Rafael "Feijao" Cavalcante (9-2 MMA, 2-1 SF) has long stood in the shadows of his famous teammates, but he's about to step into the spotlight.
The 30-year-old light heavyweight feels it's all of his life experiences which have led him to the biggest opportunity of his career and not just his six years in the fight game.
When he meets Strikeforce champion Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal (7-0 MMA, 2-0 SF) in the main event of Aug. 21 "Strikeforce: Houston" event, he says he'll be well-prepared to show how far he's come.
And "Feijao," a native of Ilha Solteira in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil, has some big shoes to fill.
"Every fight you learn something," Cavalcante said. "You're building your base like that."
After Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira convinced his father to let him quit veterinary school at 24 and train in Rio De Janeiro, Cavalcante became a regular training partner to stars like the Nogueira brothers, Anderson Silva and Andre Galvao. Nogueira even paid for Cavalcante's living expenses while he learned to fight. From the beginning, he promised to follow in the footsteps of his mentors.
The young fighter made a quick splash in his early career and quickly made it to the U.S. as the "next big fighter" from Nogueira's stable. But he hit a small bump in the road in two appearances for the now-defunct International Fight League. After he TKO'd his first opponent, Devin Cole, he was disqualified in his next appearance when he threw an illegal kick to UFC veteran Marcio "Pe De Pano" Cruz.
It was a disappointing setback, to be sure. But his toughest lesson was learned in June 2009, when veteran Mike Kyle stopped him with a hail of punches at "Strikeforce: Lawler vs. Shields." He said the loss forced him to re-tool his preparation for fights and motivated him to train harder.
So the fight with Lawal is about more than just a title, or any media attention he's received in the build up to Aug. 21.
"It's about everything," he said. "My life, my training (and) about my dedication. I just think about that. I don't feel [anything] about the media. I just think about my next fight."
Cavalcante has never faced a fighter with the wrestling credentials of Lawal, a former Big 12 champion and All-American at Oklahoma State University. But he's supremely confident that his jiu-jitsu will keep him from being smothered.
"When I go (to the ground), I look for something," Cavalcante said. "I'm a black belt in jiu-jitsu. I feel ready for this fight. I'm ready in every place. If he wants to stand up, we're going to stand up.
"I [haven't had] a chance to prove my ground game yet. Maybe in this fight you're going to see something."
So far, Cavalcante has most closely followed the path of his close training partner Silva when he gets inside the cage. All of his victories have come by way of strikes; few opponents have had the opportunity to take him down. Most recently, he pounded out Antwain Britt at "Strikeforce: Heavy Artillery" in May, which set up his title bid.
Lawal has said he's going to approach the Aug. 21 fight with former world boxing champion Bernard Hopkins' striking style, and if that doesn't work out, he's going to adopt tall and lanky pugilist Paul Williams' attack.
But if "King Mo" gets tagged by a heavy punch, there's no doubt Cavalcante will get his first lesson in what it feels like to have a world class wrestler diving at his feet.
"I think it's a big opportunity for me," Cavalcante said. "'King Mo' is a very tough guy, (and) he's a very smart guy. I love to fight against guys like that.
"I think it's going to be a war, and the crowd's going to love it. That's important to me, not just (to) win the fight, (but) the way you win."
While he'd no doubt like to knock Lawal out, he'd be happy to honor Nogueira with a submission like Silva did this past Saturday against Chael Sonnen at UFC 117. "King Mo" might just give him the chance to do so.