Fighting their way out of Brazil's slums

Rousimar Palhares comes from humble beginnings, but he's one of Brazil's MMA success stories. Courtesy Sherdog.com

In Brazil, where an estimated 50 million people live in favelas, or slums, children often dream of changing their lives through sports.

In years past, kids have aspired to follow in the footsteps of soccer idols like Romário and Ronaldo, both of whom were born in the Rio de Janeiro favelas. Nowadays, the popularity of mixed martial arts in Brazil and the growth of MMA's international market have attracted more athletes from these poor communities, who aim to become the next Wanderlei Silva, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira or Anderson Silva.

Growing up in Vila Cruzeiro at the Complexo do Alemão -- the most violent favela in Rio de Janeiro -- André Chatuba never lost sight of his goal to become a champion. Violence, poverty and the tempting proposals of drug dealers knocked constantly at his door. But today Chatuba is considered one of the biggest revelations in Brazil's 183-pound division.

"I was born and raised with many guys who went towards the wrong life," Chatuba said. "But I chose the path of being an athlete while they chose another way."

Chatuba began training in the style of Luta Livre ("free fight") thanks to a social project organized by Marcio Cromado Barbosa, founder of the RFT team. Chatuba was one of 120 local children who trained for free under Barbosa and one of his students at Renovation Fight Team's headquarters in the distant Botafogo district.

"Many times, I had to cancel traveling to my training because of confrontations between the police and the criminals close to my house," Chatuba said. "I felt like I was in a war zone. Young men who live here must have the willpower to not succumb to drug dealers' offers and follow the wrong path. I saw many friends who trained with me surrender. Today, many of them are dead or in jail."

The heroes of Santo Amaro

"I am Spider-Man, you are Marlon and he is Hacran."

In the slums on the hillside of Santo Amaro, a district close to downtown Rio de Janeiro, many children play by mashing up the heroes of fiction with their real-life counterparts. And why not? The heroes of their hometowns -- such as Marlon Sandro, already something of a local MMA legend -- fight and defeat everyday villains, such as hunger and violence.

Those villians were among the many Sandro faced as a child. Raised without a father, Sandro tried soccer as an escape. But at the age of 13, he inadvertently discovered his true calling when he knocked out a boy named "Capeta" on the pitch.

"Everybody was afraid of the guy," Sandro said.

A life in fighting was still a few years away. Working in a business office, the 17-year-old Sandro was introduced to Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend and Nova União team founder André Pederneiras. With the support of Pederneiras and fellow fighter Rafael Carino, Sandro persevered, amassing a 14-0 record and opening a free training facility for children.

"I want to give them the opportunity that I have not had," said Sandro, who despite recent wins in World Victory Road's Sengoku featherweight tournament in Japan, must supplement his income by working as a lifeguard to pay the rent. The facility, open since 2003, already has made a difference.

"It took many children away from crime life," Sandro said, "but I lost a boy who I thought would be a phenom. The kid ended up being murdered."

Follow the leader

Hacran Dias, Sandro's cousin and a star pupil at his training facility, started fighting at the age of 18.

"I always tried to follow the path of Marlon, never went to the other side and always wanted to have the opportunity to train with Nova União," Dias said.

At first, Dias had to juggle his training with odd jobs.

"Sometimes, I wouldn't eat lunch so that I could leave earlier and get to training in the afternoon," said Dias, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt with an 11-0-1 record. He made his Japanese debut against Takafumi Ito in the Pancrase promotion on March 26. "I was sure of what I wanted for my life."

Eduardo Dantas, another of Sandro's young fighters, already is internationally recognized. Born in Santo Amaro, Dantas started jiu-jitsu training when he was 13. He was training for MMA with Vitor Ribeiro and the entire top team of Nova União by age 18.

That same year, Dantas won his first fight against Luta Livre black belt William Porfirio, then defeated two more black belts. Only 19, Dantas is ranked No. 1 in Shooto Brazil and has even tasted victory in Japan's Shooto organization.

"Today I live 100 percent for MMA," said Dantas, who idolizes Wanderlei Silva. "Unfortunately, I've only fought two events this year; I would like our country to have more events, like in the United States and Japan. I want to fight, and when I stop, I want to teach jiu-jitsu and MMA."

Milk money

While many fighters divide their time between work and the training academy, Julian "Jabá" Soares supports his two children solely through MMA earnings. It wasn't always that way for the Barbosa-trained black belt.

"I woke up at midnight every day and worked up until 7 a.m. delivering newspapers," said Soares, a resident of the Babilônia favela in Copacabana. "Then I went straight to my cardio class at RFT, trained and went back home to take care of my children. I just slept a little, from 7 p.m. until midnight."

