Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is not always like the postcards portray.
Behind the famous beaches and monuments are favelas filled with poverty and struggle. While there are many hardworking people that make an honest living there, crime and drugs are also in abundance.
Leandro Ataides was raised in such a favela — a place where young men can easily be lured into a life of vice. Although he might have been a hyperactive kid who got into fights regularly in school, he found Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which very well could have saved his life.
“Without martial arts and BJJ, maybe I would not be here right now,” the 31-year-old ponders. “I do not know what I would be doing. I have no idea.”
Leandro’s mother was repeatedly being called in to school to talk about the youngster’s penchant for troublemaking. At the suggestion of a family member, she enrolled him in BJJ classes, in an effort to try and tame her increasingly wild son.
“One of my mum’s cousins told her to put me in jiu-jitsu, because it would calm me,” he recalls. “After the first time I stepped on the mat, I never left. Maybe one time to try soccer, just to follow my friends, but my life was spent on the BJJ mats.”
Fortunately for the Ataides family, they nipped his unruly behavior in the bud, and he had found his passion early in life. He would not be distracted or sidelined by the crime around him, even if he had friends going down that path, and became a five-time BJJ world champion under the guidance of famed Nova União coaches Andrè Pederneiras and Wendell Alexander.
“My coach has made me the man I am now,” he explains, crediting martial arts with discipline, skills, and vocation as a professional athlete.
Most importantly for “Leo,” he hopes to have a similar influence on the next generation one day. Not only does he want to create world champions, but he also wants to offer kids with limited opportunities the chance to enroll in something positive and life-changing.
As he prepares for a showdown against former ONE Middleweight World Champion Vitaly Bigdash at ONE: KINGS OF COURAGE in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 20 January, Ataides hopes to one day give back to the community. He has made it his mission to save other young men from a common fate at the tip of a needle, or the barrel of a gun.
“I have a good dream in my life,” Ataides says. “I want to make a place for people with no money to train. I do not want their money, I just want to help take care of these people, help teach them, and keep them going to school.”
“Leo” is so passionate when he speaks of his plans, one cannot help but to feel that he will indeed make his dreams become a reality.
Already, when he returns home between training camps, the middleweight is approached by old friends who see what he has made of his life, and hope he can inspire their own kids. He also makes a point of heading to the favelas and engaging young men there, to try and reveal a different path.
“When I go back to Rio, I always go to the favela to talk about my life, to talk about what happened to me,” he reveals.
“I have never used drugs. The guys from poor families, they ask me how to enjoy martial arts and jiu-jitsu, and how they can do this in their life to get discipline. They do not know about life outside of Rio. They do not know the world around them, because the drugs will not let them.”
The Brazilian’s love for martial arts, as well as his need to provide for his own family, keeps propelling him forward to success. But also, in the back of his mind, “Leo” knows that each victory helps him gain the respect of those he hopes to inspire in his home city.
As he strives reach the pinnacle of martial arts by eventually capturing the ONE Middleweight World Championship, that accolade would not be for personal satisfaction. Rather, Ataides hopes to become another shining example that you can achieve your dreams, no matter where you come from.