paralympians. He decided that if athletes who had no legs could compete at the highest level, he wouldn’t allow his repaired ankle to become an excuse.
As soon as he was back on his feet, Almeida got a job driving trucks for a demolition company in Woburn. But he was deeply in debt.
“I owed almost $10,000. I had borrowed money from everybody I knew. That way I could pay my bills ahead of time because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “I was paid up for six months, but at the same time I owed everybody money. So I worked 60-80 hours a week to pay them back. Thank God I didn’t have a wife and kids to support.”
His grueling schedule didn’t leave much time for training but he managed to work it in. The operative word is work.
Almeida went Canada to attend the Tri-Star camp and ended up staying for three weeks to train intensively with UFC great George St. Pierre and some other luminaries in the sport. His boxing lessons came from Joe Lake, who worked with former WBC middleweight champ Dana Rosenblatt.
“Joe was working with Rodrigo’s hands and teaching him subtle things, not just striking, but boxing technique, feigns, and other things you don’t see in MMA,” said manager Joe Cavallaro.
Almeida, who has been training with rising MMA star Calvin Kattar of Methuen even though he once lost to him in the cage, is also highly skilled in Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, and Muay Thai.
“Rodrigo is a tough, tough kid and he’s as strong as an ox. He’s got a ton of heart,” said Cavallaro. “He’s a really good fighter with the potential to make it big. He’s going to be one of the top guys coming out of New England and he should make it all the way to the UFC. Rodrigo has the fire in him. He’s ready to take it to the next level. He’s ready to kill.”
March Madness at The Rock Tomorrow night the Sports Club at Rockingham Park will host six pro and seven amateur MMA fights highlighted by the main event featuring undefeated Cody Anderson (1-0 as a pro; 5-0 as an amateur) from Team Triumph in Nashua against Florida invader Ryan "F2 Darkside" Hodge (4-7). John Santos of Derry and Team Fury out of Methuen will make his pro debut against Joey Gomez (0-0-0). Peter San Antonio (7-4-0) and JT Harold (1-1-0), both from North Andover, Cheyenne Vasquez (1-1-0) from Lawrence, Dan Dinan (0-0-0) from Groveland, Jordan Pope (1-1-0) from Londonderry and CJ Ziogas (0-0-0) from Pelham are locals fighting in the amateur ranks. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the first fight begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $40 for general admission and $50, $75, $90 and $120 for ringside seating. Parking is free. For tickets or more information visit czmma.com or contact promoter David George at 978-360-3846.