Overcoming hurdles in the cage seems easy compared to what Glover Teixeira had overcome to fulfill the American dream.
Ahead of his shot at becoming the oldest man to be crowned a first-time UFC champion when he challenges Jan Blachowicz for the light heavyweight belt on Oct. 30 at UFC 267, Teixeira opened up like never before about his journey from Brazil to the United States as an illegal immigrant on MMA Fighting’s Portuguese-language podcast Trocação Franca.
The Brazilian veteran, who turns 42 the day before UFC 267’s weigh-ins in Abu Dhabi, was one of many kids from the small Brazil town of Sobralia who dreamed about leaving in pursuit of a better life in the United States. The area became infamous in Brazil for an exodus of people trying to enter the U.S. illegally, and Teixeira eventually joined the pack.
“We had no internet connection back then, we had nothing, so we could only imagine how the United States looked like,” Teixeira said. “It was every kid’s dream. No one from Sobralia even tried to get a visa. We had guides that would take us there through Mexico. Most of them came back after three or four years and bought cars or houses as soon as they returned.”
Teixeira decided to give it a try when he was just a 19-year-old teenager, five years after his cousins left Sobralia to make a living in America.
Crossing the border was already no easy task, but getting there was a challenge in and of itself.
“It’s tense,” Teixeira said. “It took me 43 days to get here. Everybody knows how dangerous it is to cross the Mexico border. People die, people get arrested, tortured. So [my mother] was very concerned, but also hopeful that her son was going after his dream, going after a better life.”
Teixeira said he first hopped onto a bus to Rio de Janeiro with a group of 12 people and stayed in the city for a week to get his passport. The group then boarded a flight to Bogota, Colombia, and then started a journey through Guatemala and other South American countries Teixeira barely remembers visiting two decades later.
“I was having a lot of fun,” Teixeira said. “I was 19, right? I didn’t care. I was drinking every night and getting wasted most of the time. But we went through some scary places. We were on an island in Guatemala with the [natives]. They were nice people but you could see there was no police there, there was nothing. They treated us really well, but the guides were obviously bribing everybody.
“It’s dangerous. Some of my friends were troublemakers so we kept telling them to keep it cool because we were in a different place.”
The group eventually made it to Tijuana, Mexico. From there, the situation got trickier.
Teixeira and his fellow illegal immigrants had to be smart and wait for the perfect timing to try to cross the border, otherwise they would likely get caught by the patrol.
“I stayed in Tijuana for eight days, waiting for the fog to come so the helicopter and immigration people wouldn’t see us,” Teixeira said. “We had to wait for a strong fog to cross the desert at night.”
The group managed to cross the border “quickly” and “without any stress,” he said, and eventually got to the U.S. in “four or five hours.”
Teixeira’s mother could barely sleep during that 20-day period in which her son went radio silent, lost in a void and unreachable. However, the family had no idea that the scariest step of Teixeira’s journey still awaited for when the youngster arrived in San Diego.
“We had to stay in this house in San Diego for 12 days, waiting for the guide to pay the coyotes [the people who smuggled us across the border],” Teixeira said. “They didn’t let us leave [the room] before they got paid. We only ate once a day, a slice of bread with beans. I lost 26 pounds.
“We ate well during the entire trip in Colombia, we had barbecue with the [natives] in Guatemala, we bought food in Tijuana while we were there. But in San Diego, man, we were locked up until they got paid. We only ate once a day, we couldn’t leave the room. They had guns and everything, waiting for the money.”
Teixeira said the smugglers had offered every single one of the Sobralia men a chance to do the illegal border crossing for free. All they had to do was carry a backpack with them and deliver it to a person in San Diego, but Teixeira declined the offer.
“I’m not taking anything. Are you crazy?” said Teixeira, who lost his own backpack during the trip and had nothing but the clothes he was wearing when he arrived in San Diego.
“I don’t know what they are asking us to deliver. I think it was drugs or weapon, I don’t know. I didn’t even see it, I just said I wouldn’t take it. That was not part of the deal. The deal was taking me to the U.S. to work, I never said about taking anything to anyone.”