On one occasion, when Soares had no one to look after his children, he had to take them to a fight in the Rio das Pedras slum. He knocked out his opponent and embraced his crying children in the center of the ring.

"Knowing that my children were there watching me increased my appetite to win," said Soares, who has won eight fights between 170 and 176 pounds. "I came in the ring to kill or to die."

It wasn't all that different in Soares' community in June 2007, when a war among drug dealers brought terror to the streets.

"From 7 p.m. on, there were rifle shots all during the night," he said. "But the walls of my living room are very thick. We slept in the living room and we stayed quiet until the noise ended."

Like Soares, Brazilian Top Team black belt William Porfirio is no stranger to the violence: The teacher who introduced him to MMA was recently killed. And Porfirio, who lives in the favelas of Morro dos Macacos, also has two children to care for.

"I work vigilantly for my tips as a taxi driver," Porfirio said, "because I can't get the milk for the children with just MMA."

Shady promoters

If you've seen "The Incredible Hulk," you have an idea of the dimensions of the Rocinha favela, the largest in Latin America with some 120,000 inhabitants. In the film, David Banner lived there while hiding out in Rio de Janeiro.

The real Rocinha was shown only in aerial images, because the scenes of persecution in the film had to take place in another favela -- one of the few in Rio where the power of drug dealers isn't so great. But even in Rocinha, as in many of the 730 favelas in Rio, the criminals gain increasing influence.

Fascinated by vale tudo, which attracts more practitioners in Rocinha every day, the drug dealers decided to promote the Rocinha Fight event on Aug. 2. Before the event, media professionals were told by organizers that under no circumstances were they to take pictures of the VIP area. There, near the ring, sat the favela "owners."

The favela in Rio das Pedras may be one of the few not dominated by drug dealers, but the "militias" -- ex-policemen who charge residents a fee for blocking the entry of drug dealers -- promote their own MMA events. Eduardo Pachú was the star of two shows held there. His impressive victories catapulted Pachú into the Fury Fighting Championship lightweight tournament, which, in turn, could lead to international opportunities.

"I believe more events will emerge in Brazil, in the favelas and other places," Pachú said. "We have many talented people but only a few events for them."

And with those promotions' being organized by militia and drug dealers, ultimately the sport, its fighters and its fans lose.

Success stories

Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Rousimar "Toquinho" Palhares stand as examples of Brazilian fighters who rose from poor origins to succeed in the U.S. and Japan.

During his childhood in Espirito Santo, Souza often turned to petty crime. After his best friend was murdered, Souza's mother sent him to Manaus, where he met jiu-jitsu instructor Henrique Machado, who took the boy under his wing. With good genetics and a strong desire to succeed, Souza flourished under Machado's leadership. He since has become one of the great jiu-jitsu champions and has made a successful transition to MMA. Souza will take on Jason "Mayhem" Miller for the vacant Dream middleweight championship on May 26.

Palhares took a similarly rocky path to MMA. As a child, he and his 12 brothers staved off starvation by eating pigs' feed. He often slept under a bridge in Rio de Janeiro, where his dream of becoming a fighter was born.

Taken in by Brazilian Top Team, Palhares moved into a small room with two other fighters. They were hired by the team in the Cruzada Sao Jorge community, which was located behind their training center.

"It was perfect for me," Palhares said, "because I didn't miss any training."

Palhares was recently forced to withdraw from a UFC 102 bout with Alessio Sakara after he broke his leg. He has never been knocked out or submitted, and owns a 2-1 mark inside the Octagon. He submitted Ivan Salaverry in his UFC debut in May 2008, dropped a unanimous decision to two-time Olympian Dan Henderson at UFC 88 and outpointed Jeremy Horn four months ago at UFC 93.

Struggling fighters have plenty of inspiration when it comes to MMA. Reigning UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, a man many view as the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world, believes prospective mixed martial artists should take their time and develop their skills.

"Money, success … it may or may not come fast, and you can get frustrated," he said. "I never looked forward to being rich and famous. MMA is a sport that's growing. We have great athletes, many talents. The same thing happened in soccer. It's the globalization of the sport. We're exporting many athletes, and they're earning their spots."

"MMA is growing a lot in Brazil," said Antonio Nogueira, who has held heavyweight crowns in UFC and Pride. "In the United States, it's already one of the most popular sports. The more Brazilians win there, the more opportunities there will be for young fighters here. The deal is to focus. Whoever can train and achieve good results will have their place in the sun."

Marcelo Alonso is a contributor to Sherdog.com. Eduardo Ferreira contributed to this report.