Since falling in love with this sport, one thing that’s always puzzled me is just how easily us fans can forget that fighters have lives. The men and women who enter the cage have to deal with the same issues we do. We all too easily assume that athletes are like robots. They get switched on just before the show to perform for us, then they get switched off and put back into the box until the next time around. Unless we’re directly involved with the fighters in question, we rarely experience their human side, not realising that this all too often makes or breaks a sportsperson’s career.
One such person who has had to fight through this adversity is Gym 01’s ‘Portuguese Pop Star’ Michael D’Aguiar. Nearly three years ago, the Andover based featherweight was making waves in the amateur bantamweight division, entertaining crowds with crazy moves as he incorporated Street Jiu Jitsu into MMA. Cocky and brash; Michael ‘Angelo’, as he was then known was planning an assault on the MMA scene, with the support of his parents Paulo and Angela, his little brother Chris and his long term girlfriend Leanne. Training out of Andover’s Team Kyrouen, D’Aguiar was drafted in to fight Gods of War’s Mark Wade on the south coast super-show Shock n Awe. Training was going well and confidence was high; then D’Aguiar received the call. The call which changed his world forever. “Mum and Dad had moved away. I’d finished uni, but had stayed in the area to be with Leanne. They were in Surat Thani, Thailand. I got a text from my mum at 11:00pm just saying ‘Skype me please’. I knew then that my dad had died. She appeared on the camera alone, then burst into tears telling me. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to watch and do. Then I had to phone my uncles and aunties in Portugal and give them the news”. D’Aguiar continued “My brother and I took a flight out the following day, but my father’s funeral occurred whilst we were in the air. The Thai authorities told mum that the tradition was to have an open casket for seven days. Dad wouldn’t have wanted that, so we agreed to let them cremate him quickly”.
The rock who held the family together had disappeared in a tragic accident. The man who’d been Michael’s role model gone.
The fight was still booked for only a fortnight later. In his father’s memory, Mike decided to go ahead with it. He suffered a vicious knockout, leaving him unconscious for a few minutes in the cage.
“This was like a moment of clarity for me. I decided to change camps (to the renowned Gym 01, under the tutelage of Brian Adams) and make sure this never happened to me again”.
Having had the honour to know Mike for the past three years, I know that he’ll never admit it, but I believe that the passing of his dad had a seismic effect on his early career. The sudden and unequivocal realisation that life can be taken in the blink of an eye would affect the psyche of any person; let alone a fighter. Whenever anyone suffers a sudden bereavement, they’re bombarded with a barrage of conflicting emotions; anxiety, insomnia, anger, longing, a detachment from the reality of their situation.
Fortunately Mike’s family is incredibly close knit. He describes his mum as “the strongest woman I’ve ever known”. The support from his coach was pivotal too. Teams make fighters. D’Aguiar and Gym 01 just ‘fit’. Adams and team worked closely with Michael, not just to broaden his skill set, but to sharpen the mindset required to compete at the top. Adams refused to put D’Aguiar into the cage until he was sure that he was ready mentally as well as physically.
18 months passed. I had fun writing an article on D’Aguiar, referring to him as ‘having the looks of a Portuguese Pop Star, rather than a fighter’; a moniker which has stuck. D’Aguiar then stepped into the cage to take on Shock n Awe’s flyweight champion, Sandee Razvi, who had beaten Mark Wade, to win the belt. A different man entered the cage to the one who’d stepped in a year and a half beforehand. Much like the evolution of Robbie Lawler, a new camp created a new style of fighter. A more methodical, less brash, more complete athlete broke down his opponent in three brilliant rounds to deservedly win the decision. “The fight took place on what would’ve been my dad’s birthday. I felt like he was in the cage with me. I felt a surge of energy which carried me through the later rounds. No one was going to beat me that night”.
Since then, D’Aguiar was granted his rematch with Wade; another fight which went the distance, but with D’Aguiar losing a one-sided decision and relinquishing his belt to his nemesis. “I think the memory of the knockout got into my head”, Michael recalled. “Fair play to him though, he came with a great game plan, executed it well and took a deserved victory”.The ‘old Mike’ may have questioned his ability after such a setback. “This is going to sound strange I think but I am more confident. I walk differently. I understand life, I think people struggle with that sometimes. My circle choose to talk about life and the wonderful things it brings so when tragedy hits we still do just that, talk. Try and understand what’s next, where do we go next, what’s the right moves to make”.
“I’m stronger, and I know what it is; nothing at all can be worse than losing someone so close to you. So once you have been through that, you can go through anything.”
The amateur career continued, with two more victories in 2015; the last coming by way of unanimous decision at Killacam, the Kent based promotion upon which D’Aguiar will round off his amateur career in December after another appearance on Shock n Awe’s November 21st card. I asked Mike to give his thoughts on the upcoming fights, “I’m fighting in November against a great opponent. Unbeaten, from Gods of War, again. I like that gym, I like the people in it and although I don’t know (my opponent) Aaron Laleye, I presume I will like him too after we put it all out there in the cage.
I have another fight in December which is going to be great. It will see me end the year and hopefully my amateur career with something shiny”.
So 2016 heralds the next stage in the career of the Portuguese Popstar, “as long as Brian (Adams) thinks I’m ready” D’Aguiar is quick to add. Regardless of what happens, Michael will be prepared. I’m looking forward to watching him progress on this journey.
Tickets are still available for Shock n Awe 21. Please visit shocknawe for further details.
You will also be able to view Mike’s performance live on MMATV here.