Sergio Da Silva had all but conceded he’d never get to compete at the highest level in his hometown.
Sure, he had gotten over his childhood fantasies of hitting a winning shot for the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
But as his professional MMA career progressed, Da Silva figured New York’s longstanding ban on the sport would keep him from realizing his goal.
“I started giving up hope,” said Da Silva, 31. “Every year they would say, ‘this is the year,’ then nothing.”
Fortunately for Da Silva, 2016 was “the year.”
The Queens-based fighter will compete in his hometown for the first time on Saturday in the Garden at Bellator NYC, the promotion’s first event in the state since professional MMA was legalized here. He’ll face Matt Rizzo in a 130-pound catchweight bout during the prelims.
Da Silva said walking out in front of the MSG crowd will be surreal, but it’s an experience he’s always envisioned. An avid basketball fan, Da Silva and his brother would recreate buzzer beaters in their backyard, nailing the final shot before a packed Garden in their imaginations. He says he told his mother at a young age that one day, he’d find his way to the real MSG.
“I never thought it would be as a fighter, but I knew I was going to be at the Garden one day, I visualized it,” Da Silva said. “It was something I knew it was going to happen, I don’t care if it was bull riding.”
Bellator NYC unquestionably will be the biggest stage of Da Silva’s athletic career, but he’s already a veteran of the sport. He’s been a professional since 2010, amassing a 6-8 record while mostly fighting for regional promotion Cage Fury Fighting Championships.
“I love the sport. I don’t fight because I have to—I fight because I want to,” Da Silva said. “I’ve been a martial artist since I was 7 years old, it’s something I just love.”
With a long career on the local scene, Da Silva isn’t expecting a big check from any of his fights. He currently co-owns a family limousine business and has worked “any other hustle” to make a living. He also recently started co-hosting The Fight Cave podcast for Everlast with his manager Matt Culley.
“If you asked me honestly if I’d fight for free, I’d fight for free.”
Da Silva might not get the big pay day, but he sure puts in the work.
The Astoria resident spends all but one day each week at Long Island MMA in Farmingdale, driving an hour to train with UFC veteran Ryan La Flare and trainer Gregg DePasquale, among other decorated fighters and coaches.
“I always want to push myself, I always want to test myself,” Da Silva said. “I train with the best guys in the world here, so I’m confident going into every fight. My goal is to always push myself to the limit and fight the best guys in the world.”
That confidence will be helpful against Rizzo on Saturday. A cast member on season 24 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Rizzo is a former Ring of Combat flyweight champion and has a 9-2 professional record.
“I think records can be very deceiving, he’s a good fighter but I’m not sold on him yet,” Da Silva said. “I think I’m better than him in any way it goes.”