Diego Nunes was one of the top prospects in the featherweight division back in 2010, scoring wins over names likes Raphael Assuncao and Mike Brown, but inconsistency ultimately led him out of the UFC and Bellator.
A few years later, he can finally say he’s back.
Nunes was sidelined from fights for two years to fix a severe knee injury. Luckily, Nunes had saved some money from his UFC and Bellator days and was able to pay his bills during those years away. Once he was finally cleared to train, he moved to Curitiba, Brazil, to train at Evolucao Thai.
“The Gun” fought all around Europe in 2017, scoring a trio of finishes that earned him a contract with Rizin FF.
”A win always boosts your confidence, especially after the physical traumas I had, injuries and two years away from the sport,” Nunes told MMA Fighting. “What I needed the most was confidence, having your hands raised and getting that weight off of your shoulders. You don’t fight with the same responsibility.
”I can say now that I’ve been able to live to fight for the last year-an-a-half again, focusing only on training every day. I trained almost every day of the year in 2017 after being sidelined for two years without training, and I can see that my performance is getting better and I’m evolving. One of the things that gives me confidence is training with Andre Dida and seeing my evolution, fixing my mistakes and motivating me.”
Nunes is now riding a three-fight winning streak for the first time since 2011, when he beat Assuncao, Tyler Toner and debuted in the UFC against Brown. There was a time, though, when he wondered if he would be able to fight at high level again.
”I was depressed every day. It’s our dream on the line,” Nunes said. “I was getting older and wasn’t able make money through fighting. My dream of ending my career with accomplishments was at risk, and I was anxious. I couldn’t relax because I had things I wanted to do. It was two dark years, fighting against depression and many other things.”
Adapting to Curitiba and his first days of training at Evolucao Thai weren’t easy, he admits, but it eventually proved to be “the best thing that could have happened in my life.” Now more mature as a fighter, Nunes believes his best is yet to come.
”I believe that a man is at his best in his late 30s,” Nunes said. “I always took care of my health and body, never partied and used drugs or things like that. I don’t look 35. I didn’t have many injuries before that one, so I believe I’m in my prime. If you watch me train and fight, I’m stronger, more explosive, there’s a huge difference.
”When I was in my twenties I fought with emotion, but no I know better than ever the path to victory. Combining my knowledge and experience with my physical strength, my training with Dida, I’ll get far in my career.”
Nunes’ debut opponent in Rizin, Yusuke Yachi, is coming off impressive stoppage victories over Takanori Gomi, Satoru Kitaoka and Daron Cruickshank.
Nunes is happy to be taking on tough competition in his Rizin debut at lightweight.
”They wouldn’t match me up against a tomato can, they put me against the best,” Nunes said. “He’s as experienced as me, is coming off good wins, and that’s motivation for me. The tougher the fight is, the harder I work. I know I will become a star in Rizin with a win over him. You can say that he’s the champion without the belt there. Beating him, it’s like I’m Rizin’s uncrowned champion.”
In fact, facing Yachi is like a dream come true for the Brazilian veteran.
”I was set to make my international debut 11 years ago at K-1 Hero’s against ‘Kid’ Yamamoto, who owns the gym where Yusuke trains,” Nunes said. “They tried to book that fight twice but it didn’t happen, and now I have the chance to finally fight where the rule set favors me. I started in MMA in bare knuckle fights, with soccer kicks and stomps, and that favors me. Fighting under this rule set favors me.”
“The Gun” wasn’t able to throw soccer kicks and stomps when he fought inside the UFC and Bellator cages between 2008 and 2014. But now that he is fighting in Japan for the first time in his life, under a coach that has trained several Pride FC stars, Nunes feels inspired by his teammate Wanderlei Silva.
”When I envision the fight, I see him out cold on the ground and me becoming the new star in Japan,” Nunes said. “I’ve knocked out an opponent like that in the past, with a soccer kick, and I believe I will put him out with my hand and finish the fight like that, Wanderlei Silva style, kicking him and stomping on his head until the referee stops it.”