It doesn’t take long for UFC middleweight Rafael Natal to recall the two most critical moments in his career that changed the trajectory of where he was headed forever.
The first of which happened five years ago when Natal picked up all of his belongings and moved lock, stock and barrel to New York City to begin training with Renzo Gracie at his famed academy in Manhattan.
It was under the advice of his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor and mentor Vinicius ‘Draculino’ Magalhaes, who grew up among the Gracie family, to head to New York to start training with Renzo and his team and he’s never regretted that move once in the five years he’s spent training there.
"As soon as I get to New York, Renzo (Gracie), Gregor (Gracie) all these guys give me great support, they help me a lot. They opened up their doors for me," Natal told FOX Sports. "After one moment they’re like ‘here’s my house’. Renzo, everybody they are great partners, a great school. I’ve lived here for five years and everything I need, Renzo takes care of for me. I have a great coach and great team, and we’re a great family. That’s how I improve my career, we work to help each other."
Natal has never left the Gracie academy since the day he started there and now he even works as one of the school’s head jiu-jitsu instructors helping the next phase of fighters learn under UFC veterans like himself and other notable names from around the gym.
If moving to America and training with Renzo Gracie was life changing moment No. 1 for Natal, the second most important event in his career happened in 2012 when he suffered a knockout loss courtesy of Andrew Craig.
Like most fighters, Natal understand that nobody wins every fight and losses will happen, but that particular bout served as a harsh wake-up call that he needed to make some changes. Natal’s coach and friend Renzo Gracie helped to bring in some new coaches and training partners for the Brazilian middleweight and the results have been impressive.
"I have everything that I need. I have a great boxing coach, great jiu-jitsu, great Muay Thai coach. Sometimes it takes some time for fighters to find the best people, and I have these now. After I lost to Andrew Craig, I focused on some things in my training and changed some things, changed some training partners, and after we changed that I started to improve in my career," Natal said. "I fought in January, I fought in May, and in September, all of the fights I was looking better and better."
Natal is now riding a three-fight win streak into his next bout against Tim Kennedy at UFC Fight For The Troops next week at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. The changes he’s made in his camp were perfect for the adjustments Natal needed when the UFC called and asked him to step up and take the fight on short notice.
Natal was originally scheduled to fight about 10 days later against Ed Herman at UFC 167, but when the call came in to face Kennedy instead, it wasn’t an issue the Brazilian and his team worried about too much.
"When I have a fight, two or three months before I don’t watch the guy and make a game plan. All of my coaching staff does that for me. So I just start to focus on an opponent like one month before the fight," Natal explained. "Of course my coaches say, ‘Oh he’s a stand up fighter, and you’re probably going to stand up with him,’ then I work in that area. One month before the fight I started training specifically for the guy’s stand up or his wrestling.
"When they let me know about Tim Kennedy, we were focused on Ed Herman but nothing changed too much. After we know that I’m going to fight Tim Kennedy, of course I focused a little more on my wrestling because he has strong wrestling. I focused on my jiu-jitsu, and my training partners have great wrestling and they tried to take me down. That’s all that changed."
What’s also changed recently for Natal given the success he’s already tasted with three wins in 2013 is a newfound confidence. Natal will never be accused of being cocky, but watching Kennedy’s past fights he sees weaknesses that he can expose that past opponents haven’t been able to exploit.
It’s for that reason that Natal is not only predicting victory, but an early stoppage at that.
"I watched a lot his fights with Jacare (Souza) and Roger Gracie because they come from jiu-jitsu like me, and I watched him against (Luke) Rockhold too, and I feel really comfortable. I feel comfortable against him. When he fought Roger, Roger cut too much weight and Roger doesn’t look the same in the second or third rounds. Roger beat him in the first, but he could not perform the same in the second or third rounds. I’m different. I don’t cut too much weight, I’m really strong and I feel really good," Natal said.
"I’m ready to submit him or knock him out. I don’t think this fight is going to be five rounds, I think this fight is going to end early. We watched him, and I have a perfect game for him."