There was a time in MMA’s infancy when facing a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
black belt resulted in an almost instantaneous loss by submission if
the fight hit the mat. Sport grappling virtuosos like Fabricio Werdum
and Demian Maia generated such a buzz when they crossed over that they
may as well have tread to the cage upon a trail of red roses. If major
promotions were not immediately throwing out offers, their eyes were
keenly trained on how these submission wizards fared.
Nowadays, full contact fighters at the black belt level are not
uncommon. In fact, any inferior skill level could be perceived as a
chink in the armor to be exploited. The standard procedure for these
highly decorated grapplers is to start off in MMA against a safe
opponent; to cautiously dangle their toes into foreign and dangerous
waters rather than dive in head-first and swim with the sharks. Then,
to determine their true potential after they quickly twist their foes
into complex shapes, the question rests on how they would perform
against the elite competition at the top level of the sport.
This creates a familiar issue, in which finding opponents for these
unreal grapplers becomes a Sisyphean task, as fighting them is often
considered a lose/lose scenario: without having proven themselves to
be formidable, beating them does little for an established fighter, and
the risk of a loss is quite high as few can hope to survive if they’re
unable to remain standing.
Leonardo Santos — brother to UFC bantamweight Wagnney Fabiano and
cousin of Nova Uniao co-founder Wendell Alexander — is immersed in
that same perplexing situation despite venturing down a different path
after transitioning from BJJ to MMA.
What makes 8-3 Santos so different than other ridiculously decorated
sport grapplers? He took on Takanori Gomi, the vicious knockout artist
who would eventually become the world’s top lightweight, in his first
MMA fight with less than three weeks notice — and survived to a
decision despite losing. It was devastating Chute Boxe striker Jean
Silva that stood across from him in only his third full-contact tilt,
and Santos’ third loss came via a competitive split decision to
Kazunori Yokota (a wily Grabaka product with wins over Michihiro
Omigawa, Mizuto Hirota, and Eiji Mitsuoka). Excluding one win apiece
by decision and DQ, Santos has finished all of his other fights by
submission … except one by head-kick KO; a rare feat indeed for an
Extraordinary accomplishments like this in addition to his laundry list
of BJJ medals and world titles start to elucidate why no one wants to
step into the cage with Nova Uniao’s Leonardo Santos.
DW: Explain how you started with martial arts, and how that evolved
into winning several BJJ championships?
LS: I got into Jiu-Jitsu at 8 years of age with my cousin Wendell
Alexander. Despite not really liking to train, I went to the gym
because I had many friends. I actually wanted to be a soccer player.
One day I went to see my brother Wagnney Fabiano compete and he
finished his opponent. The stadium and the crowd began to shout his
name and from that moment I decided to train more — to one day hear
the crowd scream my name, too.
Having a teacher like I had who always encouraged me and forced me to
train hard, along with a brother who always inspired me and was my
idol, it made me want to be a champion and helped shape my game.
DW: Can you list all of your BJJ/grappling accomplishments, and tell
me which you’re the most proud of, and why?
LS: Seven-time world champion in CBJJ and CBJJO, I also performed well
at the Pan Am, National GMT, and the black belt GP, and won 3rd and 4th
place in the ADCC.
I think I have two very import titles. The first was the World first.
I was 15 yeard old and winning the adult category. The black belt and
the GP was the most import in the black belt. I won all my fights, and
not score points on the body or the advantage of me, and after this
tournament I was voted the number one lightweight in the world. It was
perfect. It was a nice moment in my career, and I I was proving the
best lightweight fighter, no matter what confederation [CBJJ or CBJJO].
DW: Why did you decide to enter MMA after having so much success in
LS: I think to have won everything I ever wanted and to be considered
the number one lightweight in the world in BJJ — the sport I love —
really helped me decide to change to pro MMA. Many thought I was crazy
for changing from BJJ (where I was number one), but I wanted to try and
be number one in MMA as well. I think I got to the point of wanting
something new, with new challenges, and I thought that MMA would
provide me with those things.
DW: Tell me about your transition from grappling to MMA?
LS: It was a little difficult because Jiu-Jitsu has no punches or
elbows, so it’s hard to change the things you did for so long. I had
to slightly change my thinking, my way of fighting, because now with
punches, you have to be alert all the time. But I thought I could
learn and adapt to MMA really fast. I was always a fighter, so it was
only a matter of time before I knew I would learn it.
DW: With your grappling specifically, what changes were the hardest to
LS: I think my biggest difficulty was to have no grips to hold. I was
considered a very technical fighter, so I always relied on my grips as
they are very valuable in BJJ. But, when I took off the gi, I felt so
lost, so it took me a while to make changes in my game.
DW: How often did you train without the gi before you started in MMA,
and how often do you train with the gi now?
LS: I had not trained much without the gi, since there weren’t very
many No-Gi championships. I dedicated myself to training in the gi,
because I had more competitions and I loved fighting championship Jiu
Jitsu. I started training more no-gi when I came to fight MMA, but
sometimes I still put on the gi for training and to teach some classes.
It helps me to relax and review some techniques.
DW: In any and all areas of MMA, what things did you learn quickly and
easily? What aspects were the hardest for you to adjust to?
LS: I guess nothing was easy, and I can say I’m still learning. But,
being a grappler, I think the wrestling was easier to learn. Muay Thai
was harder to learn because. where I trained, the training was hard and
the fighters wouldn’t go light. They always tried to knock you out, so
I had to learn how to survive.
DW: When and how did you get hooked up with Nova Uniao?
LS: My cousin and my teacher, Wendell Alexander, and Andre
Pederneiras, started Nova Uniao when I was very young. I was part of
the beginning of this wonderful team which I consider to be one of the
world’s best Jiu-Jitsu teams. I gave my blood for the team and fought
hard to defend them and to develop the team. After a while we become
the best team in Brazil; beating teams much older than us. Being a part
of Nova Uniao has always been a pleasure for me.
