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How Bibiano Fernandes escaped the jungle to become a martial arts great

Brazilian ONE world champion chats about his difficult journey to the top

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ONE Bantamweight Champion Bibiano “The Flash” Fernandes heads into ONE: IRON WILL riding a 13-bout win streak, is undefeated since December 2010 and is the most dominant champion in ONE Championship today.

And the 37-year-old is aiming to further cement his legacy when he puts his title on the line against two-weight champion Martin “The Situ-Asian” Nguyen in Bangkok on Saturday, 24 March.

“It is about challenges for me,” he told ONE Championship.

“For me, Nguyen is a challenge, and I need more challenges coming to me. Let’s see how good he is, let’s see how tough he is, let’s see how good his skills are. I want to see that.”

Fernandes is on top of the martial arts world, but had to work hard every step of the way. Growing up as a youngster in Manaus, Amazonas Fernandes lost his mother when he was just seven and, along with his five siblings, was sent by his father to live with their aunt deep in the Amazon Jungle, where they had to hunt and live off the land.

Life was tough, and became even tougher when he contracted malaria and very nearly died. But Fernandes always had greater things in his mind.

“In the jungle, I always thought, ‘I can do better,’” he explained.

“I had to get water, I had to help my aunt, I had to get the food and check on the fish. I had to do my job. Am I better than everybody? No. But I saw things differently.”

Eventually, Fernandes’ father returned to rescue him from the jungle, nurse him back to health and move him back home to Manaus.

Times were still tight, so Fernandes had to take on a number of jobs as a teenager in order to make ends meet.

It was during one of those jobs cleaning car windows that he found a martial arts gym that was teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Fernandes wanted to join, but didn’t have the money to afford a gym membership. But to his surprise, the coach made him a life-changing offer.

“I told the coach, ‘Listen, I do not have any money for training, I do not think I can train,’” he said.

“He told me, ’It is OK, just clean the gym.’ I went every day, cleaning the gym and helping him. I focused on jiu-jitsu and I met a lot of people. It is a community. It is because of my past that I am here today.”

It’s no exaggeration to say BJJ changed Fernandes’ life. He trained hard and had a natural aptitude for the art. He earned his black belt in 2002 and went on to win a host of major championships, including three IBJJF World Championships and three Pan-American Championships as a black belt.

“Jiu-jitsu is very important for the mind,” he said.

“It is very important for the body. I believe that jiu-jitsu helped me a lot. It is self-discipline.

“You need to have confidence in life for everything — for you to drive your car, for you to walk on the street, for you to speak to a girl – anything in life, and jiu-jitsu can give you that.

Now a martial arts champion, Fernandes’ jiu-jitsu remains a major tool in his armoury. Indeed, it helped him to secure two DREAM world titles and the ONE Bantamweight title. And most recently, his submission skills saw him score a tapout win over the latest challenger to his title, Bali MMA’s Andrew Leone.

Despite being 37 years of age, Fernandes is showing no signs of resting on his laurels or slowing down.

“A lot of people, when they reach a different level, lose their focus,” he explained.

“They think because they are a champion they can enjoy their life or slack off. I do not think like that. I think I can be better today, I can be better tomorrow, I can be better the next day.

“I know if I work hard and take care of myself, then I can take care of my family,” the champion says. “I am blessed because I got an opportunity to be a father. I can coach, and I can take care of my kids. That’s a blessing.”

Fernandes wants to be an example that coming from a difficult background doesn’t mean you should be tied to it. He is living proof that you can break free and achieve greatness.

“If your dad is an alcoholic, that does not mean you have to be an alcoholic,” he said.

“You teach your kids. Life is not built on the past – it is in the moment how you want to guide your kids.

“We can be better. We can do better. We can keep improving each other, and we can evolve.”

Interview by ONE Championship. Story by Simon Head.

Freelance sports writer and MMA reporter with 19 years’ experience in the UK's national media covering major sporting events including the FIFA World Cup, UEFA European Championships, Olympic Games, UFC world title fights, The Grand National and The FA Cup Final.

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