He strikes a pose of real menace when you see him from a distance. The closely shaved head, the elongated bridge of his broken nose, and shoulders as broad as the back of your first car all create an image of impending danger. It would be easy to assume that entering into a conversation with Paulo ‘the Dutch Brazilian’ Boer would be a few misspoken words different than entering into something much more ‘engaging.’
But then the personality shines through. The Lightweight Mixed Martial Arts fighter speaks with a calmness that is both charming and distant. Funnelling out his thoughts via a rhythmic pitter-patter of speech and an open-mouthed smile, Boer is knowingly aware of his obvious strengths – and also how well they cover his weaknesses.
Shifting his weight back across the chair and onto the table through the cast iron joint of his elbow, Boer again smiles when discussing his approach as an MMA fighter.
“Its just business,” he says, watching the waitress as she delivers his tropical fruit flavoured smoothie. “I can hurt the guy – beat him half to death. But afterwards I could drink a beer with him. No problem.”
It is this dichotomy of character that has been a well-established trope of professional fighters in the pantheon of popular culture. Not so much ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ but a balance of a primal instinct to fight and cause pain in the ring, with the very human urge to simply be someone normal.
For Brazilian born Boer, who has a young daughter, girlfriend and personal training business in Groningen to occupy his time outside of the ring, he knows that a very a sharp split in character is needed to survive in MMA.
“Hours before the fight I’m think, ‘what the fuck am I doing here?’ but then the cage closes and it all goes quiet,” he says, his eyes widening and barely blinking. “There is another guy that is trained, standing before you and he wants to kill you. You have no choice.”
Boer’s record had been impeccable until 14 months ago. Ten wins, one draw (which was stopped due to his opponent being too badly injured to compete in an additional round) pushed him up to the top level of the sport – an exhibition bout in the Ultimate Fighting Championship for the US TV show, ‘Ultimate Fighter.’ He was the programme’s first Dutch fighter.
But just as Boer saw a glimpse of the top, and a big money contract with the UFC, things fell apart. A bout with England’s Saul Rogers ended in a second round submission, with Boer tapping out after being held in a chokehold for 10 seconds.
“On the TV broadcast they showed only one minute, but I fought for eight against Saul. Eight bloody minutes,” recalls Boer, setting his empty glass on the table with a hollow tap. He quickly looks over his shoulder, as if hearing a familiar voice, before turning back. “I was tired and then he got a submission. Yeah, I fucked up, but it is what it is,” he says, wafting away the air of disappointment with a forward wave of his hand.
Losing a bout is never a good thing for a fighter to go through. Before you even consider the physical costs, it is the fighter’s self-image as a tough, talented and untouchable individual that shatters as it is thrown against the brick wall of failure. For Boer this feeling was about to repeat twice more in the following months, heavily increasing the pressure on him.
“It was a very good first round. I beat him up,” he says, defending his second last fight. “I hope to have a rematch on this fight soon, so next time I will train a little bit harder.”
It might not address the alarm bells that are sounding out after these defeats, but Boer’s resilience is exactly what trainer Etien Thezalus hails as his greatest strength. Despite three defeats in a row and a 31st birthday coming at the end of November, Boer has remained positive about his future in the sport.
“He is a fighter, he never quits.” says Suriname native Thezalus. “He doesn’t know what it is. He just goes on and on.”
What to attribute this grit to is hard to pin. On the one hand you have the natural development of a fighter, who has learned to accept each setback less emotionally as he ages. On the other you can go back to his roots in the sport as a Dutch infantryman learning kick-boxing during a five year conscription.
But perhaps it is the simplest explanation that rings true – he loves what he does. Why else would he deal with the dieting, which he believes is more painful than any punch. Why would he face getting punched, which he still confirms as being ‘fucked up?’ Or even more so, how could he persevere through the injuries?
He lists a snapped shin bone (which he subtly illustrates with a crunching, spitting sound in his mouth), broken optical bones, a broken hand, broken knuckles, torn ligaments, broken elbows and broken ribs among his injuries before stopping the avalanche of medical mishaps with a simple summary. ‘Yeah I broke a lot of shit.’
Boer has a title fight arranged for November 19th with German fighter Mohammad Grabinski, and while he accepts it is a huge fight for the sake of his career, it will not change his long-term ambitions in the sport.
“Em well I plan to win,” he says, smiling broadly. “If I don’t then I will take it slow for a couple of months, train more in England and then go back again.”
The passion is there, the drive is there, but once again, Boer keeps it hidden. It takes Thezalus to lift the veil of calm and show Boer’s true nature “As long as his heart is still beating, then the limit for what he can achieve is very high.”
Looking at Boer with the benefit of distance again, the split of who he is now becomes clear. His sweater is white, but his sweatpants black. He is warm in personality, but frank when talking business. In the ring his punches stick but in the hold he stays slippery. Like so many other fighters, Boer is one thing in person, and something very different in the ring.