Vitor 'Shaolin' Ribeiro on Top of the BJJ World An interview with a grappling legend

by Stephan Kesting

Vitor ‘Shaolin’ Riberio is ranked the number one fighter in the world under 155 lbs, and has multiple prestigious grappling titles. This interview was originally published in Black Belt Magazine (August 2004).  He currently teaches at his academy in New York City.
Vitor 'Shaolin' RiberioSo why are you called ‘Shaolin’? It’s a very cool nickname!
It comes from when I was young. I was 14 years old and wanted to impress the other students, so before jiu-jitsu class I would sit cross-legged with my eyes closed and pretend to meditate. I wasn’t really meditating; it was just to impress the other kids (laughing). In Brazil they love to give nicknames – someone called me ‘Shaolin’ and it’s been like that ever since.

Could you tell our readers about your titles? You’re only 25 years old and you’ve already achieved a lot.

I’ve won the Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) World Championships four times: first as a purple belt in 1996, and then as a black belt in 1999, 2000 and 2001. I’ve won three Arnold Classics in the USA: in 2001, 2002 and 2003. I have 9 no holds barred (NHB) fights and am ranked the #1 fighter in the world under 155 lbs. I’ve also competed in ADCC two times (2001, 2003)

So what are your plans for the next 25 years?

Now I want to win the UFC belt too. I want to be the undisputed number one fighter in my weight category. So that people have no doubt that I’m the best!

How long have you been training?

I started BJJ when I was 14 years old, because I lost a fight to some guy in the street. This guy trained in Luta Livre (a Brazilian style that combines striking and grappling). I was only doing Muay Thai at the time, and because he knew grappling he killed me. One month later a friend invited me to his school and I started BJJ.

I start BJJ, but I never thought about being the big grand champion – never! But after I’d trained for 2 months I entered a tournament and won my first two fights. I lost the finals to a yellow belt, but I liked the experience. I liked the adrenaline – it was nice!

I continued training hard: two times, or sometimes three times a day. 10 years ago I didn’t have any obligations or bills. I was just a student in the morning, and had the whole afternoon and evening for training. So for me it was a very good situation – I always gave 100% on the mat. I never gave up: all the time I was training, training, training.

Shaolin demonstrates a BJJ guard technique
Technique 1: Jumping to the Butterfly Guard

Who did you start with?

Andre Pederneiras. He is my only teacher in BJJ. He founded Nova Uniao (a popular BJJ team in Brazil) together with Wendell Alexander.

It seems that team loyalty is very important for Brazilians. Can you tell us about Nova Uniao?

For me, Nova Uniao and Andre Pederneiras are very, very important. Nova Uniao was formed when Andre Pederneiras got together with Wendell Alexander. A long time ago Andre only taught adults and Wendell only taught kids. To win tournaments in Brazil at the time you needed to have both adults and kids, so they got together. Then Nova Uniao began to win a lot of tournaments in Rio.

So you only started training for No-Holds-Barred 3 years ago…

Yes

Did you find the transition from gi to no-gi hard?

No, I trained hard and it was OK. Four years ago I just trained in BJJ. So when I took off my gi I felt a little bit different, but I soon adapted to the new positions. I also felt different when I started training in Muay Thai and boxing, especially with the leg kicks, but now I don’t have this problem anymore.

I train in Muay Thai kickboxing with Luis Alves (who also teaches Rodrigo ‘Minotauro’ Nogueira) and boxing with Claudio Coelho (who teaches Renzo Gracie). I trained in wrestling for maybe 2 years with Darryl Gholar, and always did BJJ with Andre Pedeneiras. My personal trainer is Marcio Pimentel. I also have lots of other training partners in Brazil.

Shaolin demonstrates a half guard sweep
Technique 2: Half Guard Sweep / Takedown

Do you think that training with the gi helps you in NHB?

Yes, I never leave my gi in my closet for very long, you know. In three months I have a fight with the Shooto organization. In my first month of training I will train with the gi 3 times a week, and without the gi 2 times a week. In my second month I will train no-gi 3 times and with the gi 2 times a week. And in my last month I just train no-gi. The gi is very good for details. If you have a gi on it’s harder for you to escape – if you can escape with the gi, when you take off your gi, it’s easy.

(Incidentally Shaolin won this fight against Mitsuhiro Ishida in an exciting bout in Hawaii.)

What types of conditioning – weight lifting and cardio – are you going to do to get ready for your fight three months from now?

In my first month I’m going to do more running and more weightlifting. I need to prepare my joints for impact because my second and third months of training are very hard. Wrestling and takedowns put pressure on my neck, pressure on my knees. I need to strengthen my joints, so that when I go to the second month of training my ligaments will be harder.

