An Unassuming Black Belt World Champion Pays it Forward
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in
moments of comfort and convenience,but where he stands
at times of challenge and controversy…Martin Luther King, Jr.
You won’t meet a more humble or down-to-earth world champion than 24-year-old, CheckMat jiu-jitsu black belt Jackson Sousa. Coming from extremely challenging beginnings and growing up in favelas, he has turned a life of adversity into a life filled with happiness and simple pleasures, through his love and passion for jiu-jitsu.
Jackson Sousa dos Santos was born in Rio de Janeiro and raised by his parents in the favela Cantagalo / Pavão-Pavãozinho in the Copacabana neighborhood. When he was three years old, his parents experienced some serious problems, so Jackson moved in with his godparents and his cousins. He got a good education, food and discipline and they gave him a lot of love and affection. Five years later, his parents came to get him. He moved with them to another favela, called Favela da Galinha in the Engenho da Rainha neighborhood, also in the north zone of Rio de Janeiro. He left his studies, his cousins, friends, and godparents behind to live with his parents, four brothers and sisters. That same year, his father Nilton dos Santos, died. Even at eight, Jackson realized quickly that things would change drastically in his life because his mother was now raising four kids completely alone.
What was your life like after your father died?
We had a lot of difficulties and struggled a lot. Sometimes we had nothing to eat because my mum had no money and no job to be able to put food on the table. My brothers and I had to quit school so we could go to the streets and make some money to help our mum and our younger sisters at home. The first money I earned was at the central train and bus station in Rio de Janeiro, called Central. I was buying sweets, candy and peanuts to sell to passengers inside the buses and trains. As time moved on, we moved back to the Favela Cantagalo community where we still had a house. My brothers and I continued working in the streets of the prosperous south zone of Rio de Janeiro. I only had the chance to return to school when I was 10 years old.
What is it like growing up in a favela?
Living in a favela is not easy. There are a lot of things going on that you can’t easily see from the outside. I grew up in a place that has its qualities and deficiencies. Among the qualities I would say is the unity of the community. People are happy; they have their freedom and can go wherever they want to, like to a party or to play bingo. We do all of that together as a community and we help each other out. For example, if someone needs to go to the hospital and there is a neighbor who has a car, this person will help the sick person. Or if someone needs medicine or a kilo of black beans or rice, the community always makes an effort to provide these things for them.
What are the difficulties of living in a favela?
Among the deficiencies I would say is that we struggle with the lack of electricity, water and food. There are poor families who share a small space with many relatives and this can create conflicts. Other issues we face in the favelas are the shootouts between the drug traffickers and the police. To live inside a favela you have to be very strong mentally. Many times people offer you a wrong path in life and you have to be very smart to “dribble” around it. It’s also very important to make true friendships with people who will help you and encourage you to seek opportunities and education outside the favela. This is what I did.
Tell me more about the “wrong path” you avoided growing up.
The drug trade confuses the vision of kids and youngsters in the community. When there is a daily funk dance, you can see the traffickers with firearms and gold chains strolling around and they get a lot of attention from the women. This can send the wrong signals to a child or an adolescent who is already struggling with finding his or her identity and way in life. It is quite hard to live in a community with drug traffickers. At times, there are shootouts between the drug traffickers and the police, or even wars between rival drug trafficking gangs. Nothing is easy, there is a lot of temptation right in front of you and like I said, you need to be mentally strong to resist these temptations and not choose a wrong path in life. I already lost a lot of friends who chose that path; a few died and others are in prison.
When did you get involved with jiu-jitsu?
My first involvement with jiu-jitsu was with a community project in Cantagalo that helped kids from the favela become champions in life, outside the drug trade and the drugs. A friend of mine from school invited me to go to this project and do a class together. The “Projeto Amigos do Morro” (Friends of the Hill Project) was organized by Ricardo Vieira, who is my master today, and Fernando Tereré. My first class was without a kimono because I didn’t have one at the time, and my first jiu-jitsu instructor, Leandro Martins, taught me the first steps in jiu-jitsu. I remember feeling a lot of adrenaline when it was time to put into practice what we learned in class. I felt really happy and wanted to learn more about this gentle art. At the end of class, Leandro Martins said I should stop by his house in Cantagalo to get a proper kimono so that I could start attending classes more regularly. After that I never stopped training jiu-jitsu again and today I am a black belt world champion and very proud of that.
What do you consider to be your greatest jiu-jitsu accomplishments?
