Disney World has a reputation for making dreams come true. Whether in California, Florida, Paris, or Japan, millions flock to the theme parks every year for that special moment. For Vitor "Shaolin" Ribeiro it was no different. Already a three time world jiu jitsu champion, the Nova Uniao blackbelt wrote his name in the MMA history books at the Tokyo Bay NK Hall, a 7,000 seat arena at the Tokyo Disney Resort.
"It was 2003, a really long time ago. This really changed my life a lot," Ribeiro told Bloody Elbow in an exclusive interview. "Of all the fighters in the rankings I'm the first. It was so nice. I really used that situation pretty good to try to spread my name around the world. It was such a great thing, because that was my goal in MMA. I won three times the world championship in Jiu Jitsu. And then I won that belt, a belt that was so important in 2003. I fought against (Joachim) Hansen, a very tough guy, a few months after he beat (Takanori) Gomi. Gomi had come from so many title defenses. Hansen is a very nice guy and we got along well after that fight. We worked a great strategy, me and my coach, working jiu jitsu a lot without having to exchange punches with him. Even on the ground, because he hits very strong. This was very successful, a very successful year for me. Good times."
For Ribeiro the good times have rolled in a very successful fighting career, but the good times, more often than not, have come far from the bright lights of the UFC and PRIDE. That's why, while long time fans know and respect his legacy, many new fans greet his name with a blank stare. Shaolin was the top lightweight in the world before that mattered much to more than the most intense hardcore fans.
"SHOOTO was the best organization for lightweights in the world at the time. The UFC was not so organized and other shows didn't have a lightweight division. So all the lightweights in the world wanted to fight in SHOOTO. Most of those guys, like Caol Uno, Gomi, Hansen, Kawajiri, a lot of guys fought there for the belt," Ribeiro remembered. "A long time ago I think it was a very good show. A lot of adrenaline, because at the time, the Japanese were the best in the lightweight division. Right now, for sure, the Americans have so many good names. But a long time ago we only thought about Japanese guys like Rumina Sato. It was a good experience. I really liked spending a couple of years in Japan, a couple of years in England. It was a good background for me."
Eventually SHOOTO faded as a force in the sport. The year end shows were already diminished, no longer the spectaculars featuring top foreign stars like Randy Couture or Frank Shamrock. As fighters slowly departed the venerable organization for PRIDE's Bushido series, Ribeiro too set his sites on new opportunities with Cage Rage in England.
"Money was a little bit not good and it took too long between fights in SHOOTO," Ribeiro said. "I was so young, and really hungry to fight. That's the reason I started doing more fights in Cage Rage. Nothing bad with SHOOTO, but a long time ago I had an open contract and it was easy for me to travel a little bit and then compete."
After the Break: Ribeiro eyes a return to form in Strikeforce.
Ribeiro found succes in England while Cage Rage struggled to keep up with a sudden international competition from the UFC. But Japan was still the engine that drove lightweight MMA and a return was inevitable. He battled the best, coming up short against the sport's elite, but never casting any doubt he was competitive with anyone in the world (see Bloody Elbow this week for Ribeiro's lessons learned).
It seemed, though, that things had stalled in Japan. The real action was overseas and Ribeiro realized that the future of the sport (and the lightweight division) is here in America. Now living in New York and operating a jiu jitsu school in Manhattan, the Brazilian knew that he needed to establish himself in his adopted home before he could once again challenge the best.
When considering options in America, Ribeiro focused in like a lazer on Strikeforce. After all, the San Jose based promotion would allow him to continue fighting in Japan while testing the waters in the States.
"The relationship between DREAM and Strikeforce was very important. I've followed Strikeforce from a long, long time ago. When the guys asked me 'You want to try?' I didn't think twice," Ribeiro said. "I wanted to try a different thing and I always like to fight here in the United States. I started my career here and now I am back. I think that division has great fighters like Gilbert. He showed that in his fight against Aoki, he really dominated him. I've followed him for a long time too, he fought in SHOOTO too."
Before he can earn his shot at Melendez and Strikeforce gold, Ribeiro has to prove he's still relevant. A loss to Lyle Beerbohm in May in a controversial split decision gave many pause about a fighter most expected to immediately challenge Strikeforce's best. Ribeiro knows he has a lot to prove against Justin Wilcox on Friday in the main event of the latest in a series of entertaining Strikeforce Challengers cards.
"My goal is to keep fighting. To start doing well this next time and see what guys they offer me later. I'm really training very well for this fight and will try to do my job as best I can," Shaolin said. He'll be preparing without the support of his famous Nova Uniao brethren however, as the top fighters from his team stayed behind in Brazil this time around.
"I almost brought Marlon Sandro, but it didn't work well because he has a fight in December. I brought Gabriel Miglioli from Brazil, he's a very strong guy in wrestling and boxing. And a couple days a week I meet all the guys from AMA. Jim Miller, Dan Miller and a couple of guys. Charlie Brenneman and some guys with a nice background in wrestling to make sure I am used to that game. We have a couple of guys from Michigan here too, to train jiu jitsu in my school. I believe for this fight it has been amazing I have been able to get a good camp in. My school has started to do pretty good without me - so I've really focused myself on this fight. I train twice a day, one time Saturday, rest Sunday. Those guys (Nova Uniao) are all in Brazil right now. But it still worked well, because the friendship I have with Dan Miller, Jim Miller, is pretty good. It's a nice exchange of knowledge. A very tough wrestler and a really top fighter, so we can exchange good things together. My coach is going to come in too, so it will be me Gabriel, and (coach Andre Pedernairas) Dede together for my fight."
Tomorrow, Shaolin recalls the lessons learned from his most famous losses, exclusively on Bloody Elbow.