What's the difference between good guys and bad guys? It usually comes down to attitude. What a human being does in his life and the way it's done is what separates the nice from the arrogant, the hard worker from the lazy, the trustworthy from the fraudulent, etc.
Ask anyone who knows Rousimar 'Toquinho' Palhares, and they’ll tell you that he’s one of the good guys. But sometimes, one picture says a thousand words, and after Palhares’ most recent fight at UFC 111 in March, it was easy to judge him negatively, as the humble, nice and religious man apparently turned into a demon in his work place by holding a submission longer than necessary, torquing a heel hook on Tomasz Drwal's left ankle as the Polish fighter tapped in agony for seconds that seemed to last centuries.
Such an attitude rendered him a three month suspension, badmouthing from the media and fans, and a kind of image that this native of Dores do Indaida never expected for himself. Plus, the homage he tried to pay to the father-in-law (Haroldo) of his brother who passed away before his fight - a picture stamped on his t-shirt – went unnoticed. It was a crushing reaction for the middleweight contender.
"I'm the same person inside and outside the Octagon," said Palhares. "I'd never do something cruel like that. People who know me well know that I only hold until the referee touches me to stop. I was working as Drwal did, and we don't need to hurt anyone badly to show that we're better or to show we're the winners.”
"If half of what people said about me was the truth, I'd never reach and accomplish what I already did. Nobody can rise with a mentality of causing unnecessary pain for a colleague. This is my job, and we need it to live. I love fighting, and I know all opponents have the same feeling that I have. I don't feel I'm better than Drwal because he lost, I only capitalized on the opportunity I had in the fight."
Inside Palhares’ mind, personal rivalries are never brought to the table, so what could justify the excess of adrenaline to not let the submission attempt go? Human beings, sometimes, can act out of control for hundredths of a second. But instead of that, the modest Brazilian Top Team squad member vows that watching a replay of what happened to his mentor, Murilo Bustamante, at UFC 38, would be catastrophic to his fighting mindset.
"I look to act the most correct way possible in my fights," he says. "We hold, wait for the referee and stop. People said Drwal’s tap was very clear; Matt Lindland's wasn't? A case like that would destroy my mind inside the Octagon, and I wouldn't know how to deal with it. We don't know much about our opponent’s attitude. If someone else subs me and the referee doesn't see, I'll say, 'I tapped,' but we can't expect the same thing coming from the opposite side."
Yet despite clearly explaining his reasoning, then and now, it doesn't ease the fact that fans painted Palhares as the villain. And even through this man doesn't surf the internet and doesn't have much knowledge of forums and social networking, bad news found his ear and got inside his head.
"That was a very sad time for me," he says with head down and a shaky voice. "But people don't know me well. They judged me because they thought something I did was what it wasn't, and then that's not their fault to judge me as they did. The image they watched showed something that - before I had spoken - was seen as a bastard's move. People who know me, who know my history in fights and in life, didn't agree with such an image. Anyway, I understand them."
At the same time that this powerhouse middleweight wants to unlink the image that was created without intention from himself, he also wants to get back to business by taking on Nate Marquardt this Wednesday in his first main event under the UFC banner. Like most of his previous fights in the Octagon, where he faced the likes of Ivan Salaverry, Dan Henderson, Jeremy Horn, Lucio Linhares and Drwal, 'Toquinho' knows the importance of every bout, so he keeps them all on the same level.
"Life and competition matured me naturally, and I stay focused on the fights and on nothing more," he says. "If I couldn't beat Henderson that wasn't because I was nervous, that was because his strategy worked. I think like all opponents, Marquardt will avoid ground work. That's not because I'm better than anybody, in fact I don't think I am; there are a lot of good submission guys, but finishing guys on the ground is what I like to do. Marquardt likes to stand… the fight will start on our feet, and if the fight goes to the ground, of course I'll think it's better, but we don't know what will happen. A few times we see this or that, and that's one of the reasons why I don't like to talk, because inside the Octagon everything can happen. I like to do, not talk."
This is clear when he’s asked about his position in the 185-pound weight class, and what comes across most of all is that Palhares is not a villain. He’s a fighter, and he just wants to fight.
“I can't say if I'm one of the top fighters in the category,” Palhares confesses. “The promotion, the media and fans are who have to say it. I care about being a fighter. Main event, first preliminary bout… I just want to fight.”