There is no form of life you shouldn't expect in the Amazon jungle. Millions of different insects, more than a thousand species of birds and every amphibian you can imagine all call the rain forest home. From the electric eel to the jaguar, the natural predators are staggeringly beautiful— and dangerous.
But for all this bio diversity, one creature stands out, one that never belonged alone, starving and desperate in the world's least forgiving environment. The jungle is no place for a seven-year-old boy.
It's not like Bibiano Fernandes, the best fighter in the world not plying his trade in the UFC Octagon, didn't know hardship before his life stranded him and four siblings in the Amazon to fend for themselves. The jiu jitsu star grew up, after all, in the slums of Manaus, Brazil.
A city of more than two million souls, incongruously perched in the middle of the vast sea of trees, Manaus is home to both astounding beauty and unspeakable poverty. Fernandes didn't know much about the beauty. The famous Opera house was not for the likes of him, and the life of leisure enjoyed by the tourists who used Manaus as their homebase for treks into the jungle was completely foreign to his young mind.
But the poverty? That was burned into him from the start. It was a life of toil and hardship that somehow managed to deteriorate dramatically when his mother died when Bibiano was only seven. She was the rock of the household. Without her, his father was lost. Desperately poor, completely ill equipped to raise a family on his own, according to Fernandes his father did what made sense to him at the time—abandoned his children to make their own way in the world.
"He explained to me that he had no choice. 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," Fernandes told Bleacher Report in an exclusive email interview. "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."
Initially, the Fernandes kids scraped by on the streets, joining an ever increasing contingent of cast aways, beggars and cons. Finding food and shelter was a full- time job, one that got harder and harder with time. Soon they found themselves just a few miles down the road but a world away. Soon he was living in the jungle.
Life, it turned out, was much the same there. The game was still survival. The odds were still long.
"It was mainly just looking for food. 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," Fernandes said. Some days all he would eat were a few slices of fruit. Other days there were great slabs of meat. "We ate whatever we found. We would hunt and gather food. Shelter was built from trees and branches."
As time passed, the lessons of the civilized world faded away. Reading and writing? As Fernandes tells it, those were the tools of another life.
"You forget after being away for so long," Fernandes said simply, the topic still one that can trouble him even decades later. "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."
It was an illness that saved him. Only a brush with death could return him to his life.
"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."
The rest reads almost like a fairy tale. Still abjectly poor, Fernandes found jiu jitsu while cleaning car windows outside a local dojo. Impressed with his moxie, some of the athletes invited him to check out was was happening on the tatami mats within. What he saw fascinated him.
Jiu jitsu, however, is still in many ways a rich man's sport in Brazil. But after surviving what he survived, there was nothing that could stop Fernandes from pursuing a goal. After the Amazon, everything is easy. Fernandes became a presence at the dojo, regularly watching from the sidelines. People take note of passion, and often reward it.
"I could not afford to join. It was only after a friend volunteered to pay for me did I get into it," Fernandes said. "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."
To say he had a knack for it would be an understatement of absurd proportions. Within two weeks he had won a competition as a white belt. In just months Fernandes was holding his own with top students.
"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," Fernandes said, rationalizing his success. "My coach made it all happen and I just followed his instructions. It was a far journey but the experience was amazing."
Fernandes became, without exaggeration, one of the very best jiu jitsu players in the world. Under the tutelage of Faustino “Pina” Neto, he won three world championships as a black belt. He's lost just a handful of times in his entire career on the mat. Nicknamed "the Flash" for his tendency to finish fights quickly, Fernandes became a star in the world of competition jiu jitsu.
Naturally, the offers to compete in mixed martial arts came pouring in. Since the earliest days of the UFC, Brazilian jiu jitsu artists have dominated the world of MMA. From Royce Gracie in 1993 to today's champions across the world, jiu jitsu was, and remains, a building block for any serious fighter. A skilled player like Fernandes was a promising prospect right out of the gate.
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," Fernandes said. "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. There he broadened his horizons and won six in a row, eventually conquering the field in a featherweight tournament in Japan, a win that led many to proclaim him the best fighter in the world in his weight class.
Fernandes wasn't so sure.
"It was one of my highlights of my career. I was very happy, but I did not feel like just by winning that, I was at the top of the world," he said. "I know there is still competition out there so I have to get back to training as soon as I can and continue to improve to make sure I continue winning."
He'll continue to make his case for a spot among the world's best, but will do so outside of the UFC's famed Octagon. In 2012, it was announced he had signed with the Las Vegas based promotion. But those reports were premature. Instead, having built his career in Japan, Fernandes decided to stay in Asia, signing with the region's leading promotion, One FC.
"I was negotiating with several parties," Fernandes explained. "One FC provided me with the best option, and the way they have treated me so far has been great. One FC is the best organization outside of the United States. The events that they put on are absolutely amazing. They fill up stadiums with more than 10,000 people and the production quality is among the best I have ever seen. It feels surreal when you walk out to that arena. I love competing in Asia, and with the high standard of excellence that One FC delivers, I am able to."
Fernandes will fight Shooto veteran Koetsu Okazaki on May 31 in the Phillipines for One FC. They'll try to pack 20,000 people into the SM Mall of Asia Arena, part of the promotion's continued expansion throughout Asia. But whether or not they succeed, life is good for the 33-year-old fighter, much better than he could have ever imagined.
"I want to thank God for all I have. I never thought I will be where I am today," Fernandes said. "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."
Jonathan Snowden is the author of Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting. He's the lead combat sports writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes compiled firsthand unless noted.
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