For too long a time, times were tough for Diego Lopes. Not that those setbacks were going to stop him. He was on a mission.
I said, “Dad, mom, one day I will be great, and money is not going to be the problem,” said Lopes to his parents when he started a journey that led him to Madison Square Garden for a fight against Pat Sabatini this Saturday.
He probably didn’t expect that the journey to the UFC would take 26 fights over 12 years and a relocation from his native Brazil to a new home in Mexico, but here he is, and he plans are staying a while.
“My life has changed in an incredible way, both professionally and personally, and I have received a lot of love from all the fans around the world,” said Lopes. “I'm at peace with myself without debt, and I’m proud to help my mom and dad have a better life now that money isn't their biggest worry. With that, I am happy because I have fulfilled my promise with them.”
The 28-year-old’s story has been one of the most compelling of 2023, as he seemed destined to excel on the local scene without ultimately making it to the big show. Losing back-to-back close decisions to Joanderson Brito and Nate Richardson in 2021, the former on Dana White’s Contender Series, seemed to be the nail in the coffin, but Lopes wasn’t having it.
“Before my arrival in the UFC, many things happened,” he said. “My arrival in the UFC was a long time coming after losing two controversial fights, but I never thought about giving up. I got back on track, I had two fights, I won by knockout, and we got the opportunity to debut against the number 10 fighter in the world.”
That call to face Movsar Evloev was unexpected, but don’t mix unexpected with unprepared, and when Lopes entered the Octagon, he was ready to go. And while he didn’t win on that night in May, he earned Fight of the Night honors and made the list of fan favorites in rapid-fire fashion. And for an encore in August, Lopes submitted Gavin Tucker in 98 seconds. And he’s only gotten more popular.
“We have the support of all the fans, and it's been amazing for me – that shows that we're doing things right and that we can go far,” he said. “And I look forward to having them with me on that journey for a long time, since my goal is to climb to the top of the division.”
That climb continues in the Mecca, something that certainly hits home for him given all that he’s been through, and he’s taking it all in.
“Fighting at Madison Square Garden is every fighter's dream, so I'm fulfilling a dream and I don't have any pressure,” Lopes said. “I'm very motivated to give a great show that night in the Big Apple.”
If we’re going by his first two visits to the Octagon, a great show is expected, and he’s fine with those expectations, as well as representing not only Brazil, but Mexico.
“Mexico means a lot to me, because this was where I had a career before the UFC entered the picture,” he said. “I reached the highest-level hand in hand with my team – Brazilian Warriors and Wolf Gym. To have the support of all the people of Mexico and to feel their energy gives me great pleasure.”
Oh, there will be plenty of energy in the Garden on Saturday night, but that’s Lopes’ comfort zone, so there could be some more bonus money in his pocket when he leaves the Empire State. That’s not a bad way to end a year he’ll never forget.
“2023 has been the best year of my career,” he said. “I was able to reach the UFC, I had incredible fights, I earned two bonuses. And because of this, I was able to help my family and close friends, and I was able to invest in my career to have a better diet, training and many more things.”
UFC 295: Procházka vs Pereira took place live from Madison Square Garden in New York City on November 11, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!