Bibiano Fernandes is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best fighter outside the UFC.
Fighters coming from an underprivileged background is so common it is beyond cliche. However, Fernandes, rose up far higher from far lower than anyone in the history of the sport.
As reported by Jonathan Snowden, author of Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting and lead combat sports writer for Bleacher Report, Fernandes started as a homeless child in Manaus, Brazil and the surrounding jungle.
Fernandes' mother died when he was just seven, and his father was ill-equiped to care for five children, and so Fernandes and his siblings were abandoned.
He credits the experience for a career that has seen him win the Mundials three times in the black belt division, win the DREAM FC DREAM featherweight and bantamweight titles, and earned a shot at Koetsu Okazaki for the Interim ONE FC bantamweight championship at ONE FC 9: Rise to Power on May 31.
"He explained to me that he had no choice," said Fernandes. "I understood his decision. There were five of us kids and we all went because it was too much for him to handle on his own after my mother's death. It was not easy and looking back, I'm really surprised I managed to go through that. I constantly searched for food to keep myself going."
Soon they found themselves just a few miles down the road but a world away. Soon he was living in the jungle.
"It was mainly just looking for food," said Fernandes. "Hunting and scavenging. Me and a few of the other people also took care of our shelter to make sure we at least had a roof to protect us from the environment. We ate whatever we found. We would hunt and gather food. Shelter was built from trees and branches."
"I was there for about three years. I'm not really sure the exact number of years and it all seems like such a surreal experience now."
"I went years without seeing him while I was in the Amazon," Fernandes said of his father. "I had malaria on several occasions. I almost died. My father decided enough is enough and asked me to return to the city... I have no regrets about my past. I know my father did what he thought was best for us and I don't have any hard feelings towards him. Life in the jungle made me strong and taught me many life skills some people will never experience."
Fernandes found jiu jitsu while cleaning car windows outside a local dojo.
"I could not afford to join. It was only after a friend volunteered to pay for me did I get into it," said Fernandes. "My coach saw the potential and after the first month, allowed me to train for free if I cleaned up the gym every night. I loved everything about it, the competition, the knowledge, the technique, the mental battles. It was just so exciting to me and even today, I still love every second of Brazilian jiu jitsu."
"I think the time spent (in the jungle) made me a stronger person which benefits me when I compete as I don't give up. My coach made it all happen and I just followed his instructions. It was a far journey but the experience was amazing."
Keen to test himself against the best, Fernandes jumped immediately into the deep end—and drowned. Kid Yamamoto was the best featherweight in Japan. Urijah Faber occupied the same place in the pecking order in America. Fernandes fell to both in his second and third pro fights respectively.
"When I fought them, I never really had proper striking coaches," said Fernandes. "I just wanted to test my Brazilian jiu jitsu against other martial arts. I learned from that experience that to be the best, I have to round off my game to incorporate everything and not just focus on BJJ."
The losses led Fernandes to Canada, where he lives in Vancouver and frequently trains with famed MMA coach Matt Hume at AMC Pankration in Seattle, Washington. He has now won six in a row.
"I want to thank God for all I have. I never thought I will be where I am today," said Fernandes. "Life now is amazing compared to my childhood. I have a beautiful wife and three beautiful children. I have a good job, a nice home. I can't ask for more."
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