Raphael Assuncao may never get his long-due respect
A reflection on the great, unheralded bantamweight’s successful career and unsuccessful first headlining opportunity
Perhaps no fighter has ever done so much to receive so little in return as Raphael Assuncao.
The Brazilian bantamweight stalwart began his UFC run with a stoppage loss to Erik Koch at 145 lbs; a defeat that would bookend the worst stretch of his career — during which he lost three of four fights. Following this loss, Assuncao retooled his game, and strung together seven consecutive wins in the bantamweight division — including victories over Mike Easton, Pedro Munhoz, Bryan Caraway, and forever-undefeated bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw.
A rematch loss against Dillashaw less than three years later preceded a four-fight win streak during which he defeated Aljamain Sterling, Marlon Moraes, Matthew Lopez, and Rob Font. However, less than two years after beating Moraes, Assuncao again found himself in an ill-fated rematch; this time, coinciding with his first headlining opportunity in the organization.
That it took Assuncao the better part of a decade and an 11-2 promotional record to receive a main event spot may seem strange at first glance. But, in the broader context of his career? Not so much.
Receiving a main card placement required him to construct a four-fight winning streak, after which he faced Dillashaw in Brazil. He won that fight, and immediately returned to the prelims to dismantle gifted prospect and former RFA champion, Pedro Munhoz. In fact, of his thirteen UFC bouts prior to Saturday night, he had fought on a main card just three times. All the while quietly cementing himself as a persistent and ominous presence in the division’s top 5; a presence which holds victories – according to the UFC’s official rankings – over five other members of bantamweight’s top ten ranked fighters (Rob Font is ranked 10th, which would technically make him the 11th best bantamweight because the UFC’s ranking process is stupid as hell, but you get my point.)
The man has always presented a lot of problems for opponents. Unfortunately for him, he’s been as hard to promote out of the cage as he’s been to beat within it.
Far from the division’s best raw athlete, he relies on a controlling counter-punching style, some of the division’s best striking and wrestling defense, and a world-class BJJ game to methodically pick fighters apart. As such, it’s remarkably difficult to do much of anything against him; few can defeat him, and even fewer can look good while doing so. Even Dillashaw looked a far-sight from his usual show-stopping self during their rematch, which regardless stands as one of the champion’s best wins.
For the UFC, he was an athlete they were clearly never interested in pushing. He has, in recent times, played undercard superstar to main card bouts such as Yancy Medeiros vs. Erick Silva, Khalil Rountree vs. Gokhan Saki, and Jason Knight vs. Alex Caceres. Some of his most important victories have been controversial, he is far from talkative, and he makes good fighters look bad, win or lose. Match him up with talented prospects and he picks them apart, offer him a veteran bantamweight and the result is usually the same. Dillashaw and Moraes are the only men to defeat him in the last eight-ish years, and each needed two opportunities to get the job done. Hell, the guy holds victories over Joe Lauzon and Jorge Masvidal, which is bizarre to think about in 2019.
As in most things, fortune has also played a role. Assuncao’s career has been frequently impacted by injuries. Most notably in 2014, when a streak of six consecutive victories earned him a shot at then-champion Renan Barao. Affected by a rib injury, he forfeited the opportunity, and T.J. Dillashaw instead answered the call. Dillashaw had rebounded from his loss to Assuncao by winning one fight against Mike Easton — another Assuncao victim. He then brutally bludgeoned Barao around the Octagon to claim the UFC bantamweight championship.
A loss to a man as capable as Marlon Moraes does not necessarily spell the end of Assuncao’s career, and does not alter his long-standing record of achievement. However, as a promotable entity, his first UFC headlining act will probably also be his last. His capacity for doing great things remains unchanged, but the spotlight will likely always elude him. The UFC’s YouTube page isn’t packed full of Raphael Assuncao interviews. He is not the subject of promotional materials, Countdown shows, or Embedded episodes. This, obviously, is unimportant in the context of his remarkable career, but is a crucial piece in understanding how said career has been so infrequently remarked upon.
Assuncao isn’t the only great MMA fighter to achieve great things in relative obscurity, but he may be the best of them. For as long as the UFC’s bantamweight division has existed, he has been a force within it, and that fact is not validated or invalidated by acclaim. If a tree falls in the forest, and Raphael Assuncao knocked it down, it still makes a sound — regardless of who hears it.
This is not meant, however, to be a lamentation of Assuncao’s career, because there is nothing to lament. He has achieved more, meritoriously, than most professional MMA fighters could ever hope to. It is simply a recognition of accomplishment which has gone so widely unrecognized.
There is no shame in quiet grace, but perhaps Assuncao has earned more. More than what unfortunate injuries have taken from him, and more than what the promotion has given to him. Bigger fights in front of more eyes, treated with the appropriate weight of their divisional stakes. In MMA, receiving what one deserves is a fantasy, but that deservedness is no less worthy of recognition.