Raphael Assuncao stepped away from the gym for three months after losing to Marlon Moraes in February. He told his family not to ask him about fighting, because he wanted to clear his mind before stepping in the Octagon again.
It doesn’t mean Assuncao never thought about mixed martial arts, but he needed some time after watching a title shot slip through his fingers after having his winning streak snapped in Fortaleza, Brazil.
He was out of the cage for a while, but he didn’t slow down. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
“After the fight I took some time for myself, and it was quite productive,” Assuncao told MMA Fighting ahead of his bantamweight clash with Cory Sandhagen at Saturday night’s UFC 241 in Anaheim. “I spent three months away from fighting, but fighting never really left my head. After the loss I told my wife and my family, ‘I don’t wanna know about fighting now,’ but that doesn’t mean I didn’t wake up thinking about my next step, my plan to come back, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Assuncao spent most of that time away inside his garage working on an used Porsche he bought a while back. What kept him busy was his love for speed and adrenaline, tuning every small detail to get his car to become the perfect machine to match his needs at the race tracks around Atlanta.
“That keeps me busy because I’m my own mechanic and my own driving coach. I pretty much do everything,” Assuncao said with a laugh. “That’s a good distraction. I bought this used car and built it myself, making it ready for races. I changed breaks, I did everything step by step because it’s an expensive sport. I got the car ready for races with a lot of sweat and sacrifice.”
Assuncao has entered a dozen races by now and has trophies at home. Even though he’s used to getting to 150 mph at the track, Assuncao explains that speed is not what really matters in his category. A cerebral fighter in the Octagon, his timing must be flawless to hit the breaks and turn every corner to beat competition.
You may think there’s no correlation between the two sports, but Assuncao, who had a few “small” accidents at racing tracks, says driving and fighting have a lot in common.
“It’s about hard work and focus, you can’t make one single mistake, so that has helped me a lot,” said the Brazilian bantamweight, who considers himself a better fighter than a driver. “When you finish a race you have three layers of clothes on you and you’re soaked in sweat. It’s stressing. Nothing is like a MMA fight, but being in a race is unique. You’re in there by yourself. You can’t make mistakes. That’s why I say they are both similar. It’s very technical.
“I just got a trophy now, and it’s a pretty cool experience,” he continued. “It’s like a fight, but in a fight the result matters more because it’s just two men in there, not 40 cars in a track. You’re fighting one person only, so the result is more important. MMA is a sport that demands a lot from you. It’s very specific. It’s not like a hobby where you feel more comfortable and have fun. It’s hard work, but it’s a hobby, there’s less pressure.”
Assuncao loves riding his Porsche on a track, but don’t picture him as one of those guys that rent exotic cars when he’s out of town. When he moved to Florida to do his camp for UFC 241 at American Top Team, Assuncao was just as thrilled to drive a Toyota Yaris for eight weeks — “That’s the best Toyota you’ll in the streets, very simple but such a cool car,” he says.
The 37-year-old fighter sees racing as a hobby, but it’s quite an expensive one. It remains to be seen if he’ll race more often when he walks away from fighting one day, but, for now, his goal remains the same: win the bantamweight championship in the UFC. At UFC 241, Assuncao takes on rising 135-pound prospect Cory Sandhagen in an attempt to return to winning column and re-enter the mix for a title shot.
“You don’t make changes when something is going right, and sometimes… I have nothing to hide, sometimes you’re in a comfort zone,” Assuncao said. “I think some things were missing in my last fight. This sport is so uncertain that even if I had done something different maybe things still wouldn’t go my way, but it was important to take this time off and reorganize things.”
“My focus is on my next challenge,” he added. “My focus continues the same. I don’t even need to explain that I never look past a fight, I’m always thinking about my next opponent, but my focus still is the belt. With all due respect to my opponent, I like him, he’s a respectful athlete, but my focus is the belt. I expect a great fight, a tactical fight. I’m always challenging myself. I built new things and it’s time to put them in practice. Let’s go for another journey for the belt.”
And if you’re questioning Assuncao’s love for MMA following his three-month time in garages and on race tracks, he makes it clears he wants to be nowhere else but in the Octagon now.
“There’s nothing like fighting, man,” Assuncao said. “Fighting tops every emotion I’ve ever lived. My daughter’s birth was the biggest emotion I’ve ever felt in my life, but in terms of adrenaline, there’s nothing quite like fighting.”