[First published in 2013. Scroll all the way down for plain text.]
[ Text: Raphael Nogueira / Photos: Gustavo Aragão ]
On the road, with Cyborg
The story of the 2013 ADCC’s absolute champion, told during a revealing journey through the wilderness of Mato Grosso do Sul
The signs on side of the BR-262 motorway (connecting Campo Grande, the capital of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, to the Pantanal wetlands) warn drivers of the wild animals which eventually may cross the road. That night, however, snakes, jaguars, alligators, toucans, hawks, wild pigs, anteaters, armadillos and other inhabitants of the region seemed to be holed up. Maybe they sensed it was Roberto “Cyborg” Abreu behind the wheel of the moss-green Range Rover traveling at between 120 and 140 km/h.
Even the most feared predator of the region would avoid crossing paths with a legitimate absolute champion of the ADCC. The exception was an unsuspecting wild cat which, as it found itself under the headlights of the Range Rover, stopped on its track, unable to decide whether to cross the road or go back. Cyborg gently slowed down and went around it. Fair play above all.
In BJJ and submission grappling events, the black-belt’s reaction is quite the opposite. Cyborg always looks for the collision. He accelerates and tries to run people over, as he did in the open class of the 2013 ADCC, where he didn’t suffer a single point and got handily past such aces as Keenan Cornelius and Marcus Buchecha.
“That day I reached a very powerful mental state,” the fighter recalled. “It even seemed like I could get in my enemies’ heads, destabilizing them throughout the matches. I think that, in order to conquer such an important title, technique and physical power aren’t sufficient. It’s necessary to have a winning mindset, something that’s inside everybody, but few people have the ability to let that mindset flow at critical times, under pressure.”
At the 2013 ADCC’s open class, Cyborg unleashed the jaguar he’d been keeping inside of him. And, as the Jiu-Jitsu community witnessed, it was hungry. It went hunting and imposed itself as a ferocious predator.
The blissful mind optimized the virtues of the fighter’s improbable body. Heavy (at 105kg these days) and dense, Cyborg possesses a flexibility usually found in slender competitors, and a speed reserved for much lighter men. Chock-full of contortionism, his guard defies the laws of elasticity, while his muscles provide an uncommon mix of force and explosiveness. The champion enjoys lifting all of the weight available on gym equipment. On the leg press machine, for example, he raises over 500kg in four sets of ten.
“I think all these virtues are due to my upbringing amid nature, which provided me with body fluency, good reflexes and, above all, a certain audacity in not respecting limits,” explained “Robertinho” (as he is often called by friends, relatives and students). That is why he made it a point of bringing the GRACIEMAG team to get to know the Pantanal, as well as the town of Bonito. “If you guys want to tell my story, you have to understand where I come from and where I get a big part of the inspiration to be the black-belt I am today.”
The power of regeneration
Sleep was overcoming Cyborg’s eyelids when, around two-thirty a.m., we arrived at Hotel Pantanal, near the town of Miranda, to get a little sleep before resuming the trip in the morning.
In his teenage years, before Jiu-Jitsu saved him from the dark path, Cyborg was up to quite a bit of mischief in Miranda. “I was wild and a rebel; I’d always get in fights and get in trouble,” the black-belt recollects, speaking in a contemplative tone. “Of course, I paid a high price for that. I almost died. Once, on one of those days of juvenile recklessness, I was spit out of a car during a rollover. One piece of the wreckage came rolling after me and crushed my left arm. At the hospital, the doctors told me I would never regain my movements – my arm would become useless.”
Robertinho proved the prophecy wrong. Months after the accident, he was already doing countless sets of pushups. It was that supernatural ability to regenerate his body that earned him the nickname “Cyborg.”
“It’s something really weird. When they analyze my X-rays, many orthopedists don’t understand how it is that I go on moving some injured joints in such natural fashion. Some even say that, theoretically, it would be impossible to perform certain movements. But I keep training every day and competing in the main Jiu-Jitsu events.”
Those have always been an instigating challenge for Cyborg. In his purple-belt times, he would put a gi in his backpack and travel for about 24h inside a cramped bus to compete in Rio de Janeiro. “Sometimes I’d arrive in town really hungry, but I couldn’t have lunch because the tournament was already starting. So I’d forget about eating and head straight to Tijuca Tennis Club to fight.”
