After more than three years away from the cage, Rafael “Indio” Nunes will finally make his long-awaited return at ONE: GLOBAL SUPERHEROES on Friday, 26 January, but his biggest bout may have already taken place outside of the cage.
Nunes (10-1) last appeared in ONE Championship back in July 2014, when he suffered the first loss of his professional career to former ONE Lightweight World Title challenger Koji “The Commander” Ando.
Following the defeat, the previously-unbeaten Brazilian was crushed. A series of professional and personal tragedies then kept him sidelined, as he turned his focus towards his family, rather than worry about his martial arts career.
The loss to Ando only multiplied the problems Nunes was suffering through, and it all added up to a long and much needed break from competition.
“My biggest hurdle was my loss, and right after that, my team split up and my grandfather passed away,” the 30-year-old Sao Paulo, Brazil native explains ahead of his return bout.
The loss of his grandfather was a profoundly difficult situation for “Indio” to come back from, because as much as he is dedicated to his craft, he is ultimately a family man who would not even be involved in martial arts without them.
Nunes grew up in Campinas, Sao Paulo, where he first learned about the cage by watching Brazilian legend Royce Gracie compete in North American promotions. That inspired him to pursue his own career, first with Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and then eventually transitioning to the cage.
“I always liked to compete,” he says. “Training in jiu-jitsu and martial arts made me feel more complete as an athlete.”
At every step along the way, Nunes had a support system that largely consisted of his mother and his grandfather, who attended all of his competitions and matches throughout the years.
That kind of support helped the Brazilian pursue his dream, and led him to a perfect 10-0 start to his career, including nine consecutive finishes.
Unfortunately, when Nunes fell to Ando in 2014, he also soon lost his grandfather, and that left him in a state of uncertainty.
Beyond that, the Sao Paulo native was dealing with some nagging injuries. In 2015, Nunes suffered a broken clavicle that slowed down his training, and then the veteran contracted a bout of dengue fever that took a toll on him, too.
Over time, however, “Indio” came to terms with his grandfather’s death, and restored his own body back to full health. He continued to train and teach his students, and while he was not competing in ONE, he stayed busy by sharpening all of the tools he would need for his eventual return to the cage.
“I entered a lot of jiu-jitsu competitions, I became a Brazilian Champion in Muay Thai, and have been competing a lot in amateur boxing,” he says.
Obviously his passion for martial arts never waned, and that eventually led to Nunes’ ultimate decision to restart his career. But he was not going to do it alone. Once again, the Brazilian had his support system right beside him every step of the way when he made the call to book his return bout.
“I am very close to my family, and it was them who supported me to compete inside the cage again,” he says. “If it was not for them, I would have already quit.”
Now, after three and a half years, “Indio” will make his comeback in a featherweight clash against Eric “The Natural” Kelly at ONE: GLOBAL SUPERHEROES, which broadcasts from the Mall Of Asia Arena in Manila, Philippines.
“The opportunity came up and I was in a good shape,” Nunes continues. “I have not competed in a long time, and I think Eric Kelly is a good match to come back to.”
According to “Indio,” he has put a lot of focus on his Muay Thai and boxing leading up to the bout against Kelly. He is prepared to show off his renewed striking ability, as much as his world-class BJJ skills.
Nunes, who has won matches in a variety of ways in the past, is excited for the opportunity to add another knockout to his record, and it seems the hard-hitting Kelly is the perfect opponent for him to test his stand-up skills against.
That being said, the Brazilian also welcomes a takedown attempt from Kelly, and would be more than happy to show off the grappling skills that have become his trademark.
“I see me keeping the match standing, and I will be using my distance to box with him and use some kicks,” Nunes reveals about his strategy. “If he wants to go to the ground. I will be trying to finish him.”
With his issues resolved and his biggest hurdles cleared, Nunes is ready for his comeback story to begin.