COLUMBIA — In a spare gym where the bare walls are painted red, white and blue, professional mixed martial artist Francisco "Kiko" France throws a flurry of punches and kicks as he spars. The song, "When World's Collide" blares from a stereo in the corner, but it is only slightly audible above the fighters' strained breathing. France locks his opponent against a wall, struggling to wrestle him to the mat.
France is no stranger to struggling.
“I was born in a poor country,” France said. “There weren’t a lot of options.”
Six years ago, at the age of 21, France was living and training in Fortaleza, Brazil with barely enough money for clothes or food. After high school, France had pursued prizefighting instead of getting a paying job.
“I could get a job, live in a better place, have a car, buy clothes,” he said. “But if I was going to have a job, I couldn’t train. It was hard for me. I didn’t have clothes to dress, I was so broke.”
His mother was against his decision. When he decided not to go to college or get a job, she no longer supported him financially. Even though it wasn't practical, France stuck with fighting.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen in my life.”
France, however, was resilient.
“I’ve spent six years of my life on this,” he told himself. “I’m not going to give up now. Something is going to happen.”
That’s when his friend Marcelo Vaconcelos stepped in. They were eating lunch together when France started talking about his difficulties.
“He told me ‘what about I sell my car, pay for our visa, pay for our plane tickets, and we go to the United States," France said. "We’ll get over there and find a way to do something.”’
France couldn’t believe his ears. Vaconcelos didn't think twice about it. He had been friends with France for a long time, and Vaconcelos said that France would do the same for him.
"We're like brothers," Vaconcelos said by phone Thursday.
France is a black belt and Brazilian state champion in jujitsu, a sport for which Brazil is well known. But France said Brazil views the sport as a hobby. France could have only made $500 a month teaching Brazilian jujitsu, according to Vaconcelos.
“I wish I could do this same thing in Brazil, but they don't see this as a job,” France said.
America was an opportunity to not only make money, but to pursue fighting as a profession.
"We left everything — friends, family." Vaconcelos said. "It was for good reason. There was no money over there."
The two applied for visas, an often arduous task, and got approved, something they were both grateful for.
“It was the happiest day of my life,” France said.
In 2004, France arrived in Coconut Creek, Fla., where one of his friends was living. During the first six months, France worked construction jobs during the days and trained nights at the American Top Team gym. One of the owners, Wade Rome, was opening a gym in Columbia and looking for a sparring partner.
Rome was a world champion in Brazilian jujitsu. He had won the Pan American Games, one of the world's elite tournaments, six years in a row. Rome had heard about France's talent in Brazilian jujitsu, but Rome was skeptical. France had a black belt, but many people have black belts. So Rome invited France to train.
"We trained like 10 times over a 10-day period," Rome said. "I was so impressed with him. He had the most natural, fluid jujitsu that I was just amazed."
Rome didn't need to see anything else, and gave France a job as an instructor. For France, the opportunity was great, but there was one problem — his English.
"When I was in Florida, there were lots of Brazilians, a lot of Mexicans, a lot of Spanish people. I learned Spanish over there, I didn't learn any English," France said.
After a little more than a year in Florida, France found himself in Mid-Missouri, answering phones without even knowing basic English.
"I didn't know anything when I moved, I didn't know Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. I had to talk to people and try to explain price and schedule," France said. "The first six months was haaaard."
France eventually overcame the situation by just speaking the language every day.
With his instructor's job, France was able to focus more of his energy on becoming a mixed martial artist. In the years that followed, Rome took France under his wing. France was great in jujitsu, but needed work in a lot of other elements of mixed martial arts.
"He's a completely different animal now," Rome said. "He's a much better wrestler, more well-rounded, way more mentally mature."
In 2008, three years after coming to Columbia, France began his professional career. He cruised through his first four fights over the course of three years. In each of his fights, he needed less than 90 seconds of the allotted 15-minute fight time to put his opponents into submission.
The momentum might have gotten the best of France though, and he lost his fifth fight.
"I overlooked him," France said. "It was laziness."
But after the loss, France realized that MMA was exactly what he wanted to do with his life, and so he started acting like it. France changed his diet, increased his training and changed his behavior before his next fight, the biggest of his career.
On May 15, France fought Lee Brousseau at the Scott Trade Center in St. Louis, in front of more than 8,000 fans, the largest crowd of France's career, and earned a submission in 1 minute, 27 seconds.
“For that guy to beat me that night, he would have had to stop my heart," France said.
His resolve also had made him a better fighter than Rome.
"The student surpassed the teacher," Rome said. "But he did so gracefully. He didn't gloat. I've done a lot over the years for France, but I know he would do the same thing."
Just as Vaconcelos had said, Rome said, "I consider him a brother to me."
With France’s abilities constantly growing, his opportunities have become limited in Columbia, forcing him once again to move on to find success. In a week, France leaves for Phoenix, where he will train with former MU wrestler turned professional mixed martial artist, Ben Askren.
Rome said he thinks this is just the tip of the iceberg for France.
"He's going to be a UFC champ," Rome said. "Absolutely. I've said it for 5 years."
Back in the patriotic gym, an MMA octagon and boxing ring next to the sparring mat are unoccupied.
France's chest rises and falls rapidly, but his face shows only concentration. Just when it looks like France might relent, he breaks through his opponent's grip, and drives him to the mat.