Cyborg’s Jiu-Jitsu is like the convergence of several rivers of different types. At the beginning of his career he was a student of Professor Luiz Cláudio Isaías’s in Campo Grande, MS. From his intermediate phase until he got the black belt (in 2004), he was guided by Professor Francisco “Toco” Albuquerque of Nova Geração, in Rio. Whenever possible, Cyborg would travel to Rio to hone his skills at NG.
But there’s one more tributary in the story, a stream of equal importance as the other two, and that is autodidacticism. “I opened Fight Sports when I was still a purple-belt. Today the school has many branches around the world and a very strong base in Miami, in the United States. A lot of my techniques and my way of teaching class were learned from the things I got right and wrong in the process of getting my gym off the ground on my own. I’ve always toiled with a lot of willpower, heart and the support of my parents and students. You bet this initiative and determination stand out in my way of fighting tournaments. My technique is, above all, a matter of attitude.
Adventures on the Transpantaneira
The day arrived with the sun really letting us have it, which forced Cyborg to crank up the air conditioner in the car. With Brazilian country music playing on the radio (notably the latest hits of duo Jorge & Mateus), the champion sucked the cold tereré herbal tea from a metal straw while he drove the Range Rover through a patch of dirt road on the Transpantaneira motorway.
In the middle of crossing a bridge, Cyborg stopped the vehicle and evaluated the river 15 meters below. “Yup,” said the fighter, “I think I can dive here.”
Although this was an area known for housing anacondas, stingrays, piranhas and alligators, Roberto Abreu was not intimidated. “Boy, this is a piece of cake. What was sick was a jump I made form a cliff in Hawaii. It was more than twice as high, a raging sea, and plenty of rocks… To this day I don’t know how I pulled that off.”
And down he went. He could have jumped upright, which would have been less risky, as he didn’t know the river’s depth, but he opted to jump like an Olympic swimmer. Hands in front of the head, body slicing the air horizontally.
The impact sent ripples through the river, which had looked like a reflecting pool thitherto. Distracted birds flew away scared. Cyborg swam leisurely to the shore, came back up to the bridge and, dissatisfied with the picture our team had taken of the jump, repeated it twice more.
On another stretch of the Transpantaneira, Cyborg spotted a cove teeming with alligators. He pulled over and walked toward the big reptiles, as if seeing old friends. He posed about a meter from a huge mandible with dozens of sharp teeth. He raised his guard and exhibited to our photographer’s teleobjective lens all of the confidence the title of absolute ADCC champion can give a man.
“The best year of my life”
Night had fallen when we arrived in Bonito, in the Bodoquena Ridge, another town rich in memories for Cyborg. It was there that the fighter made an appointment with a half-dozen friends at Taboa, a well-known bar in the area. At midnight, Robertinho would be turning 33.
The bar wasn’t very full at the end of that Thursday, the 19th of December. There was live music. A velvet-voiced girl sang American ballads accompanied by a drummer and a guitarist.
Cyborg recounted stories he had lived in Bonito, one of the country’s biggest ecotourism destinations, where he had ventured on trails, in waterfalls, caves, clear-water rivers, and, of course, at plenty of lively parties.
Asked whether he was happy with the life he had built thus far, Cyborg did a quick existential rundown. Suddenly we thought he was about to cry. Roberto realized that sometimes life looks like the BR-262. Well paved, mostly straight and easy to drive through. On other stretches it resembles the Transpantaneira, with its irregular, unpredictable terrain, always threatened by the year’s flood seasons.
In 2013, Cyborg had great joys, but he also went through trying times, like the end of a marriage just weeks prior to the ADCC. Even at the submission grappling event, Roberto lost to Buchecha at their weight class before achieving glory at the open.
“You know what? Two thousand thirteen was the best year of my life. I had to jump many hurdles, but that only made everything that much more special. And I’m not even referring exactly to my ADCC title. Of course, all this recognition is very cool – it’s a dream come true, for instance, to have GRACIEMAG here in Mato Grosso do Sul to tell my story. But – and this is the pure truth – my biggest conquest it to have turned my academy into a big family. It’s all going well, working in good harmony. Jiu-Jitsu saved me once and now I get to give back, allowing the gentle art to save the lives of other people.”
And it was at that moment, right after midnight in the heart of one of the planet’s greatest ecological sanctuaries, that we raised our glasses to the center of the table and toasted the champion.