When Luis and Diva Rodriguez gave birth to their third child in the first weeks of 1992, they knew his life would not be easy. Roberto Alcalde Rodriguez was born with spina bifida (myelomeningocele), a serious condition that would not allow him to walk like his older siblings.
Alcalde was nine months old when he first entered a swimming pool for physical therapy, an activity that would likely be part of his routine for the rest of his life. What Luis and Diva never imagined is that he’d become a two-time Parapan American gold medalist (2015/2019) in the 100m breaststroke SB5 class, their first child to find success in sports.
Not only that, but Alcalde would be an inspiration for his older sister, Marina Rodriguez, who turned into one of the best strawweights in the world in the UFC.
The 32-year-old fighter, who beat Jessica Aguilar and Tecia Torres this year in the Octagon to go up 12-0-1 in her professional MMA career, faces another tough challenge on Saturday night, taking on an overweight Cynthia Calvillo in the co-main event of UFC on ESPN 7 in Washington, DC.
Her meteoric rise in the sport gets even more impressive when realize she hadn’t even entered a martial arts gym before turning 24, after she got bored of working as a graphic designer for a small company in Florianopolis.
“I was in an office, sitting on a chair and staring at a computer all day, every day,” Rodriguez says. “That wasn’t the kind of life I wanted for me. I wanted to move and do something.”
The young graphic designer was a bit overweight, too, so she searched on Google for a gym to practice some physical activity.
That’s when her brother’s videos came in hand.
“I was very annoying as a kid,” Alcalde laughs. “I always watched fight videos when I was a kid, but since none of my friends liked it, I called her to watch them with me. She was always like, ‘Yeah, cool,’ but really not pay attention at all.
“I always loved watching martial arts, but I was bit unlucky when I found out about PRIDE, because I only watched boring fights. I was like, ‘Damn, I can’t watch this, this is too boring.’ That’s when I started watching K-1. I had the 1996 K-1 Grand Prix DVD, when Andy Hug beat everyone up, and that’s when I became a big fan. I found out later that MMA was fun, too, and I got hooked up.”
Rodriguez paid little attention at the time. But those memories came back when she called Marcio Malko’s gym in 2013 and asked about joining his muay Thai class. Malko knew right away that she was gifted, and it didn’t take long for him to suggest some amateur bouts.
Two years later, months before Alcalde won his first Parapan American Games gold medal in Toronto, Rodriguez entered a cage for the first time to compete in an MMA fight just 12 miles away from Malko’s Thai Brasil gym. She stopped Silvania Monteiro’s takedown attempts and landed at will on the feet. Monteiro never came back for the second round.
“I was always showing her technique videos, so I don’t know if that motivated her to start fighting or helped her,” Alcalde says. “I got too excited when Marcio said she was talented, but I tried to hide it so she would only do what she really wanted. I know that an athlete’s life is hard, and MMA is more dangerous. I wanted her to do it for herself, and now I see how hard she dedicates.”
Many people look at professional athletes and think it’s all about fame and fortune. But they fail to understand that’s only a small fraction of the day-to-day life of a tiny percentage of millions of those who try. Hard work and dedication drive away those who weren’t born for it, and watching Alcalde’s training routine was a lesson for Rodriguez years before she even considered becoming an athlete too.
“He’s one of my biggest motivations when I decided becoming an athlete,” Rodriguez says. “Knowing how hard he worked, and to have him always rooting and helping me, is everything. He still gives me tips on strategies, he’s always watching my opponent’s fights to give me ideas.
“He was already an athlete way before I became one, and he always loved fighting. I learned to look at the martial arts world through him. My brother worked hard to become a well-paid professional athlete who travels around the world to defend the Brazilian team, and that’s what I do that today.”
Alcalde doesn’t like to talk about his importance in Rodriguez’s life, but admits he probably helped her big time in a way.
“I could show her how things really are,” he said. “Sports are an illusion, and it’s hard to get lost. A small detail makes the difference if you’re not prepared. Nobody teaches you how it’s like when everything goes right and you only hear good things. It all gets fragile if you don’t have a good foundation.
“The reasons that drove her to sports were pure. She loves training, she wants to fight and become the best. She’s not in this for attention, fame or money. That’s important, too, of course, but an athlete’s life is very short, and you have to give your all.
“That’s what I tell her about being undefeated. You only have one chance in life to be undefeated. That’s not something that comes back. You have to enjoy that moment. This is your moment to make everything work perfectly. Most people only think about that after it’s gone, after your first setback.”
The para-swimmer woke early to watch Fedor Emelianenko and Andy Hug make history in Japan for years. He would make sure to go to the 2011 Parapan American village in Guadalajara, Mexico, to get internet access and watch Junior dos Santos win the UFC heavyweight championship over Cain Velasquez.
Yet it’s still surreal for him to turn the TV on and watch his sister in the Octagon.
“I spent my life waking up at dawn to watch a bunch of fighters, and now it’s my sister there,” he said. “That’s something that literally never crossed my mind before.”
Alcalde never had the chance to watch Rodriguez compete live, since he moved to Sao Paulo to join the Brazilian national team before she started her fighting career. But destiny brought her UFC debut to the Ibirapuera gymnasium in Sao Paulo. Coincidentally, it happened a day before Paralympic Athlete’s Day in Brazil.
The para-swimmer had tickets to watch the event, but UFC ambassador Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira found out about him and refused to accept his money. The former UFC heavyweight champion gave Alcalde tickets to better seats, but his night wasn’t complete: Rodriguez fought to a draw with Randa Markos.
It all went perfect after that, though, with Rodriguez defeating Aguilar and Torres in a span of five months to become a top-10 strawweight.
“The UFC always gave me top-ranked opponents because they believe in me,” she said. “They want to test me and see if I can handle it and deserve these opportunities. That was my goal when I got to the UFC. I want to fight the best. I don’t want to win five, six easy fights and not evolve. We get better going through adversity.”
“The UFC did her no favors,” Alcalde laughs. “They were like, ‘Let’s see if she really is that good.’ They threw the worst match-ups at her, but that’s how we get better right? They threw bombs at her, but she kept evolving.”
A win over Tecia Torres showed UFC matchmakers she’s for real, Rodriguez believes. But will she get the love from MMA fans after beating someone like Calvillo?
“I’m still not getting the attention outside the Octagon, but that doesn’t bother me,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t want to be on the spotlight, I don’t want the glamour. I want to work and have the best opportunities. Cynthia is the fight now. This is the one where I will show something more by finishing her on the feet — or maybe on the ground.”
Rodriguez won’t talk about title shots just yet, but her brother will. With a win over Calvillo at UFC on ESPN 7, he expects Rodriguez to have a “busy” 2020.
From a small swimming pool in Florianopolis to big-time tournaments around the world, from a small gymnasium close to home to Capital One Arena in DC, the Rodriguez family could celebrate a UFC championship belt – and an Paralympic gold medal.
“That would be perfect, huh?” Alcalde smiles. “That would be cool.”