These days, Nova União is best known for producing MMA kingpins like José Aldo, Marlon Sandro, Thales Leites, Vítor “Shaolin”, among others. There was a time, though, when the team was one of sport Jiu-Jitsu’s superpowers, producing spectacles of fervent team spirit unmatched in gentle art tournaments these days – fueled by a fierce but kosher rivalry with team Gracie Barra. But the outfit has been a bastion of equal opportunity throughout – where the privileged and less-than-privileged alike vie on even terms for first-team spots and berths in MMA events; and where solidarity between teammates from different socioeconomic backgrounds has given rise to activism in the form of community-service projects in the various needy neighborhoods where or near where they reside.
Such is the case with Sengoku champion Marlon Sandro, whose project teaching Jiu-Jitsu to youths in his home of the Santo Amaro favela has already bore fruit with the likes of Eduardo “Dudu” Dantas, a rising star in the Brazilian mixed martial arts scene, and José “Polenguinho” Dias, who has been wreaking havoc in the adult blue belt division as a seventeen-year-old. Fabio Andrade (recently featured here on GRACIEMAG.com) is another whose volunteer work is helping young members of his community to find prospects through Jiu-Jitsu. And team leader André Pederneiras has long been involved in the poorer dwellings surrounding the Flamengo neighborhood where he grew up – a number of the beneficiaries now figure among the team’s standouts –, while his friend from way back Nonato Machado’s own project in Manaus pointed outstanding athletes like José Aldo, Marcos “Loro”, Arlisson “Kiki” Melo, and George Clay in the right direction during their formative years. Then there’s our GMA Gustavo Dantas, who regularly holds food drives for the underprivileged in the Arizona, USA, community where he lives and from where he also helps raise funds for the “Tatame Legal” project of his old friend Master Babu back in Rio de Janeiro.
Like so many other goodwill projects where experts volunteer to teach Jiu-Jitsu in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, Tatame Legal (“Cool Mat,” loosely translated) is meant to provide guidance and opportunity for young people. But Tatame Legal is, in fact, truly unique. Founded just two years ago by Fabiano “Babu” Freitas – or simply “Master”, as his students at the Nova União early-morning class he has been teaching ever since he was a purple belt affectionately call him –, the project is actually the offshoot of an endeavor undertaken long ago, when Babu and others resuscitated the Boy and Girl Scouts program of Morro Azul, a low-income community overlooking the neighborhood of Flamengo so far the only favela where scouting is practiced in the state of Rio de Janeiro; and all fifty children and teenagers who attend his Tuesday- and Thursday-evening classes in the community nursery are boy or girl scouts.
“The idea is to provide them opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. By learning Jiu-Jitsu they will have several options: they can pursue careers as fighters, competitors; they can go on to teach the art; or they will have a head start should they decide to work in physical education,” says Babu, who himself specialized in physical education, becoming the first member of his family to earn a college degree. “As they were all in the scout troop, it was easy to gauge their interest in the sport and put together the group,” he remarks, playing down the effort it took to bring his project to pass.
Money is always an issue when trying to bring a volunteer project to fruition, but more than a decade’s experience leading a Boy Scout troop in a community short on funds has made the thirty-seven-year-old quite resourceful. And the friends and respect he has garnered in over fifteen years teaching Jiu-Jitsu didn’t hurt either.
He explains how it all started, in apparent disbelief at how smoothly it came together – and quick to give props to those who helped make it happen: “Of course, to have a Jiu-Jitsu class you need a mat and gis. But my student Marco Jourdan donated the mat right away, and then other students and friends immediately donated old and new gis. My black belt Guto Proença helped pay for competition sign-ups for the kids and bought medals and prizes for our own in-house championships. So the project was in full effect right from the start. And that was before we had a website or any means of mass communication.
“The paraphernalia José Aldo donated from his WEC fights for Gustavo Dantas to auction off paid for a brand new mat. That was a major contribution to training conditions. Once Tadeu (Carneiro, another long-time student of his and marketing director at the sports club housing Nova União headquarters, Academia Upper) made the website and his girlfriend, Georgia Arakaki, translated it to English, then it became clear just how seriously everyone involved in the project was taking it. That helped us raise more funds. Now we have money to enroll thirty competition-ready kids in a number of tournaments next year – including the IBJJF Brazilian Nationals.”
And the young scouts couldn’t have a more qualified leader. A successful competitor in his day (still venturing into the mix whenever his knee permits), Master Babu has been leading teams from juggernaut Nova União in competition for years – and has also mentored his youngest brother, Marcelino Freitas, to the top. (Marcelino overcame top-tier featherweight Bruno Frazatto to win the 2009 Brazilian Nationals and lost the 2010 Pan title by a hair in the final, against five-time world champion Rubens “Cobrinha”, besides the other big matches he has partaken in over his career)
But results are not always first and foremost on Babu’s mind. Last October at the inaugural Copa de Jiu-Jitsu Santa Marta tournament celebrating the first time in decades the Santa Marta favela could host such an event – thanks to a Police Pacifying Unit wrenching it from the grip of violent drug-trafficking gangs (a government initiative his own Morro Azul community would later benefit from) – the master leading his twenty-five scouts had other concerns: “I don’t have a clue, I’m just trying to get them all in one place,” he replied, when asked how many from his troop won medals.
But one would be mistaken to assume his disinterest in the medal tally at Copa Santa Marta means he isn’t in it to win. As with everything in his life (his work, students, scouts, friends, and community), Babu takes his missions very seriously – methodically, patiently, and unyieldingly advancing towards his objectives, always. There will be much to say about the Tatame Legal Project troop down the road.
And anyone interested in joining forces with the Marquês de Tamandarê scout troop or Tatame Legal Project is welcome to contact Master Babu via the Tatame Legal website, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 55 21 2245 1592.