The teenage Teixeira’s main concern while he was locked in a room with armed men outside the doors was having to turn back around and go back to Brazil, but the guide eventually paid the smugglers and Teixeira was free to go. He immediately took a commercial flight to Boston and then left for Connecticut, where he lives to this day in Danbury.
Twenty-three years later, Teixeira doesn’t advise people to take the same path as he did. He admits he “paid a huge price” for years to come. His first years as an illegal immigrant in the U.S. were good though. The Teixeira family never expected Glover to stay for so long, but he fell in love with the country “on the first day I got here,” the fighter says, as soon as he learned he could get paid $10 an hour to shovel snow from the sidewalks.
Becoming an MMA fighter
Unlike most other Brazilian kids, Teixeira hated soccer. He loved watching athletes train and hoped to one day get paid to train his body in some way, but seeing boxing superstar Mike Tyson knock people out in vicious fashion caught his attention. Teixeira had seen UFC veteran Marco Ruas compete once before on TV, but boxing was different.
After earning his first American dollars, Teixeira enlisted at a boxing gym to learn how to punch people in the face. Days later, he was asked by a friend to try his luck in an arm-wrestling tournament. Little did he know that he was signing up for a Toughman Contest.
Teixeira worked all day as a carpenter before finding out he was scheduled to compete in an amateur boxing match that same night. Somehow, it worked out. Teixeira beat a couple of “tomato cans” in his debut in the ring, then returned the next day for the semifinal.
“I asked for a day off in the carpentry but I was broken, my muscles were f*cked up because I had never punched like that before,” remembers Teixeira, who ultimately won his semifinal match via decision but had his faced “destroyed” in the process.
He lost the final by corner stoppage.
“My friend told me before the second round that he would throw in the towel if I didn’t do anything,” he said. “I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do it,’ but then I tried to punch him and ate a huge uppercut. He says I looked at him like, ‘Won’t you throw it?’ But I don’t remember any of that. [Laughs.] He threw in the towel and I didn’t complain. I was getting my ass kicked.”
Though he may have been — by his own admission — “broken” by his first attempt in combat sports, Teixeira returned to the gym eager to work even harder to win the next Toughman Contest. But then a friend approached him with a better idea.
“You have to fight UFC,” the friend said.
Teixeira had no idea what the Ultimate Fighting Championship even was in those days, so he sat down in front of a TV and watched a VHS tape of the first three events. He was hooked right away. Teixeira signed up for jiu-jitsu classes the following morning and immediately began training with a purple belt in Danbury.
Six months later and clearly not ready yet for the task, Teixeira nonetheless convinced his coach to find him a fight. Teixeira was quickly booked against Eric Schwartz, a teammate of Chuck Liddell’s, at WEC 3. The event was held at the Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino in Lemoore, Calif., which made it possible for an illegal immigrant to compete.
“I got my ass kicked,” Teixeira remembers with a laugh. “Eric Schwartz would go toe-to-toe with Chuck in the gym and I took him down, he got desperate there but eventually got back up. The first round was close but I gassed and he broke me in the second. I would stay there throwing hands like crazy and sprawling, but he took me down, got the mount, and the referee stopped it.”
Teixeira was humbled in his MMA debut, but did enough to impress Schwartz’s coach John Hackleman. Teixeira was still dealing with the aftermath of a beating when Hackleman stopped by to congratulate him for his performance, saying he had never seen someone endure the punishment Schwartz dealt him and continue to march forward.
When Hackleman invited him to be part of Liddell’s camp at The Pit for the American’s upcoming UFC fight, Teixeira didn’t think twice. And that’s when his life begin to change.
The Brazilian prospect won four of his next five fights before being paired up against Rameau Sokoudjou, who would go on to make waves in Japan by knocking out Ricardo Arona and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira months later. Teixeira won by first-round knockout.
