Nikolas Motta's 10-year journey from Minas Gerais now stops in Las Vegas.
"I always dreamed about living in Vegas," said Motta (12-4 MMA, 0-1 UFC), who will fight in his adopted hometown on Saturday against Cameron VanCamp (15-6-1 MMA, 0-1 UFC). "The first time I came to America, it was in Vegas in 2015 on 'The Ultimate Fighter.'"
Motta, then just 21, made it to the quarterfinals as a member of Anderson Silva's squad on "TUF: Brazil 4" and was expected to one day make it to the octagon as a member of the UFC roster. He did, but it would take some time, and plenty of miles, twists and turns.
From Rio de Janeiro, where he trained with the renowned Nova Uniao team, he moved to Connecticut to work with Glover Teixeira, then to New Jersey to train with the equally decorated Edson Barboza, Marlon Moraes and Frankie Edgar. There was time spent with Factory X in Colorado, and then back to Nova Uniao before a friend interning at the UFC Performance Institute offered him a place to stay as he got ready for his second UFC fight against VanCamp.
"I was roommates with him, and I started to train at Xtreme Couture, and I love it," said Motta. "I think I'm in the best shape of my life now after moving to Vegas."
The 29-year-old sounds excited about getting back to work after suffering a torn MCL in his debut loss to Jim Miller in February, and it's not just to show what he's learned in his new training situation, but to show how much he's evolved as a human being, as well.
"I think I grew a lot from that loss and I saw how I grew as a fighter," Motta said of the Miller fight. "I remember when I had my first experience with UFC, I was 21 years old and I didn't know how to deal with losses. I was depressed and complaining all the time. But now, I'm a pro for 10, years and I feel like I'm totally different and I feel like I learned how to enjoy the journey and how to stay in the present moment because sometimes I would think too much about the past, and that's not good. The only thing I can do to create a better future and create what I want to be successful in the UFC is by doing my best now in the present. And I feel like I got so much better."
It sounds bizarre to think Motta started this whole quest as a teenager, but he laughs when the topic is brought up, because he hardly recognizes the fighter that walked into Nova Uniao all those years ago. And it may have taken 16 pro fights and appearances on TUF and Dana White's Contender Series to arrive at a certain conclusion, but better late than never.
"I think now it feels like it's time to stop fighting with my balls and fight with my head and use my experience," he laughs. "I have a friend that says that's the Brazilian curse."
Maybe, but it's also made the stereotypical reckless Brazilian warrior beloved around the fight game. Motta knows this, so he won't be turning into a grappling-focused grinder, but he does realize that a little restraint and a little more defense are never bad things to utilize on fight night, especially when he plans on taking this to the top of the lightweight division one day. Plainly put, he's not here for a good time; he's here for a long time, and that's always been the goal, much to the chagrin of parents who wanted him to go to school instead of the Nova Uniao gym at 18.
"My family wanted to pay for me to go to college, and I could have done any degree I wanted, but I wouldn't be as happy as I am as a fighter," Motta admits. "Everyone can go to school, but only a few people can live this life, and I didn't want to just be another person in the world. I want to make a difference and I want to be different. Even my fight style, you can see that I'm always looking for knockouts. I never had one boring fight, I'm like a showman, and I think I'm like that because I had on my mind that I didn't want to be just another guy. I didn't want to be just another fighter."
To make that a reality, Motta had to make sacrifices – a lot of them – and he's still making them. But that's the life he chose, and he has no regrets.
"I've been away from my family and friends for 10 years and it's like that samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, said, 'It's the path of the ronin,'" said Motta. "I'm living the path of the ronin and it's not easy. On a personal level, it's very rough, very tough to live like that, but when I left home when I was 18, I said that I would do anything to make it happen, and I'm kind of making it happen now. I made it to the UFC, and now it's time to get my first win."
Right about now, the simplest question is, "Why?" Like he said, he could have gotten a college degree, could have done anything in this world that didn't involve leaving his family behind to compete in a sport that is as mentally taxing as it is physically.
"That's a hard question, but I know for sure that I've always been and I'm still putting everything in this," said Motta. "It's what I've been dreaming about my whole life. Everything I did all my life was only with that goal. Sometimes it's hard. I had other options, I could have gone to school, to college, or worked in something different, but I just love this sport and that's what I dreamed my whole life. I paid the price, I made all those sacrifices, and now it's time to make it worth it. I dream to have my own house, to have a family, everything that a normal person has, but unfortunately, I have to make those sacrifices to make it happen."
Motta recalls a recent conversation with veteran UFC standout Ilir Latifi, who explained what he learned over his years in the big show. "He said we always think about the future and what we want, and he learned that it's important to enjoy now instead of always thinking about later."
Ten years later, Nikolas Motta's time is now, and he promises to enjoy every second of it.
This story first published at UFC.com.