Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Champion Leandro “Brodinho” Issa would not be as successful as he is today without the support of his family.
In times of financial hardship, most people would encourage their friends and family to eschew the unpredictability of prizefighting for a stable job in another profession. Not Issa’s family – the 33-year-old’s dearest relatives have provided nothing but encouragement all his life.
In fact, when times seemed their bleakest, Issa’s family prevented him from leaving the mats, and the cage, altogether.
Growing up in Ubatuba, a Brazilian municipality on Sao Paulo’s southeastern coast, Issa looked up to his older brother, as most younger siblings do. Their father had abandoned the family a year after young Issa was born, so his brother always stepped up to take care of him.
At the age of 14, “Brodinho” developed an interest in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He was small in stature, but was a big fan of martial arts, most notably Royce Gracie and his submissions. His brother was as well, and had even started training.
“Every day, he (my brother) would come back home and show me some techniques. I saw that he was beating all the bigger guys, so then I started BJJ,” Issa recalls. “After six months, I went for my first tournament, and I did well, so that motivated me even more. I had a lot of friends training with me, so we pushed each other, and I really liked the sport.”
The submission ace continued to cultivate his talent, but sponsorship opportunities were few and far between in his hometown, despite the growing number of BJJ academies. That made the proposition of training full-time rather difficult, especially because he was about to be responsible for a young family.
“My son was born when I was 15 years old,” he reveals. “I had just started BJJ, and then my girlfriend got pregnant,” recalls Issa. With pressure mounting due to the lack of income available in the “gentle art,” he even pondered leaving the sport altogether.
“I thought many times about quitting BJJ to find a regular job, but I was always lucky to have my family around me to push me and support me, saying ‘No, no, no you have talent! Keep going!’ They helped me to take care of my son, and they really supported me.”
That encouragement went a long way. Because of their commitment to helping and pushing “Brodinho,” he was able to fulfil his true potential. He won the BJJ World Championship in 2004, and consequently the Brazilian National Championship a year later.
Right after winning the BJJ World Championship, Issa had his eye on his longtime love of mixed martial arts. He decided to make the transition into the sport, but needed to go somewhere new to acquire elite training. For him, that meant leaving the confines of Ubatuba for the capital city of Rio De Janeiro.
The Brazilian was understandably more than a little hesitant about making the big move, but again, his family motivated him by pushing him to go.
“My family, my mother, my brother, and my grandmother helped me a lot to keep training. I had to move to a different town to train even more, because I am from a small town in Brazil, and they do not really train hard. Then I moved to Rio De Janeiro, and I started to train there with a lot of good guys.”
Just as he had Issa’s whole life, his older brother had gone one step further to take care of him. The elder Issa made the trip to Rio De Janeiro before the big move to scout out the area, and assessed whether the environment was suitable for his young sibling to flourish before giving the go-ahead. He also made constant trips and calls to Issa’s coach to check on his younger brother’s progress in the years to follow.
In October 2006, Issa made his professional debut in a regional promotion – a second-round submission victory. That success continued, as he started to rack up several more wins.
Eventually, in 2009, he accepted an opportunity of a lifetime when he relocated to Singapore to work and train at the world-renowned Evolve MMA. That pushed his career to new heights.
“The first time I came here (to Singapore), I just came for two months. But then they invited me to stay here for good,” he reveals. “They really wanted to invest in the academy, and I saw the academy was already nice and big.
“I really liked Singapore, and a few guys were already here teaching Muay Thai, and in Brazil the Muay Thai was not that great. So I had the opportunity to train my striking, get better in mixed martial arts, and work as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu professor as well.”
A year later, the BJJ world champion competed in Singapore promotion Martial Combat, defeating his first three opponents with various submissions in the first round. That led him to ONE Championship, where he successfully competed on the company’s first few shows before heading to North America to test his luck.
Now, “Brodinho” has returned, and is amazed by the promotion’s rapid growth.
“It was great to fight in the first ONE Championship. It was a big show already, but you can see now it is even bigger,” he says. “They show it in a lot of different countries – even in Brazil, you can watch ONE Championship now. It is great to be back and be with the biggest show in Asia.”
On Saturday, 29 July, Issa will make his official return against Finnish grappler Toni Tauru at ONE: CONQUEST OF KINGS. The event is headlined by a ONE Flyweight World Title unification bout between reigning champion Kairat Akhmetov and interim titleholder Adriano Moraes.
Though his family will not be in attendance, he knows they will be with him all the way. “They watch all my fights, even my 80-year-old grandmother!” Issa exclaims.