How ‘Street Kid’ Cleber Sousa Used Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu To Escape Poverty
On September 30, Cleber Sousa will attempt to make history when he takes on Mikey Musumeci for the inaugural ONE Flyweight Submission Grappling World Championship.
The elite BJJ black belts have already squared off twice before, which will make their trilogy fight even more intriguing when it airs live from Singapore in U.S. primetime.
It’s a massive opportunity for Sousa, who will showcase his grappling prowess in front of ONE’s global fan base for the first time.
But to reach this moment, the man known as “Clandestino” has needed to overcome his fair share of hardships.
This is the Brazilian’s path from poverty, to heartbreak, to the top of the submission grappling world.
‘We Lived On The Bare Minimum’
Born on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sousa grew up in a crowded household overseen by his single mother.
But while he lacked many comforts that a more affluent upbringing could have afforded him, the 27-year-old looks back on his childhood with fondness, focusing on the good times rather than the struggles.
“Despite all the difficulties, I was a very happy child. I am the son of a single mother, and I have always lived with my mother, who raised me and my brothers alone. My mother had seven children and adopted two more. She had a very big heart.
“After we got older, my brothers and I started helping with the household expenses, but there was no money left for anything. We lived on the bare minimum.
“I always had many friends at school and on the street where I lived. I liked to play in the street. I walked barefoot all day chasing kites. I was a street kid (laughs).”
Falling In Love With BJJ
Full of energy and needing an outlet, Sousa found jiu-jitsu at age 13 when a cousin took him to the Almeida Jiu-Jitsu social project.
The organization allows underprivileged children to learn and train BJJ for free, and before long, “Clandestino” realized his passion for “the gentle art.”
“As soon as I arrived at the project, I immediately went to play ‘pass the teacher’s guard.’ Even without understanding anything, I put my fight instinct out and just went for it (laughs). I did my best even without any technique. In the first classes, I already fell in love with jiu-jitsu, and I never stopped training.”
Daily training became the norm for Sousa, as he chose to spend his time on the mats rather than the streets, finding motivation in the gradual process of improvement.
And once he began competing, he was hooked for life.
“In jiu-jitsu, you have to overcome yourself every day. When I started participating in competitions, I fell even more in love with this sport.”
A Heartbreaking Loss
Recently, Sousa has dealt with some serious emotional challenges.
In 2021, “Clandestino” suffered what he describes as the “worst” experience of his life – the tragic loss of his loving mother.
The Brazilian said:
“She had cancer, which when we found out it was already very advanced, and she died. I was with her all the time, until the last minutes of her death. It was an immeasurable pain, and it affected my entire family.”
Sousa has since found solace in his faith, as well as the supportive jiu-jitsu community around him.
Moreover, the Brazilian has leaned on the resilience he developed through years of hard training to help him through such a difficult time.
“[God] comforted my heart and I made room for that to happen. He put good friends around me to give me good advice, especially my jiu-jitsu family. I opened my heart and faced this whole situation like a good fighter in life that I am.”
‘It Would Be A Dream Come True’
Over the past decade, Sousa has found plenty of success in grappling competitions, winning an IBJJF Brown Belt World Championship, as well as a Pan American and Brazilian National Championship as a black belt.
He’s now looking to build on those high-level achievements, and he views his upcoming fight against Musumeci as the very top of the mountain.
“[Winning the ONE Flyweight Submission Grappling World Title] would undoubtedly be the pinnacle of my career and would change my professional and personal life.
“After everything I’ve been through in life, it would be a dream come true.”
Ultimately, Sousa recognizes that his World Title match at ONE on Prime Video 2 and the platform provided by ONE Championship is a massive boon to the sport of submission grappling.
“I think it’s time or it’s past time for professional jiu-jitsu athletes to be properly valued. And I believe that what ONE is doing will change the lives of many athletes who dream of making a living from this beloved sport.”