When he was growing up, mixed martial arts fighter Luis “Baboon” Palomino looked to combat movies such as "The Quest" for inspiration and as an escape from his surrounding troublesome reality.
The Peruvian-born fighter was raised in Miami Beach, Florida, and as a teen, gangs invaded his neighborhood.
“The gang activity was at another level here – especially in high school,” said Palomino, 34. “A lot of my friends got deported. I knew friends who overdosed, got shot or robbed.”
But a Brazilian martial arts instructor rescued him from a criminal future and has helped him become a feared MMA fighter.
In a highly anticipated rematch, Palomino (23-10) faces undefeated World Series of Fighting lightweight champion Justin Gaethje (14-0) in the WSOF 23 main event in Phoenix on Friday night, which will be aired on NBC Sports Network.
Gaethje defeated Palomino by technical knockout in the third round back in March in a fight that many MMA commentators are calling fight of the year.
Palomino says this time around will have a different outcome.
“I got injured in the fight early on. If you notice the video in the first kick we exchanged his leg goes across my ankles and it took my ankle. It took my ability to move,” he told Fox News Latino. “The fight took a different route. That’s what happens. You have to fight through it. I couldn’t check the kicks.”
Palomino, who was raised by his mother, wouldn’t be on the big stage if it wasn’t for César Carneiro, an expert in the Brazilian martial art of capoeira, whom he considers a father figure.
“Watching Carneiro on television fighting motivated me to practice capoeira,” Palomino said.
That fighting style is a blend of dance, acrobatics and music, and Carneiro, 46, has appeared in several movies, including “Only the Strong,” that showcase his fighting talent.
While Palominino was still a teen, a middle-school friend introduced him to Carneiro, who decided to take the young man under his wing.
“I’ve loved him since he was 14 years-old because he was a tough kid,” he told FNL. “I love tough people.”
Before that, Palomino had been training to box, but his desire had always been to train with Carneiro. For his part, the capoeira master was impressed by Palomino’s skill.
“He was problematic,” he said. “I like kids like that because you can control them and give them good direction. He was tough when he played capoeira, and capoeira is like play-fighting.”
Carneiro introduced him to the Brazilian jiu-jitsu sensei, Daniel Valverde, so that Palomino could hone his skills and become a well-rounded fighter. Carneiro and Valverde are co-owners of MMA Masters gym in Miami.
But fighting is just one aspect of Palomino and Carneiro's bond. It was evident when Palomino left to train at the nearby American Top Team gym for a few months.
“I remember when Baboon left the gym, I used to cry a lot," Carneiro said. “During that time he left, I also lost my 16 year-old son, Cauê, who also was a fan of Baboon. That’s when I really knew about pain."
He continued, “When Baboon left, he tried to find his own thing. He tried to find something better for him. I wasn’t upset with him at all. Every time I saw Baboon, I said ‘hello’ and told him that I want him to be happy.”
Although they aren’t related, Palomino grieved with Carneiro over the loss of Cauê.
“He spoke to me, came over and hugged me. He came and cried with me,” Carneiro said. “He told me, ’I don’t only see you as a coach, but as my father and I lost a brother.’”
Carneiro feels the same. When Palomino lost his first MMA fight, he says, he cried like a “baby.”
As Palomino’s biggest fight approaches, Carnerio will be where he's always been: in Palomino's corner.
“Baboon is someone special to me,” he said. “I just want the best for him. I know one day he will run his own gym and be my assistant when he is done with his fighting career.”