DW: How has becoming a part of the Nova Uniao family and training
under the great Andre Pederneiras changed you as a fighter?
LS: Dede is a great teacher, and as a person he is amazing. I think
that after I began training with him I matured a lot, because I had
access to a person who thought differently from my teacher, Wendell. It
was great for me because I learned a lot and in many different ways
with two great teachers. Wendell loves sweeps while Dede loves to play
on top and pass guard. I do not think I could have chosen a better team
for my career.
I consider Wendell and Dede the best teachers in the world. It’s easy
to take a high-level athlete and say that you train him, but it’s much
harder to take an average person and turn him into an athlete. This is
what Dede and Wendell can do, so I thank God for having had the
opportunity to work with two great teachers.
DW: What are some of the things that make the Nova Uniao school so
unique and successful?
LS: I think the secret, and why most of the time the Nova Uniao team
does so well, is because everyone starts in Jiu-Jitsu and then moves to
MMA. We try to maintain the hierarchy of Jiu-Jitsu in MMA, meaning
"respect the people above you". It helps keep order and arrange
training sessions or even to give advice. Beyond the respect, we have
no superstars; we are all equal and help each other. Every team has
problems, but when the problem is large, we pass it to Dede and he
decides what to do.
DW: Of course, you nailed a beautiful flying armbar on GSP at ADCC.
Since he is such a superstar in MMA, did defeating him in grappling
affect your confidence in MMA?
LS: I do not think it affects a lot, because I was in the grappling
tournament, so it was normal for me. I was a grappler then, but when I
do MMA — for sure, it changed my confidence because he’s a great MMA
DW: You said that GSP is "a good person". Did you two become friends
after your ADCC match?
LS: No, I knew GSP before, but we’re still friends after that fight
and he also came to Brazil to help me a lot for my fights in MMA. He
even invited me to Canada to help him with training.
DW: Your first opponent in MMA was a young and undefeated Takanori
Gomi, who was blowing through some of Shooto’s best fighters. Describe
your mental state before the fight? Were you nervous, or confident you
were prepared for the test?
LS: This fight was a great experience for me. I had never done any
MMA training, and had only twenty days to prepare for the fight. Based
on experience, I don’t know why I accepted the fight, but I had always
dreamed of fighting in Japan; therefore, I accepted the offer. It was
very, very difficult, because I had to learn to punch and fight MMA in
twenty days, but I knew that my Jiu-Jitsu could be a great advantage.
I was very calm and very confident, but I knew it would be a tough
fight. Today I can tell you I shouldn’t have accepted this fight
because I didn’t have the experience and knowledge to fight an athlete
of Gomi’s level. Even with the short training time, I was very willing
to fight, and I did what I could .. but unfortunately, I lost the
decision. Regardless, it was a good experience, because I could see I
had the talent and heart to fight MMA.
DW: Shortly after, in your third fight, you took on Chute Boxe killer
Jean Silva, who had more than twenty fights at the time. Did you
intentionally want to face the best competition that early in your
LS: I always wanted to fight, no matter with who. The big problem was
when people saw I was a fighter of high level in Jiu-Jitsu, many would
not accept the fight. I took fights when I could, but they were always
against people far more experienced in MMA than I. Today I don’t care
as much because I’m so well trained and already have a little more
experience. At the beginning, it was very difficult though.
DW: How do you think that facing such steep competition early in your
career changed you as a fighter?
LS: On one hand it was good, because I saw what they were doing well
and could tell what I should be doing. While it certainly made me a
better fighter, the losses are on my record and today it counts a lot.
Despite these losses, I feel more mature and a better fighter because
I’ve seen the worst up close.
DW: Since your last fight with Maxi Blanco fell through, will that be
your next fight in Sengoku? Is there anyone else on their roster you’d
like to face?
LS: I had a neck injury that took me out of the event. I think
everyone in Japan wants to see this fight, and when I return I think
this will be my next opponent. My first fight against Yokota was hotly
contested because I controlled the whole fight then in the final
moments my opponent tried something. I assumed I had won, as did many
others, so when they gave him the victory I was very sad.
In a rematch I’m sure I would fight better and end the fight with a
better result, so I would like to consider that fight in the future. I
think my first fight back will be Maxi, but I don’t care who my
opponent is. I want to be the champion in Sengoku — and if I want this
— I can’t pick my fights.
DW: Are you interested in joining your team mates Jose Aldo, Amilcar
Alves, and Wagnney Fabiano by coming to the states and fighting in the
LS: As a fighter, I want to fight were the top competition is, and
right now that place is the UFC. Before, my dream was to fight for
Pride, but today I certainly would like to be inside the UFC’s Octagon.
DW: How do you think you would match up with some of their lightweight
LS: The UFC has the best fighters in the world. I don‘t know exactly
how I would do, but I think I have many great training partners and a
good team of coaches that would get me ready for a war in the Octagon.
DW: Is there anyone in particular you’d like to fight, or enjoy
watching in the octagon?
LS: I really like watching B.J. [Penn] fight, and I trained with him
for a long time at Nova Uniao. He was always very good, but it has
been very cool to see what he has become. I am very happy to see him
winning in the UFC. I also like to watch GSP, as my brother was his
first teacher. I knew him before entering the UFC, and GSP is a good
person who deserves to be where he is.
DW: What should MMA fans expect from Leo Santos in the future?
LS: You can always expect the best of me, because I train a lot and I
go into every fight prepared to win and put on a show for my fans and
friends. Thank God for giving me my health to keep me training and
fighting. Thanks to all my team at Nova Uniao and to all my friends
by Dallas Winston