A big achievement was getting a U.S. visa. I’d been trying since 2010 in order to participate in the major jiu-jitsu competitions in California, but I was declined four times. Then finally in 2013, I received one that allowed me to stay in California for one week; just enough time to fight in the IBJJF World Championships and then I had to go straight back to Brazil. While there, I took the heavy weight world champion title at brown belt and the third place medal in the open class. The open class semi-final was the first time I fought against Keenan Cornelius. But the biggest achievement in my jiu-jitsu career was getting my first world champion title as a black belt in the IBJJF 2013 No-Gi World Championships. I closed the heavy weight bracket with my friend Lucas Leite. I am very grateful to Lucas because he gave the title to me; I am thankful for his attitude and humbleness. In 2014, I was also successful at the IBJJF European Championships in Lisbon. I won gold at heavy weight, winning against Yuri Simões in the finals, and third in the open class, losing to Yuri! I was also lucky at the Las Vegas Open and won both the black belt open and heavy weight divisions. After fighting some important competitions with my CheckMat team in the spring and summer of 2014, I left for Europe. Unfortunately, I’d been invited to fight in the last Metamoris, but the date clashed with some other obligations. I hope to have another opportunity to be on their card in the future.
You told me once that you wanted to be a different kind of world champion. What did you mean by that?
I meant that I don’t want to be known as the best in the world of jiu-jitsu with a lot of world champion titles. I want people to see me with different eyes. I would like them to know where I come from. I don’t want people to be deluded by fame or titles. I don’t want to hear, “Look! There’s Jackson Sousa. He’s a World Champion.” I want people to know the person behind the athlete. I would like to show my humble background to people so they know they can also achieve anything they put their minds to. I come from a poor neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro and I faced various temptations in my community – a life of crime – but thanks to God, my willpower and perseverance, I managed to overcome these obstacles and today I can say that I am a role model for many children and youth who live in poor neighborhoods in Brazil. I would also like people to know that favelas are not all about violence and the drug trade – this is what the international media often likes to portray. But in our communities in Brazil, we have a lot of talented people who are doing great work, whether it is in jiu-jitsu, in capoeira, in dancing or in other types of sports and arts.
Tell me about your work with kids in favelas.
Working with the kids in my community is priceless. It’s like a form of therapy for me. I love being with them and sharing my stories. I like talking to them and hearing how they’re doing in school – if they have good marks, if they’re respecting their teachers inside the classroom and their parents and brothers and sisters at home. I love being able to pass on my jiu-jitsu experience to them, as well as my experiences in life and what I learned from living outside Brazil. Now I am an adult and a black belt. I want to teach these kids everything I learned from my own professors who showed me the first steps in jiu-jitsu. I love teaching them jiu-jitsu. I love stealing their attention for a little while and putting dreams in their heads, telling them that they can achieve whatever they want. I tell them to go to school and to be “somebody” in life, far away from the drug trade and the drugs. I believe I am doing a good job, just like the other professors, Antonio Carlos, Douglas Fufino and Ricardo Vieira who are all helping these kids on a daily basis. Without any doubt, we manage to take their attention away from the drug trade and we put them on the right path to be a champion in the future, not only on the mats, but off the mats as well.
After all you’ve been through, what does success mean to you?
Success for me is a temporary moment because I believe that nobody can be successful forever. To be honest, I would simply like to be remembered as someone who came from a poor neighborhood and fought against the odds to become who he is today. I never gave up dreaming that I could be a world champion and today I am. Now I’m lucky enough to travel around the world doing seminars and competitions. I don’t need to be famous. I only want to be recognized as an athlete and as a person.
What are your goals as a jiu-jitsu athlete?
My short-term goal is to participate in the major jiu-jitsu championships and to win them all. I am very excited because I have three competitions coming up in the U.S. between September and October 2014 – Dallas Open, World No-Gi and the Pro-League. Long-term I want to keep looking for new opportunities inside and outside of jiu-jitsu. I would love to give presentations about jiu-jitsu and my life at a school or university, for instance. I would also like to have my own family and my gym one day and train my own students to become champions – on and off the mats. I want to work with the elderly; motivate them to do physical activities and improve their physical and mental conditions. Jiu-jitsu can definitely help you with these things. I also want to help my family financially in Brazil because my mum and brothers and sisters need me.
What are the main differences training in Brazil versus the U.S.?
The first time I came to California I saw that many athletes have access to great competitions, facilities, sponsorships, infrastructures and training with the best fighters. When I saw that, I realized that a lot of athletes in Brazil do not have the same opportunities that Americans have. A lot of Brazilians dream of living in the U.S. because of these opportunities, but unfortunately not everyone will be able to do it. I feel sorry that many Brazilian athletes struggle to get a visa to compete in the big championships. It’s expensive and it’s hard to build a network of people who support you. Basically, you need to be in the media and already be a champion in order to get some financial support. I’ve seen a lot of athletes doing raffles with kimonos or other products in order to collect some money to apply for a visa or to buy a flight to the U.S.
What advice do you have for upcoming jiu-jitsu fighters?
I would use two phrases that my Master Ricardo Vieira uses a lot that really motivated me growing up, “Never give up on your dreams and be persistent and have faith in your goals and dreams.”
Thank you for sharing your remarkable story, Jackson. You are a true champion – on and off the mats!