“A lot of people came after me after I knocked out Sokoudjou, even the UFC,” Teixeira said. “PRIDE called, but I couldn’t leave the country. EliteXC came with a contract that I cried for not being able to sign. It was $10,000 [to show] and $10,000 [to win], and then $15,000 and $15,000, something like that, and I couldn’t sign with them. It was disappointing.”
Teixeira knew that his career couldn’t evolve from just competing on tribal lands until he figured out his legal status in the U.S., and a lawyer said his best chance at getting a visa was by going back to Brazil and writing a letter to the consulate asking for forgiveness.
“The first five years were tough, and I ended up staying here [in the U.S.] for nine years and eight months without seeing my mother or my family,” Teixeira said. “I went back [to Brazil] with [UFC president] Dana White’s word. He shook my hand and said, ‘Go get your papers because you’re coming to the UFC.’ I went to Brazil to wait for this pardon.
“[I knew] I was f*cking good. I trained with Chuck Liddell, the best in the world, and at that point was on his level already. I remember he hugged me after our last sparring [session] when I was leaving and said, ‘I know you’ll become champion. These guys can’t handle you.’
“I remember Chuck Liddell told Dana White, ‘I have a guy in the gym that would KO [Michael Bisping] inside two rounds. I’d bet my house on him.’ And Dana was like, ‘He’s that good?’ I knew I had potential, and that’s why I went back to Brazil and risked never coming back.”
Unfortunately, Teixeira was denied a visa in his first attempt. He began to question whether he would never make it and “never fulfill my dream of fighting for a big promotion because of something stupid I did in the past of entering [the country] illegally.”
“I cried, man. I cried. I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
From a potential UFC fighter to a talent stranded outside the U.S., the period was a jarring one in Teixeira’s life. He considered moving back to Sobralia to figure out his future while his wife stayed in the U.S. But instead, he spoke with his coach Pedro Rizzo and decided to fight every man placed in front of him until he had his legal situation figured out.
“I was fighting everybody,” Teixeira said. “Heavyweight, light heavyweight, anything. There was a time I fought four times in two months. People thought I was crazy, that I would get hurt, but I was like, ‘Who’s going to hurt me? These guys won’t hurt me.’”
At one point in 2011, Teixeira finished UFC veterans Marcio Cruz, Antonio Mendes, and Marvin Eastman over a span of 37 days, then finished former UFC heavyweight champion Ricco Rodriguez in the first round just three months after that.
“That was good because it made me stronger,” Teixeira said. “It was a bit disappointing because I had no idea what was going on. A year went by, two years, three years, and nothing. Nothing. Zero. No answer. You’d ask [the consulate] and they had no idea what you were talking about. All they said was I had to wait.”
The situation finally changed when Teixeira’s wife decided to pen a letter to democrat Chris Murphy, a junior senator for Connecticut, who then swooped in to intervene.
Teixeira was asked to return to the consulate on Dec. 23, 2011, the date of his wife’s birthday, for another interview.
Three days later, his passport came back with a visa.
“I only read that letter after I got my citizenship,” Teixeira said with a smile on his face. “And I cried, man. I cried.”
Finally free to re-enter the U.S., the light heavyweight prospect was quickly paired up against Kyle Kingsbury for his UFC debut in May 2012. He choked Kingsbury out in under two minutes. Teixeira ended up fighting former champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson eight months later and challenging Jon Jones for the belt in April 2014.
In retrospect, Teixeira lost years of his prime battling for a visa and will never get those years back. But he also kept proving people wrong after the loss to Jones.
Now he’s once again one step away from being crowned a UFC champion, just as Liddell predicted all those years ago.
“I learned to never question God’s will,” Teixeira said. “If He did that, it was for a reason. I’m 42, making history and fighting for the belt. Winning this belt and making real history. It’s all good, man. Almost 10 years in the company, 20 fights, and here I am. A bit late, but 10 years is good time for someone who got in so late.”
Check out Teixeira’s interview about his journey on MMA Fighting’s Portuguese-language podcast Trocação Franca.