Ribeiro and Aoki in a rare ground exchange. Photo via DREAM.
For fans of MMA grappling, DREAM's July 2009 event at the Saitama Super Arena promised something special. Shinya Aoki, the best fighter in Japan, a superlative submission artist didn't just choke guys out - he did it with style and panache. Vitor Ribeiro was less flashy, but one of the very best jiu jitsu players in the world, a three time world champion who finished the majority of his fights by submission, mostly with his wicked arm triangle that had spelled doom for Joachim Hansen and six others. The expected exchange on the ground had many salivating. And then, as it seems to do sometimes when evenly matched grapplers collide, a bad kickboxing match broke out.
"It was disappointing. But that fight made me learn a lot," Ribeiro told Bloody Elbow in an exclusive interview. "Things aren't always the way we want them. I trained a lot on the ground, on escaping from kneebars and leglocks. Everything you can do to a knee or a foot, I trained a lot. It's so funny, against other fighters he gets it to the ground with takedowns or pulling guard. With me this wasn't going to work. He's smart. He did a great job. I didn't go to the ground where I would feel very comfortable. That's the fight. He was smarter in that fight. If I get the chance some day, to fight against him again, for sure I can do better. I hope I can do better."
The fight with Aoki was an eye opener for the Brazilian veteran who realized, only after the fact, what the opportunity could have meant for his career. Instead of main events in Japan and a starring role in Strikeforce, he was in the middle of the pack again, fighting to get back to the top.
"Against Aoki I really expected another kind of fight. He tried to keep me away and kick my elbow all the time. It's hard because I lost. I lost a great opportunity in my life. I didn't measure how much a win would be good for me. I lost and I don't want to feel that thing again. I had a big chance in my hand and to lose - I want to make sure it's not going to happen again," Ribeiro said. "So now, even if the guy is a wrestler or a grappler I will be ready for the fight to go anywhere. I will do my strategy. I'm training right now to do all things they might do. That's my strategy now."
It's this new strategy that has caused Ribeiro to rethink everything about the game, including his influences. When asked about his favorite fighters and role models, jiu jitsu stalwarts aren't the first names to roll off of his tongue. Instead it's a wrestler that has continued to evolve his game over time.
"If I think about one guy that I always admired and always watched when I started fighting, his name is Randy Couture. He started fighting a little older and in his first fights he proved he was a very smart fighter," Ribeiro said. Even when pressed on his favorite amongst jiu jitsu pioneers, he chose Renzo Gracie, the most diverse talent from the famous fighting family. But it was Couture who was on his mind. "If you ask about Gracie, for sure I think Gracie is very important for the whole of MMA. But if I had to choose one special guy I would say Randy Couture. Royce, Renzo, Rickson, I think those guys did great too. But I always watched Couture. He's the kind of guy looking for the ground doing things I really liked. And I admire him too. There's a reason I said his name...My coach too (Andre Pederneiras). My coach always gave me a lot of support when I first started MMA. After teaching me submission and jiu jitsu, he started training me for MMA. He always trained me very well and always gave me the right answer to my questions. He really gave me a lot of support to keep going."
Ribeiro may have focused on a newly diverse game a little too much in an upset loss against Lyle Beerbohm earlier this year, a bout fought mainly on his feet. Against AKA wrestler Justin Wilcox this Friday on Showtime in the Strikeforce Challengers main event, Riberiro may not control whether the fight remains standing or if techniques are exchanged on the ground. Either way, he'll be ready.
"If a guy wants to fight on the feet, we're going to fight on the feet for three rounds or whatever," the confident Brazilian said. "I'm not going to expect just one thing."
After the break, enjoy some of Ribeiro's most famous fights
Shinya Aoki Vitor Ribeiro 1/2 (via lsydogma01)
Shinya Aoki Vitor Ribeiro 2/2 (via lsydogma01)
Joachim Hansen vs. Vitor Ribeiro (via JustinThoj)
Mitsuhiro Ishida vs. Vitor "Shaolin" Ribeiro part 2 (via newmexicoone)
Mitsuhiro Ishida vs. Vitor "Shaolin" Ribeiro part 3 (via newmexicoone)
Vitor "Shaolin" Ribeiro vs. Tatsuya Kawajiri (1st fight) (2 of 2) (via PedroLMariano3)