Rafael Natal is one of two New York-based fighters on the UFC 205 card on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
But he’s the only one who can walk to work this week.
“I live, like, 15 blocks from here, from Madison Square Garden,” Natal said Wednesday at the UFC 205 media day at the Garden. “Every day I pass in front of this place, so it’s another dream that’s coming true. I feel very blessed to have this opportunity to fight on this huge card.”
UFC 205 is the first in New York City since the state legalized mixed martial arts in March. Professional MMA had been banned in New York State since 1997. New York was the last state to legalize the sport.
Natal trains and teaches at Renzo Gracie Academy on 30th Street, one block south of the Garden. The middleweight, who emigrated from Brazil, fights Tim Boetsch on Saturday. He plans to stay at home rather than set up shop at the fighter hotel near the Garden.
“I feel more comfortable. I sleep at home,” Natal said. “We have the hotel, but I put my coaches in the hotel and I sleep at home. I don’t have to fly. I can train at my academy. I have my training partners with me. So for sure, it’s great. Fight at home, fight like that, it’s insane. I feel very comfortable and feeling better than ever.”
Natal (21-7-1, 9-5-1 UFC) said he did the same thing when he fought on the Newark card last January. He TKO’d Kevin Casey in the third round that night. It was his first TKO in the UFC and his fourth straight win before losing a unanimous decision to Robert Whittaker last April.
Natal entered the UFC as a jiu-jitsu specialist. You don’t get a job teaching jiu-jitsu at Renzo Gracie Academy without knowing a little bit about what to do on the mats. But he’s evolving as a striker as well.
“Of course, the best thing that I have is my jiu-jitsu,” Natal said. “I’m going to try to use my jiu-jitsu against him, but if I have a hard time to take him down, I can strike with him. The guy saw my last fight. My striking is improving a lot.”
Natal is ranked No. 14 in the UFC middleweight division. He sees a win over the unranked veteran Boetsch (19-10, 10-9) as a way into that coveted top 10 list.
“He’s a tough, he’s famous, he has a name,” Natal said. “So if I beat him around, if I have a great victory that night like I plan, I think that will put me in the top 10.”