LAS VEGAS — Deiveson Figueiredo was once a hair dresser’s assistant when he was struggling to make it in Brazil. He would wash client’s hair and do their makeup, as needed.
“I did very good work,” he said, proudly.
But for a reporter with not much hair, well, even Figueiredo has his limits. He can make suggestions, he said, but there is only so much he could do.
“I don’t know, maybe the best thing is, get rid of all of it,” Figueiredo said, laughing.
He’s talented, but he’s no magician.
He can laugh now because at 32, he’s finally made it in his chosen profession. He won the UFC flyweight championship on July 19 in Abu Dhabi with a dominant Performance of the Night submission victory over Joseph Benavidez.
It was, he said, a life-changing moment for him. Like many fighters from Brazil, he was born into poverty and turned to fighting as a way out. But he struggled to hit the big time despite a lot of success.
He didn’t have the money to train properly or to hire the coaches he needed. Even when he first got to the UFC, he was not able to fully invest in his career.
Winning the championship, though, has made a significant change. He hopes to show that on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV) when he defends his belt against Alex Perez in the main event of UFC 255 at Apex.
“[Being the champion] has changed my life so much and I have a lot more comfort and a lot more contentment in my life,” he said. “I have the structure to my training that I want and I can help my family the way I have wanted to do.”
He said he expects a better performance against Perez than he showed against Benavidez. It’s hard to be much better than he was against Benavidez, because Benavidez is probably the second-best flyweight in the division’s history in the UFC.
Figueiredo is a -300 favorite over Perez at the MGM Grand Sports Book, while Perez is +240. But Perez, who got the fight when Cody Garbrandt was forced to withdraw, isn’t going to show up just to collect a paycheck.
He wants to follow his long-time friend, boxer Jose Ramirez, and become a world champion. His dedication to training is what has gotten him to the verge of a title.
Win or lose on Saturday, he plans to take Sunday off and drive home to California on Monday morning. He’ll be back at the gym on Monday night. He’s not going to do any sparring or hard training for a while, but will help teach classes and do light workouts.
He’s immersed in MMA and he’s always doing something to remain fit.
“I feel so consistent now in all aspects of my game,” Perez said. “It’s all now just coming together and this fight is coming at the perfect time for me.”
Perez is a Mexican American and would be only the third fighter of Mexican descent to hold a UFC championship, following heavyweight Cain Velasquez and flyweight/bantamweight Henry Cejudo.
Mexico has long been one of the hottest boxing markets in the world, and the country has produced some of the greatest boxers who ever lived, including Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., Salvador Sanchez, Ricardo Lopez, Ruben Olivares and more.
Ramirez, who holds the WBC-IBF super lightweight title and was a 2012 U.S. Olympian, grew up in Avenal, California, one town over from Lemoore, where Perez grew up. The two were friends from an early age, but Ramirez’s success has been a blueprint for Perez.
He said it was hard not to become a boxer, given the love of boxing in Mexico, but said he started wrestling at a young age. He said interest in MMA is growing rapidly and believes he can help take it to the next level if he wins the title.
“Boxing is still the sport, but I can promise you, MMA is getting bigger in Mexico,” Perez said. “I was at an event in Monterrey and people around the hotel and around town were talking about it a lot. It’s definitely growing there, but I think they need a champion or something like that to look up to to push it ahead.
“My family still lives in Mexico — my Dad, my brothers, my uncles and aunts — they’ll say there isn’t much about MMA there. But whenever I fight, they’re watching it and the interest goes up. It’s not the same as it is in the States, but it’s growing, and if you have some Mexican fighters having success, I know it’s going to make a difference.”
Figueiredo is all for expansion of the sport, but he’s not about to give up his title any time soon.
He said he was despondent after returning to Brazil in February without the belt because he missed weight. He said it was a result of not having the proper team around him, which was because he could not afford it.
He said things are vastly different now.
“It was very difficult to return home without the belt because I knew I should have had it, and it was a mistake that was avoidable,” he said. “I was really hard on myself. … But it was a good lesson. I have learned from it and I’m going to keep getting better each time. You will see.”
More from Yahoo Sports: