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 inexperienced grappler.
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 important titles. The first was the World Championships my first time. I was 15 yeard old and winning the adult category. The black belt and the GP was the most important in the black belt. I won all my fights, and none scored 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 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 Jiu-Jitsu?
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 make?
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 fighter.
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 career?
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 UFC?
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 fighters?
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 and fans.