Saulo humbled by American Nationals crowd

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“They say the voice of the crowd is the voice of God. If that is the case, then today I am humbled.” Saulo Ribeiro on double gold win at the American Nationals

No, that was not a 7.0 earthquake shaking the gymnasium at CSU Dominguez Hills on Saturday during the American Nationals Gi Jiu-Jitsu portion of the tournament. It was the crowd erupting when legendary Jiu-Jitsu great Saulo Ribeiro took to the mats for his first match in the Seniors 1 heavyweight division.

Saulo has not competed since 2010, when he won both his division and the absolute at the Masters and Seniors tournament in Brazil. Last December Saulo had three surgeries at once on his shoulder to repair his rotator cuff, his labrum, and to reattach his biceps. But that didn’t stop the fighter, who seemed more machine than man on Saturday.

Saulo concentrating / Photos by Deb Blyth

As Saulo stood stoically in the match area, his body straight, his head looking down at the mats in full concentration, a small voice in the crowd called out, “That’s my coach!” As the crowd pushed against the barricades trying to get a better view of the man who has inspired so many, the referee called a start to the contest.

In his first match, against Rhodisley Rosa Junior of Nova Uniao, Saulo came at Rhodisley like a bull and submitted him in 25 seconds flat. The crowd went crazy cheering, shaking the gym all the way to the rafters.

Saulo took his assigned time to rest and then came back out for the final against Leandro Valdes. Once again, Saulo was focused on his mission. He threw Valdes and then got him in a tight classic choke from the mount that Valdes could not defend, just one-and-a-half minutes into the match. Valdes walked off the mats looking a little dazed. “I fought Saulo six years ago as a purple belt,” he says, “He’s still so tough… he is strong!”

Saulo makes quick work of Leandro Valdes from the mount.

“I feel great,” Saulo says, referring to coming back from such an extensive injury, “It’s a mix of happiness for coming back to the mat. I felt like I was in jail for a year not doing what I love the most. I wasn’t free.”

Saulo has been working a lot, so he didn’t have a lot of time to train for the event. He takes care of his Ribeiro Jiu-Jitsu organization, his University of JJ, and his students, for whom he has a clear passion. When he comes to compete, for him it’s just plain fun. “Competing is the true expression of myself and who I am,” he says, “I want to lead by example. Today, I’m here as a soldier to earn points for my team.” Saulo certainly did his part.

Saulo came back out to compete in the absolute, and once again the crowd was on its feet. He had two matches in the open weight class, winning both by submission and making him a double gold medal winner for the day. When asked if he expected to win so seemingly effortlessly and easily at the American Nationals he said, “I expect to push the pace of the fight and bring the best of me. When you expect to win, you open yourself up to frustrations. When you’re happy, you give your best. I’m a hard worker. Today I pushed myself beyond my expectations. I’m happy.”

Although people tell Saulo that he is a warrior, he considers himself more of a slave to the sport. “I love Jiu-Jitsu,” he says, “It’s my passion. My payback is the smile on kids’ faces and how it makes my students better people.”

Saulo, who is now 37 years old, believes you should always just do your best. Winning or losing does not matter, and for him he only fights for his love and passion for the sport. Being off the mats the last year was a real challenge for him. “I always tell people, ‘Jiu-Jitsu cannot be your lover; it has to be your wife.’ You have to take the good and bad moments. If you bring your best to Jiu-Jitsu, it will bring the best back to you.”

While Saulo was competing at the American Nationals, his equally famous brother, Xande, was competing across the pond at the ADCC  in England. “Xande fought today and subbed twice,” Saulo says, “We fight to continue our legacy. We’ve been here for 20 years and we plan on staying.”

Saulo Ribeiro with adoring crowd

Clearly a fan favorite at the American Nationals, Saulo says he doesn’t need motivation to do Jiu-Jitsu. “Everyone is looking at me,” he says, “I need to do my job. I’m always ready to fight and I really respect the competition. If you haven’t trained as hard as I have, it’s going to be a long day for you.”

After being hugged and kissed by the multitude of fans, friends, and students in the crowd, Saulo smiles, “They say the voice of the crowd is the voice of God. If that is the case, then today I am humbled.”

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