The UFC markets itself as a global sport, and it certainly is. Very few other sports, let alone leagues, have the kind of diversity on their rosters as mixed martial arts does. Dozens and dozens of countries are represented in the UFC’s Octagon, but there are several omissions.
One such country that has yet to produce a UFC athlete is Cape Verde, an archipelago off of the coast of northwest Africa now formally recognized as “The Republic of Cabo Verde”. Surging heavyweight 31-year-old Yorgan de Castro (4-0), however, is looking to change that. De Castro is set to compete against Alton Meeks (4-0) on the June 18 edition of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series.
De Castro, who was born and raised in Cape Verde, has had a long, turbulent journey to being on the cusp of a UFC contract.
“[My childhood] was pretty rough, you know?” de Castro told The Body Lock. “I grew up only with my mother – she was a single mother with three kids. We scrambled and hustled up every day for food; for breakfast. It was tough, but it is what it is. It made me who I am today.”
At the age of 18, de Castro was able to leave Cape Verde in search of a better life, traveling to Portugal, a country with colonial ties to the islands and a sizable Cape Verdean population. There, he would come across the sport that would change his life for the better: kickboxing.
“I moved to pursue a better life; to get a better future. In Cabo Verde, I had nothing; no future. So, I moved on there, and that’s when I found kickboxing, and I fell in love with mixed martial arts.”
After living in Portugal for several years and continuing to hone his kickboxing craft, de Castro eventually emigrated to the United States. Ultimately, de Castro settled down in Fall River, Massachusetts, at the behest of his family.
“All my family, from my mother’s side, they all live here,” said de Castro. “My grandmother, my grandfather, my uncles. One of my uncles, [he said], ‘If you want to fight today, you gotta do MMA, and the place to come is here. Forget about Portugal, come to America. This is now getting big, and we’re going to get you to do MMA.'”
De Castro heeded his uncle’s advice, beginning his amateur MMA career in 2014. While most prospects sport polished, often spotless amateur records, de Castro had a rather surprising time in the amateur ranks. After winning his first two amateur fights, one of which he won by first-round knockout, de Castro lost four fights in a row.
“That was crazy,” laughed de Castro. “Time to make mistakes! I made a lot of mistakes, but I also learned a lot about my abilities.”
Since turning pro, Yorgan de Castro has gone 4-0 with three knockout wins, so an obvious question presents itself: what was up with that amateur career?
“Amateur is different rules,” explained de Castro. “As a kickboxer, you can’t knee people in the face in the amateurs; you can’t throw elbows. We always think that amateur was limiting my skills. I couldn’t use my full skills as [an] amateur, and as a pro, I would be able to let it go more and be more aggressive, and it worked perfect.”
Although de Castro’s time in the amateur ranks might not have resulted in the prettiest record, he says it was invaluable to his development as a fighter.
“I was losing, but I was evolved, too. I lost my first or second fight – I was always different. My technique was getting better; my movement was getting better, so the time was right there [to turn pro].”
Since turning pro, de Castro’s career has been pristine. In addition to his four wins, three of which came under the CES banner, de Castro captured the NEF cruiserweight (225 pounds) title. De Castro has bounced around weight classes, fighting at weights as low as 195 lbs and as high as 248 lbs.
For his upcoming Contender Series matchup, de Castro will take full advantage of his semi-permanent move up to heavyweight, though he’s open to moving back down eventually.
“I can do both, but right now I’m still trying to find my sweet spot,” said de Castro of potential fights at light heavyweight and heavyweight.
“I’m 250 [pounds] right now, and I’m feeling good. I’m moving good, I feel strong, and I think I do it at heavyweight. I think that’s where I’m going to do best. I’m not going to be the biggest guy, but I’m going to be the fastest, [have] the best cardio. As a heavyweight, I don’t have to worry about cutting weight, so I can put more time on learning, evolving, so I think I’m going to stay at heavyweight.”
When asked to clarify whether or not he had said “215” or “250”, de Castro laughed, “Fifty, fifty. Big: I’m big right now!”
Yorgan de Castro says he’s been, as the kids say, eating good.
“Oh, I’ve been eating a lot. At the beginning, [when] I knew I would fight heavyweight, I was eating all [the] wrong food. Now, I’m eating good. I’m eating healthy. I’m taking lettuce, protein shakes; I’m really good. I’m really healthy. But, I can train way more than when I was cutting to 205. I can do three hours of training – I’m gonna go run after this. Much, much more energy.”
With the battle with the scales taken care of, the only fight de Castro has ahead of him is his Contender Series matchup with Meeks. Yet, initially, de Castro didn’t even think the call was the real deal.
“Oh, I got the news on April 1. I thought it was April Fool’s because my coach said, ‘Hey, dude, you’ve got the Contender Series.’ I said, ‘There’s a joke. This is April Fool’s, so I’m not gonna believe it.’ I FaceTimed my management, and he said, ‘No, we are on!’
“I was one of the first matchups; as soon as they started to match up, my name was on it. I couldn’t believe it. We are here. Now is the time.”
Standing in front of de Castro and his dream of being the first Cape Verdean fighter in the UFC is Alton Meeks, a former collegiate football player and a wrestler who once climbed to the U.S. Olympic ladder.
“That’s the thing: we’re not going to be able to match his wrestling. He’s really good. You’re not gonna get ready to wrestle someone [of Meeks’ caliber] in six weeks. So, we do things different. We worked on movement, we work on takedown defense; get-ups.
“We gonna get it done. I believe I’m going to knock him out, but I know he’s tough; I know he’s good. There’s no secret what he’s gonna do. He’s gonna come to take me down and ground-and-pound: that’s what did in his last three fights, so I expect the same thing.”
As fans of the Contenders Series and the fighters who have competed on it know all too well, sometimes a win isn’t enough to score a UFC contract. Instead, you have to impress the boss, UFC President Dana White. Yorgan de Castro made his pitch to White:
“I’m the fighter that’s gonna do [everything] 100%. Every time I step in the cage, I do it all. I’m gonna constant[ly] look for the finish. I’m gonna constant[ly] look for – all my punches, kicks mean to hurt [my opponent]. I’m gonna be really exciting. I’m not gonna hold back.
“I’m gonna make it impressive. I believe I’m gonna be really impressive, and I’m gonna get it done.”
Michael Fiedel is The Body Lock's deputy editor, a staff writer for FloCombat, and a Russell-Rice scholarship recipient at Vanderbilt University.