Welcome to the UFC, Mr. Wilson


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"Hello, UFC. Pleased to meet you. I'm Chris Wilson."

The 30-year-old mixed martial artist is leaving for Ohio in a few hours and laughing while imagining his upcoming UFC debut. Wilson has been in many fights, but nothing like the one awaiting him Saturday.

"You know why I am excited? I'll finally be getting a little bit of recognition," the Team Quest product said. "This is a big opportunity for me. It's made me reflect on my life. The world is turning, things are happening and now is the time to show what I am about."

Still a virtual unknown, Wilson will fight rising star Jon Fitch (Pictures) at UFC 82 in Columbus on Saturday. Fitch is on a 14-fight win streak and may be one fight from a welterweight title shot.

"No one wanted to fight Jon Fitch (Pictures)," Team Quest founder Matt Lindland (Pictures) said. "Most guys turned it down. This is a big opportunity, but Chris is not getting a warm-up fight. There is a good and bad to it. If Chris wins, he will be one of the top guys, but then what? He will face another tough guy and then another tough guy. It won't get any easier."

Fitch, a wrestler from Purdue, has made opponents look really bad, which may be why some top contenders allegedly ducked fighting him. His style is 15 minutes of top control while pounding his opponent into submission. Despite the win streak, he was unheralded before beating Diego Sanchez (Pictures) in September. Still, Fitch is an MMA rock star compared to Wilson and a heavy favorite with the oddsmakers.

"Right now the only people who know me are people who really follow the sport or other fighters in my weight class," Wilson said. "Even fighters outside my weight class don't know who I am."

Wilson fought in smaller promotions before joining the International Fight League in 2006 as a member of the Portland Wolfpack. "The Professor" went 2-1 in the IFL, then made the first major turn of his career. He chose free agency rather than re-sign a two-year contract with the IFL. Out of action for more than eight months, Wilson won two fights for Bodog before facing career limbo.

"It was a gamble for him," MMA legend Bas Rutten (Pictures) said. "I would tell young fighters to get as many fights as you can before you move on to the big stage, but it may pay off. The risk is that if you lose on the big show, then what?"

The UFC called just hours into a Hawaiian vacation with his wife, Luciana, and 4-year-old son, Lucas. Luciana is seven months pregnant. The family was on the bus from the airport to the hotel.

"It totally scrapped my vacation," Wilson said. "I was planning to get a few workouts in while I was there, but I went straight to training twice a day. I was training already, but I wasn't in top shape, much less for the biggest fight of my life."

Back on the continent, Wilson went to train with Team Quest buddy Dan Henderson (Pictures) in Big Bear, Calif. But training at 7,500 feet took its toll.

"It makes you feel like you haven't trained a day in your life," Wilson said. "It's something most people never experience. A two-mile jog will kill you.

"Kill. You."

It was fitting that Wilson and Henderson trained together. Both have opposite game plans for Saturday. Henderson is looking to avoid the striker (Anderson Silva) and take the fight to the ground. Wilson is the reverse.

"It's the striker versus the wrestler in both scenarios," said Lindland, who will corner Henderson and Wilson. "If Chris lets Fitch control position, he will be in for a long night. At the same time, I don't think Fitch has faced a striker anywhere near Chris' caliber."

Wilson is the second fighter to make the transition from the IFL to the UFC. Is this the trickle before the dam bursts or will it herald a deeper respect for the IFL, often denigrated by UFC officials? In February, Tim Boetsch (Pictures) (0-1 in the IFL) stepped into the UFC on short notice and demolished David Heath (Pictures). If Wilson does well against Fitch, it could help public perception of the league.

"I think the IFL fighters, especially the champions, can compete with anybody in the world," Rutten said.

It should be noted that Rutten is an IFL spokesperson but also famously off-the-cuff.

"Any time people talk about the IFL and UFC at the same time, it is a good thing," he said. "The UFC likes to say that the other organizations aren't as good. People said that Pride fighters aren't doing so good, but Anderson Silva and ‘Rampage' aren't doing too badly."

One advantage of the UFC is that fighters have autonomy over their image. While fans tend to focus on purse money, most elite fighters know the real money is in sponsorship deals. It's his first fight in the Octagon, but Wilson will make more from his three sponsors -- Premier Fighter, Metabolic Adaption and Strengthcoachonline.com -- than he's made on any fight in the past.

"This fight will get my name out there," he said.

The raised profile may be the only guarantee coming out of the event. Other fighters, like Houston Alexander (Pictures), have beaten top contenders in their debuts but never became true contenders. And a loss to Fitch probably does nothing to hurt Wilson's present status.

Wilson's life has taken more turns than most. Sixteen of his 30 years were spent in Brazil during back-and-forth intercontinental jaunts with his parents, Baptist missionaries. His current six-year residence in Portland is his longest in either country. But he spent the first four years of his life in Brazil and speaks Portuguese fluently -- although he sheepishly admits it's somewhat of a hick dialect.

He became interested in martial arts on his second stint in Brazil, taking up tae kwon do as an 11-year-old. Largely based on the circumstances of where he was living, he took kickboxing, muay Thai, judo, aikido and jiu-jitsu at various times. Back in the United States two years later, he attended junior high and high school in Vancouver, Wash., before heading back to Brazil again at the age of 19.

"I wanted a better view of the country from a socio-economic and socio-political standpoint," he said. "As an adult, I saw things differently. It was very educational."

It was on that five-year trip that Wilson began to compete in full-contact kickboxing events. He eventually represented Brazil in a South American championship tournament, losing to an Argentine in the finals.

"When you are representing Brazil, that is the worst thing that could have happened," he said.

During his last stay in Brazil, Wilson met his wife Luciana in a made-for-the-screen love story. They met at a party and began dating, but she dumped him.

Two years later, by a twist of fate, they met again on a crowded street in Sao Paulo. They learned they had been living a few miles apart and rode the same subway everyday, only to just miss seeing each other. They dated again for nine months, but Luciana was hoping for an international business scholarship in England. Wilson left for the United States while she awaited final word.

She missed the cut on the scholarship but made the grade to Chris, who immediately asked her to marry him.

"I feel lucky," Wilson said. "Things worked out."

Ending up at Team Quest was also a twist of fate for Wilson. After returning to the United States in 2002, he was simply searching for a gym to pursue his striking. He did some research and found one of the best MMA gyms in the world was a few miles from his house.

"I was already a fan of mixed martial arts, but it hadn't occurred to me that it was a possibility to make money," Wilson said. "I learned quickly that I wanted to do this. At the beginning, I trained and held down a full-time job. That is an exploratory phase everyone goes through to see if it works."

Team Quest is used to yahoos walking in and declaring themselves the next great champions. Wilson was more subdued while explaining his fighting background to Team Quest co-owner Robert Follis.

"I hear that a lot," Follis said. "Show me."

Thrown in with the amateurs, Wilson quickly proved himself and was advanced to the elite team. He turned pro after a handful of amateur fights. Now an instructor at Team Quest, he admits to saying the same thing hundreds of times since then.

"Anyone can say anything," Wilson said. "They have to walk the walk."

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