Almost six months after announcing his retirement from MMA, Rafael Natal says there’s no offer that will get him back in the cage.
Well, … not for now, anyway.
Since the last fight of a seven-year UFC stint, a few things have changed in Natal’s life. He’s moved from his longtime home in New York back to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where he’s been working on a gym he opened last year and helping his mom out in her own work ventures.
After 15 years dedicated to fighting, Natal gets to enjoy family life.
But then there are the things that didn’t change that much. He still has a job in MMA, though now now it’s in a management role. And while the recent move back to Brazil has meant a few adjustments to his day-to-day routine, not having a fight camp in sight hasn’t at all meant inactivity.
“The training is pretty much the same,” Natal told MMAjunkie. “I’m still training twice a day. I’m watching my diet. I’m training so hard that people who see me training think another fight is coming at any moment.”
But no, Natal clarifies: There is no fight coming. While he’s careful enough to add a “for now” to the end of his sentences, Natal says he’s not tempted by the idea of a return to the cage. And that’s coming from someone who’s had actual, palpable temptation thrown his way.
“I actually had an offer by a promotion,” Natal said. “My manager didn’t even have the courage to have a conversation with me about it; he just texted me: ‘I have an offer for you. It’s very good, but it’s up to you.’ But, to be honest, it didn’t make me waver.
“I’m quite certain of what I want right now. At least, for now, it won’t tempt me. I’m quite sure of my path. I said no to them. Also, it would have been bad for me to leave the UFC and start fighting somewhere else. I don’t think it would have been right.”
Eryk Anders and Rafael Natal
Natal’s (21-9-1 MMA, 9-7-1 UFC) swan song – for now – took place last July, at UFC on FOX 25. “Sapo” succumbed to a first-round knockout by Eryk Anders, which added up to a three-fight losing skid. He’d previously been knocked out by Tim Boetsch and, before that, lost a unanimous decision to now-champ Robert Whittaker.
A skid at the end of a UFC run that dated back to 2010 would be an understandable enough reason for anyone to decide to call it quits – especially someone with their own business to fall back on. But 35-year-old Natal, it turns out, didn’t take this step because he believed he was no longer fit enough to hang with his peers at a high level.
In fact, it was quite the opposite. Which only made it harder.
“One thing that’s a little frustrating is that I stopped, I think, at my best stage” Natal said. “Although I came off three losses, I had a fight with current champ Robert Whittaker, which I think was the toughest fight in the division. And then I had an eye surgery and I just wasn’t the same fighter.”
Unlike a lot of his peers, Natal’s body had held up over the years. He’d had no major hip, shoulder or even knee surgeries. But then, following consecutive wins over Chris Camozzi, Tom Watson and Uriah Hall, he suffered a detached retina that required two surgeries.
Rafael Natal and Kevin Casey
Natal returned from them victoriously, knocking out Kevin Casey to build his longest UFC winning streak yet. He went on to meet now-champ Whittaker and, despite taking a loss, hung in there for three rounds. But he’d later realize recovering from such a serious injury wouldn’t be that simple.
“It was very frustrating when I fought Tim Boetsch in New York, because I’d been training so well,” Natal said. “After the Whittaker fight, we fixed some mistakes and thought, ‘We’re at peak shape. It’s time to be champion.’ The plan was to fight Boetsch in New York, get a big win there and get close to the belt. When the loss happened, it really got to me. I realized the eye was hurting me. Boetsch is a very tough guy, but I think the fight would have been different.
“Either way, I thought, ‘It was a hiccup. He landed a punch and it will be different next time.’ But then, next time, with Eryk Anders, the same thing happened. When the fight started, I felt good, the camp was great. But the minute we started striking, I started moving my face out of the way, closing my eye a bit.”
Natal, who’d long been getting pleas from his parents to end what had already been a pretty good MMA career, had a meting with his coaches that very night. He told them he thought that maybe it was time to hang it up. They advised him to sleep on it and, in the meantime, don’t make any announcements. He obliged. It would be a few months before he went on “The MMA Hour” to make it official.
“(My coaches) said, ‘It’s your decision, and we’re with you.'” Natal said. “‘You see the eye is affecting you. You’re at the best stage of your life, you’ve never trained this well. The fight with Whittaker proved that you can still be champion, but it’s up to you.’ They respected it.
“I thought it was the best thing to do. I couldn’t go on getting knocked out, fighting the way I was: scared of getting hit in the eye. My doctor was surprised when I said I was retiring. He said the eye was fine. But I said it didn’t matter that it was fine when I wasn’t confident.”
So he decided to give it some time. Between his busy schedule and his constant training, Natal’s transition has been a somewhat peaceful one. But, still diligent about his shape and weight, he won’t rule out a return in the event he is able to shake off the eye injury.
“Let’s see if next year I feel it’s time to return or something,” Natal said. “Then I’ll talk to the UFC and other promotions. But this is the decision for now and I’m firm on it.” (via Instagram)
In any case, Natal hasn’t entirely kept away from fighting. Shortly after his UFC stint came to an end, it was also made public that Natal was joining Ali Abdelaziz at Dominance MMA management and become president of the promotion’s Brazilian branch.
Now back in Brazil, Natal says he’s already started going to events and talking to fighters. On his end, it’s been a good way of staying in contact with the sport. But he also believes that his experience as a fighter, as well as contacts within the UFC and the MMA community, can help fellow fighters make the best of their own careers.
“There are many Brazilian fighters losing money due to taxes; a lot of them have no access to training in the U.S,” Natal said. “And there are things there, especially wrestling, that still require fighters to go there. I can help with that, especially in New York and Las Vegas, where people can go train with other fighters we work with.”
And if his own fighting career happens to truly be over, Natal is fine with that. Sure, he admits, there is that tiny bit of frustration that comes with never having become No. 1. But the one thing that was missing is not enough to take away from all the other things that were not.
“I’m very proud of the career I built,” Natal said. “I made it to the top-10 of my division. I fought with the would-be champ and did a tough fight. I’m satisfied, because I did all that I could. I had the best coaches, the best training partners. It was 15 years in which I fully dedicated myself to it and gave up a lot.
“What I built in my career, what I did, my legacy, my work was well done. I’m very satisfied with how far my career went.”
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