Júnior Assunção never expected to become a fighter.
Assunção, who moved to Miami from Brazil when he was 13 years old, was more interested in mixed martial arts training than competition when he was younger.
But as Assunção’s training progressed, so did his skill, and he became eager to test himself against other fighters.
Assunção ultimately enjoyed a successful mixed martial arts career in both the Xtreme Fighting Championships (XFC) and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), becoming the XFC’s lightweight champion in 2010.
“I never wanted to be a fighter. I just wanted to train for self-defense purposes and just see where it would take me,” Assunção said. “Then, as I started to grow, once I got out of high school I said the gym is going to be my college. I was very hungry then to compete and prove that I’m one of the best, which is how athletes think, I guess.”
These days, Assunção is a full-time instructor at Ascension MMA in Cumming, a gym he owns along with his younger brothers Freddy Assunção and Raphael Assunção.
The gym offers classes in mixed martial arts such as kickboxing, Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, even kids’ Brazilian Jiu-Jitzu.
And if Assunção never expected to become a fighter, he certainly never envisioned himself teaching mixed martial arts to children.
“Totally different, because I used to be the mean guy. I’m not a mean person, but there was an incentive to be mean all the time because I was a professional fighter,” Júnior Assunção said. “Obviously, I’m a regular person outside the fight. It’s been a great experience for me. Like I said, I never thought I was the kid instructor, but then once we opened here I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to try and see what I can do with these little guys.’ It’s awesome. I love the kids. I have pictures of them on my refrigerator.”
All eyes will be on Ascension MMA Sept. 19, as the gym is planning to host an XFC tryout, one of two tryout locations in the country.
Assunção said the gym will have a hexagon where the fighters will do battle. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, the tryouts will be closed to spectators.
As a fighter, Assunção competed around the world – China, England, Russia, Brazil – and as a scout, Assunção scoured countries such as Bulgaria and Romania searching for future fighters.
Still, Assunção is eager to show off some of the regional talent in north Georgia, including a handful of local fighters.
“A few years back, they had people from like 28 different countries participating in the league. They’re relaunching their brand and making some adjustments to go a little bit bigger now,” Assunção said. “They want to do a tryout, so since I already have a relationship with the president and the CEO and I already know everybody from the league, they asked me if I wanted to host one of the tryouts here at our facility, and I said, ‘Man, why not?’”
Jiu-Jitsu is one martial art that relies heavily on grappling and ground fighting, which can be a natural progression for those who grow up wrestling.
With an influx of talented wrestlers in north Georgia, Assunção said many of his fighters have a background in wrestling.
“Once you’re done with high school, if you don’t make it to college, there’s kind of nowhere else to go with wrestling. There’s no training after that,” Assunção said. “Jiu Jitsu accommodates very well post-high school for a wrestler. Obviously, a lot of them are hungry to step toward MMA, which is obviously a legitimate sport nowadays.”
Assunção recalls his break into professional fighting, back when UFC was called “no holds barred” fighting. There was no time limit and there were no weight classes – no rules, really.
However, once considered barbaric, mixed martial arts began inching its way into the mainstream in the early 21st century, a timeline that coincided with Assunção’s fighting career.
His first professional fight was 2002, then four years later he appeared in his first UFC bout.
Twenty-three matches, 16 wins and four knockouts later, Assunção finds joy in passing along his expertise to his students.
“I love it. That’s actually my No. 1 passion, is to work with people,” Assunção said. “I’m a people person, so I like helping people achieve their goals. That’s something that really excites me. Fighting was just a consequence of training all the time and just being in the environment. Next thing you know, there’s a fight set for me.
“I have a lot of teenagers that I mentor here, so I play a coaching role and also a mentorship role, too. I feel like it’s my calling.”
Assunção’s passion isn’t restricted to those who hope to become professional fighters one day.
Instead, he looks to his kids’ classes as a source of inspiration.
“None of them want to be necessarily fighters, but it helps them with their confidence and with their coordination and stuff,” Assunção said. “If I can influence them a little bit, that’s very satisfying to me.”