It’s Sunday night in Vila Isabel and the streets of the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood are nearly empty. Heavy autumn showers dampen the stony black and white sidewalks, which resemble the bars of an orchestra’s sheet music. The curvy pebbled notes form a footpath on 28th of September Boulevard that lead to the local samba school. Outside the arena’s blue and white gates, people line up under rickety umbrellas. The crowd isn’t here to sing and dance though, they have come to watch amateur and professional athletes from nearby favelas compete in the Lutando Pela Paz (which translates to “Fighting for Peace”) Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Tournament.

Two teenage boys enter the ring, shirtless with cushioned head gear. After greeting each other with a light touch of the gloves, the battle is on. In a surprise move, the smaller fighter comes out strong delivering a series of jabs that knock his opponent to the ground within minutes.

A medic checks on a fighter who was knocked out in the ring during the “Lutando Pela Paz” tournament. (Photo by Rafael Fabres).

As the judges declare the winner, the crowd goes wild. The free admission has packed the arena with aficionados and favela residents watching their sons, neighbors and siblings in the ring. A man in a black t-shirt and baseball cap sits in a wheelchair in the front row smiling. This is Will Ribeiro, retired prizefighter, olympian, coach and organizer of the LPP tournament.

“I began teaching in favelas about six years ago during a time when there was a lot of tension between the ‘people’ who operated here,” Ribeiro says, in a soft raspy voice barely audible in the loud arena. 

The “people” Ribeiro refers to are powerful drug gangs, who controlled the region’s favelas for decades often engaging in violent confrontations with each other and with the police.  

“That’s why we came up with the idea of hosting this tournament, to promote peace through sport,” Ribeiro says. “I think they trusted me because I had a proven career as a professional fighter. I wasn’t a police officer or a gangster.” 

FIGHTING FOR HIS LIFE

Ribeiro, 32, grew up in the Rio de Janeiro suburb of Campo Grande. He was one of four siblings raised by a single mother on a minimum wage salary which barely covered basic expenses.

Ribeiro (right) poses with Jordan Drumond, one of the LPP’s sponsors (Photo by Rafael Fabres).

His older brother, Wladimir Alves, says Ribeiro was a shy and quiet kid who kept to himself. When he was 5-years-old, he discovered Taekwondo and got hooked on the world of martial arts.

“He literally broke out of his shell,” Alves says. “Practicing this activity gave him great strength and confidence.”

He soon added Muay Thai and boxing to his regimen and began training regularly. By the time he was 17, Ribeiro was part of Brazil’s Olympic boxing team.

As his career began to take off, tragedy hit at home. His mother, Tereza Cristina, passed away. She was HIV positive and died of a mix of complications caused by the virus. The loss hit the family hard and left the siblings heartbroken and in debt.

Subsequently, Ribeiro began training as a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter. The sport was booming and Brazilian athletes were in high demand, building lucrative careers abroad. He was recruited by some of the country’s top gyms and practiced with star fighters like Anderson “Spider” Silva.

Trophies line a table in the Vila Isabel arena. Fighters are competing for R$300 (US$100), the tournament’s top prize (Photo by Rafael Fabres).

On June 1, 2008, Ribeiro made his debut in the World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) circuit. He arrived to the California matchup with a 9-1 record and defeated American fighter Chase Beebe in the bantamweight category by split decision.

“He returned to Brazil from that fight feeling like a champion,” Alves recalls. “Will was on top of the world.”

In December of that same year, Ribeiro made his second appearance in the WEC ring and lost in the final round. The fight was a blow to his confidence and MMA record, but no one expected it would be his last.

Two weeks later, he was flung off his motorcycle by a speeding taxi in Rio de Janeiro. He wasn’t wearing a helmet and wound up in a coma. Upon awakening, the 135 lb athlete had lost 30% of his skull and was hemiplegic.

“I don’t remember much from that night,” Ribeiro says. “But I know I’m lucky to be alive.”

His brother and sister moved in with Ribeiro after he left the hospital and became his primary caretakers. Because the accident occurred outside the ring, none of his bills were covered by his team or fighting commissions. His treatment consumed most of his prize money and he was broke. 

“Before the crash, he had all these people around him: promoters, girlfriends, coaches,” Alves says. “Suddenly, he was alone. Someone needed to be there for Will.”

Alves (middle) and athletes competing in LPP tournament stand for Brazilian national anthem (Photo by Rafael Fabres)

BATTLING FOR PEACE

In mid-to-late 2010, Rio de Janeiro was experiencing tense times. As the city was preparing for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, officials launched an aggressive campaign to squeeze out armed drug traffickers operating within some favelas. 

The offensive led to a pact between two rival factions which teamed up to terrorize the city, especially in the northern zone, where they had the most control and where the Maracanã football stadium (host of the World Cup final and several other matches) is located. Violent shootouts occurred on a near-daily basis between gangs and police. 

The residents of the region’s favelas were terrified. In Macacos, bandidos shot a police helicopter out of the sky killing two officers on board. In Formiga, dozens were injured by stray bullets. In Andaraí, a 47-year-old man was killed when an officer from Rio’s BOPE elite squad confused a drill with a machine gun and shot him. 

