Jailton Almeida had a winning record and was a promising prospect as summer turned to fall in 2018. He held a 7-2 record, was only 27 years old and seemed to be on an upward climb. In his mind, though, things weren't clicking the way he wanted.
He believed in his skills, but it wasn't translating in the cage the way he wanted.
"There was a point where I was asking myself, 'When will this all come together for me?' and I wasn't sure," Almeida told Yahoo Sports, ahead of UFC Charlotte on Saturday in which he'll meet power-punching Jairzinho Rozenstruik in the five-round heavyweight main event.
Almeida never gave up, though, and didn't lose faith in his skills. And suddenly, one day, things were working the way he wanted. He went from a talented but perhaps under-performing fighter to a well-rounded threat.
His record speaks for itself. As the competition level increased and Almeida made permanent a move from light heavyweight to heavyweight, he's gone 11-0 with eight first-round finishes and three in the second round. The only time he's heard the bell to start the third round in his 20-bout career was in a loss to Bruno Assis on Jan. 20, 2018, when he dropped a unanimous decision.
"In 2018, after my last loss, it kind of clicked," Almeida said. "I realized changes had to be made in my game, and I think we've been able to perfect it. The grappling was always about control with some ground-and-pound and looking for submissions. I've watched a lot of the Dagestani wrestlers like Khabib [Nurmagomedov], [Islam] Makhachev and [Khamzat] Chimaev. They have a style that appeals a lot to me.
"I'm always watching them and trying to learn from them. I've been able to incorporate some of the things that they do, which we don't generally do in Brazil, into my game. As I've gotten comfortable with them, we've begun to see results."
Almeida has already jumped to No. 12 in the UFC's heavyweight rankings, three spots behind Rozenstruik. A win Saturday would likely boost Almeida, 31, into the Top 10 of the heavyweight rankings and tab him as a legitimate contender.
Almeida is a big man — he's 6-foot-3, heavily muscled and says a good weight for him now is around 240 plus or minus a pound or two — but he'll give up 25 pounds or so to Rozenstruik.
Heavyweight champion Jon Jones is in the 240-range, but a lot of the elite fighters in the division weigh in closer to the upper end of the division's 265-pound limit. Almeida, though, doesn't see it as an issue.
He's clearly powerful and has good speed and quickness and won't have to drain his body getting down to 265. He's comfortable giving up the weight in exchange for what he feels he adds at the lighter number.
"The main concern with fighting at heavyweight is the punching power that the extra weight some guys have adds to their power," Almeida said. "Overall, though, I'm comfortable with where I am. If you look at most of them, they carry a little extra weight. They may weigh-in at 265, but they seem to be 10, 15, maybe 20 pounds they could lose. I'm 230, 240, but I'm lean. I could put on more weight if I wanted to but I don't think I'd gain anything by doing that."
At BetMGM, Almeida is a -525 favorite to win and is an incredible -110 to win by submission. Plus, the over-under is 1.5 rounds and the under is a -205 favorite, so there's a thought that Almeida will take Rozenstruik down and finish it quickly.
Almeida, who said he was inspired by the many accomplishments of former UFC champion Anderson Silva, won't be in a rush. He's eager to show his skills and doesn't want to make a mistake just because he's new to the spotlight. The main card is on ABC, as well as on ESPN, and the fact that the UFC moved Almeida-Rozenstruik to the main event instead of the light heavyweight bout between Anthony Smith and Johnny Walker seems to be a sign the promotion wants to showcase Almeida on a big stage.
He oozes with confidence, but he has just enough humility that he's not going to let an outsized ego cause a fight-deciding mistake.
"It's great to get the spotlight from a fight with such a big audience and spotlight on it, but I still have to perform," he said. "They put you in position but it's up to the fighter to take advantage. I have my plan and I know my job and I'm going to go out and execute it."