That night in Japan a fighter caught on fire

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Back in 2000 Internet speeds were less 56.6 Kbps. One Sunday morning there were scattered reports that Matt Serra’s PRIDE debut was canceled when his opponent’s head caught on fire. That didn’t seem likely, but a week or two later I had a private lesson with The Terra, and it was confirmed.

“Bro,” began Serra. “He caught on FIYA!”

It’s one of the craziest stories in the history of MMA, and finally, Guilherme Cruz has done it justice, in an extended interview with Serra’s opponent Johil de Oliveira, for MMA Fighting.


“You’re at the top of a stage, waving to the crowd before you start to walk to the ring,” recalled Oliveira. “In this stage, there were six flamethrowers for their pyrotechnic show. But they hit the button to activate the flamethrower when I was right next to it, and they burned 70 percent of my body.”

“It was live. I was burned on live television. There was no adrenaline because I was used to fighting, so I wasn’t nervous or anxious. I was used to competition, and the pain was unbearable. Ricardo Liborio, the first to rescue me, saw how my skin was. It was coming off, and I still had fire on me. It was terrible. Until I got to the hospital and they put me out with anesthesia, it was the worst moment of my life. Being burned is no joke. There’s nothing worse than that.”

Serra went on to win the UFC welterweight championship, albeit briefly, and has turned out countless UFC fighters at his wildly academies. The Brazilian has had a harder run. He spent two months in a burn center, and for years afterward had to stay out of the sun. Everyone assumed there was a million dollar injury settlement with PRIDE. He was given $70,000 for having 70% of his body burned.

“I was pretty much robbed,” he said.

The fighter bought a house and invested in businesses including a gym, but they didn’t last.

“Many people said that if I had sued PRIDE I’d be rich and wouldn’t need to fight anymore, but I didn’t want to do that because I respected them,” he said. “Thinking about the money, yes, I regret [not suing], but I love the promotion and I love Japan. I love fighting there. They treat you as an idol, something that doesn’t happen in Brazil. But I do regret [not suing them] for the money because my life would be way better than it is today.”

Oliveira fought on, based on his team’s concerns that he would be cut for turning down a fight. But he was unnerved. His first fight back de Oliveira was so shaken he grabbed a fire extinguisher during the walkout, and refused to go to the ring without it. The fans got a kick out of it and gave him the nickname ‘Fire Samurai’.

“PRIDE did a new contract with me, they said they would give me three easy fights so I could make a good money,” he said. “Some kind of reward besides the indemnification.”

Oliveira’s show-win was $30,000-$15,000. But the fights weren’t easy. Six months after suffering the massive burns, he fought Carlos Newton. Less than five months later Newton became the UFC welterweight champion. Prior to the accident de Oliveira was 12-3-1. Afterward, he lost eight in a row.

“I never asked for easy fights in my life,” he said. “But they said they wanted to give me easier fights so I could make money while I was recovering. … but right away it seemed like they wanted to just break me. … Taking those fights was a mistake. My manager should never have accepted that.”

Oliveira is now 47 and hasn’t fought in five years, but has not retired. A scheduled fight with Macaco in 2014 ended after the fighters left the arena when they realized they were not getting paid. The old PRIDE boss Nobuyuki Sakakibara is back with RIZIN FF, and de Oliveira would like to get signed.

“They are signing guys from the old days to compete, so why not give me a fight?” he reasoned. “I always fought whoever they put in front of me, I was blind in one of the fights.

“Fighters hurt their nails and pull out of fights these days. If what I did was right or wrong, I don’t know, but that’s who I am. I think I could have done a lot better in PRIDE if they were more correct with me. I should have had another chance in PRIDE, but they did me wrong.

“From the bottom of my heart, they hurt me. With RIZIN coming back, they could call me to right a wrong, but I never had any contact with them. I think they owe me that.”