During this time, Ribeiro was living in the surrounding neighborhood of Grajaú and recovering. Regular physical therapy sessions helped him regain some mobility on the right side of his body. He was in a wheelchair, but could stand with the help of a cane. His vision was still impaired in one eye and he had trouble speaking.

Will Ribeiro had a 9-2-0 record before being paralyze in 2008. He was known for his takedown and punching power (Photo by Rafael Fabres).

Ribeiro tried to re-enter the MMA world as a trainer or coach, but nobody would hire him. Many sympathetic to his condition helped with donations and loans, while others turned their back on him.

“No gym wanted me in my condition,” he says. “When I would come in, all they would see is the wheelchair.”

That year, he was invited to be a guest judge during an MMA tournament in the BOPE’s headquarters. At the end of the event, he was approached by Captain Ivan Blaz who was developing a training program for favela youths.

 In order to help with the commute and manage his classes, Alves quit his job as an event promoter and set up Lutando Pela Paz with his brother. The two would migrate to several different neighborhoods and favelas teaching classes, until they found a home in Andaraí. 

ANOTHER ROUND BEYOND THE RING

Nearly 10,000 people live in Andaraí, a favela built in the 1930s during the city’s agricultural boom. The lush landscape was originally used for grazing cattle until the mid-nineteenth centuries, when farming families were forced out due to the industrial boom. Its name comes from the Tupi (an indigenous language spoken by the Tamoio tribe) expression “Andirá-y” which means “River of Bats.” 

Most of Andaraí’s current residents are descendants of the northeastern migration from the 1950s and ‘60s, when hundreds of thousands moved to the country’s industrial capital in search of new opportunities.  A lack of state investment or involvement made it susceptible to drug gangs, and it soon joined the ring of “dominated” favelas in the early ‘80s.

In July 2010, Andaraí was one of the first favelas in Rio’s northern zone to be included in the new police pacification program (UPP), a public safety initiative designed to limit crime and strengthen the ties between the community and the state by placing officers on permanent rotations inside the neighborhoods. 

In addition to bringing 200 officers to the neighborhood, a workout facility was built in the back of the police station which has now become Ribeiro and Alves’ new classroom.” 

“We used to have just a handful of students,” Alves says, as he briefly checked his notebook. “Now we have nearly 179 people registered with us.”

Ribeiro (left) yells out drills to MMA class in favela Andaraí (Photo by Rafael Fabres).

The classes are held three times a week and are free to the favela. On a recent Friday evening, the blue tatami was packed with barefoot pupils staggered between punching bags. As students arrived, they saluted Ribeiro with a bow and tossed their shoes in a pile before stepping onto the mat.

Training begins at 8:00 pm sharp and Ribeiro dominates the room. Push-ups, jumping jacks, laps and punching drills are all part of the sixty-minute workout. With the help of a wireless mike, he yells out commands which are carried out in synch by the class. As he stands on the edge of the mat, he secures himself by holding onto a metal gate. Although Ribeiro has dozens of tattoos, the one on his forearm is the one that stands out. The name “Tereza Cristina” is written in large cursive letters. 

“This was my mother, the most important person in the world for me who supported me throughout my career,” Ribeiro says as he notices me looking. “She always fought for me to be the best, so I demand the same from my kids (referring to his students).”

A TINY KNOCK OUT

Angelo Gabriel de Souza has been practicing with Ribeiro since 2011. On the surface, the skinny 12-year-old seems quiet and shy, but as soon as he steps into the octagon he morphs into a fierce competitor.

During the LPP tournament in Vila Isabel, Souza was the one who defeated the boy with a sharp hook in the first round.  It was the third knock-out of his short career and earned him a medal, championship belt and the nickname of “Pitbull” in the favela.

Angelo Gabriel de Souza, 12, already has three knock-outs under his belt and is training to be an MMA fighter. He is referred to as the “Pitbull of Andaraí.”

“At first I started practicing just for fun, to fill my time. But then I got really into it,” Souza says, as he shows off his prize belt. “Now people recognize me in the street, they say I’m a champion.”

Ribeiro and Alves both have high hopes for Souza and believe he could become a Muay Thai black belt before he reaches 20. However, they are struggling to keep the Lutando Pela Paz afloat. 

“It was very difficult to organize this last tournament,” Ribeiro confesses. “We are looking for sponsors now in order to make the 6th edition possible but it’s been tough.”

Alves says he has been contacting everyone in Ribeiro’s old rolodex to recruit financiers who can help purchase gloves, wraps and other necessary equipment. The only possibility they are not willing to accept is charging the favela’s residents a participation fee.

“That would go against everything we have built here, even though people have offered,” Alves says. “It would simply go against our philosophy.” 

As Ribeiro sits back in his wheelchair, a girl in a pink Minnie Mouse t-shirt comes up to him and gives him a kiss on the cheek and tight hug. Her brother is in his class and she is hoping to sign up next month. 

“These are the moments that make it all worth it,” Ribeiro says, as the girl wheels him towards me. “These kids brought me back to life.”