An accomplished, world class grappler before he even took up mixed martial arts, Vinny “Pezao” Magalhaes (5-5) found himself trying to live up to pretty high expectations after only a few fights.

With a record of 2-2, Magalhaes was selected for the cast of The Ultimate Fighter Season 8. Even though he reached the finals, beating the likes of Krzystof Soszynski along the way, Magalhaes didn’t harbor any illusions about where his MMA skills stood at the time.

Because of his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu pedigree and connections in the sport, Magalhaes was actually chosen for the reality show competition without the rounds of sparring tryouts cast members usually have to complete.

“I’m pretty sure if I had to go to the tryouts at that time, I wouldn’t have made it to the show,” Magalhaes told “I made it to the finals just with my grappling skills.”

Following a KO loss to Ryan Bader in the TUF 8 Finale, Magalhaes made one more appearance in the UFC, going up against Eliot Marshall at UFC 98. Although Magalhaes lost a unanimous decision, he started to show improvement.

“A lot of people like to compare what I was in the UFC and what I’m doing now,” he said. “The biggest difference is, I wasn’t training for MMA when I went to the UFC.”

Since his UFC release, Magalhaes has gone 3-1, including a submission win over Alihan Magomedov at M-1 Challenge 22 on Dec. 10.

“Since [the Bader] fight, I’ve been working everything else,” Magalhaes said. “You could see it at my last fight — or even fighting for the UFC against Eliot Marshall — my stand up has gotten better, especially my striking defense, and my wrestling is better.”

He added, “I’m not going to turn myself into a striker or a wrestler, but I’m at where I need to be to set up the takedown and get the fight where I want it.”

With that in mind, Magalhaes is improving his striking but he isn’t trying to move away from his bread and butter. On the ground, Magalhaes can hang with the best of them, so that’s exactly where he’ll try to take the fight every time.

The strategy has paid off. All three of Magalhaes’s recent wins have come via submission. In fact, four of his five career submission wins came in the first round.

Admittedly, some grapplers aren’t able to make their skills work in an MMA context, perhaps unable to deal with the wrestling or distraction of getting punched in the face. But Magalhaes knows his grappling skills have translated just fine to mixed martial arts.

For him, it is only a matter of getting the fight to the mat. When he does that, he gets the submission.

“The only fight I took to the ground and went to the next round was [the Magomedov fight], and that was after six months off after knee surgery,” Magalhaes said. “It’s not like I didn’t make a good transition into MMA with my ground game.”

Magalhaes had been training under Shawn Tompkins, but he is currently working with Mark Beecher. Magalhaes has only good things to say about Tompkins and said that the change had to do with finding a trainer that better meshed with his talent and tactics.

“Mark’s also a purple belt in Jiu Jitsu, so he’s been able to work with me on using my striking to set up my ground game,” Magalhaes said. “Where I was before, sometimes I would end up standing up for fifteen minutes trying to prove a point. Now, even when I train hitting the mitts with Mark, he has me mix in takedowns during those drills.”

Up next for Magalhaes is a main event clash with Damien Knight (a.k.a. Robert Scott, depending on which online MMA database you use) at MMA Xplosion on Jan. 29 at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Knight (3-0-1) sports an undefeated professional record and recently picked up a win over UFC veteran Scott Junk.

Although Magalhaes has solid credentials, he knows what is on the line and doesn’t want to see his record dip below the .500 mark.

“I know I’m the one with more pressure,” he said. “I want to make it into a bigger organization and prove I’m not just a BJJ guy that doesn’t like to get hit in the face. I’m at a point now where I can’t afford to lose, though. Everything’s fine if you have 20 wins. I’ve got five wins and five losses. I cannot afford to lose anymore. That’s the main thing for me.”

As for how he matches up with Knight, Magalhaes said he’s seen some of his opponent’s previous fights and knows the he likes to stand and trade. However, Knight hasn’t record a KO or TKO as of yet.

And although Knight has occasionally shot in for the takedown, Magalhaes doesn’t expect Knight to want to get the fight to the ground — though I’m sure Vinny would happily oblige.

“I don’t think that’s going to be his strategy against me; I don’t think he wants to take me down,” he said. “Even though he likes to keep it standing, all of his wins have been by decision. I do feel like I have an advantage, but I also know I need to respect my opponent, so I’m not taking him lightly at all.”

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