The first month I lift weights 5 times a week: Monday, to Friday. In my second month I just lift weights three times a week, and in the third month just two or three times a week.

In my second month I have long sparring sessions, with gi and no-gi. I train long to develop my cardio, my endurance. Maybe I train (spar) one hour, or one hour and 15 minutes, without rest.

In my third month I train more explosively: shorter and harder. This month I’m going to explode. I do 5-minute circuits with takedowns, pads, punch, and sparring. When you fight, a 5-minute round feels much longer, like maybe 10 minutes. 5 minutes can take so long to pass. Your body needs to be conditioned to receive this kind of pressure.

You have a very dynamic style: you’re always trying different things in a fight. How do you think this style of fighting will suit you as you get older, or is this just a young man’s game?

I think I will never change my game. When I reach 30, if I keep up my training, my game will always be this way. I like this game because you can’t always do the same thing. You need to have a lot of things in a fight, a mixture. Sometimes you need to be more explosive, sometimes you need to be tighter, and sometimes you need to be more flexible. If you don’t combine all the things you’re not going to be a good fighter.

Who are some of the fighters that you admire most?

Man, I like Minotauro (Rodrigo ‘Minotauro’ Noguiera) so much, because of his heart and his character. For me Minotauro is the best, the best heavyweight. He could easily be a snob, but he’s very friendly all the time. Even if you’re a white belt he’ll invite you to his house and his training sessions. I hope that Minotauro wins 100 more Pride Fighting Championships because he has a good heart.

Also Wanderlei (Wanderlei Silva). I didn’t like his style at first, but now Wanderlei is incredible. He has the hunger, you know, all the time. I don’t think that there is anybody in the ring who has more hunger than him. Easy fight, tough fight, doesn’t matter. He is the same all the time – he’s like Tyson 15 years ago.

I also like my friend BJ (BJ Penn) too – BJ has a nice style. I like Pedro Rizzo – sometimes he loses but I know him and know his potential. That guy is incredible and his kicks are incredible. Sometimes he loses, but if he goes into a competition he always has a good chance for winning. I like Murilo Bustamante too: he has a good mind and stays calm in the ring. And I like me too (laughing).

Shaolin gets the rear mount
Technique 3: How to take the back and get the rear mount

What was the hardest thing about making the transition from pure BJJ NHB?

The positions are different. If you train just for grappling you can use positions like half guard or the turtle. In grappling it doesn’t matter if you put your face close to his hands and elbows or not. You might use the turtle position and not worry about getting hit. If you train NHB you have to worry about punches and elbows. If you use the turtle you could get hit with knees or kicks, so I think there is a big difference between those styles of training.

When I train NHB I always train with gloves, always. I never train with a partner without wearing gloves.

I think some guys confuse pure grappling with grappling for NHB – they think “I’ve trained for NHB and now I will compete in grappling because it’s the same thing” (shaking head). It’s different. When I fought in Abu Dhabi last year I had just won in Shooto against Ryan Bow, and I had 10 days to train for Abu Dhabi. I trained hard, but it’s not the same thing. I had been wrestling, but wrestling for NHB. I’d been doing BJJ, but BJJ for NHB. In this tournament I competed against guys who train just for grappling, not NHB. I’m not making any excuses, but in this tournament I felt the big difference between NHB and grappling competition. So now I’ve decided not to compete so much in grappling and to concentrate on NHB.

How often do you train?

Always twice a day. Boxing and BJJ, or wresting and BJJ, or BJJ and muay thai. I need to be very good in BJJ and pretty good in boxing and wrestling. If I can’t take the guy down then I can never do my BJJ, know what I mean? If my shoot isn’t good then I waste too much energy when I take the guy down. So your takedowns and cardio need to be very good.

I prefer to fight on the ground – there isn’t too much risk for me on the ground. For me BJJ is the best art. My body works well with grappling.

It seems like Darryl Gholar has really brought the level of wrestling up to a much higher level in Brazil.

Yes, yes, guaranteed. I’ve learned a lot of things from this guy, and he’s good at Greco-Roman wrestling. For NHB ‘Greco’ is very good because you work the clinch a lot. At first I just used leg takedowns – double legs and single legs – so with Darryl I made my game more complete. Now I work the body and the legs, and my game is better.

How long did you train before you won the World Championships the first time?

I trained three years and then won as a purple belt. In 1996 BJJ was very popular in Brazil. At our school there were up to 80 people training at the same time, with a lot of purple, brown and black belts training together. After training we’d put on the running shoes and work on our cardio.

Do you have any advice for people starting BJJ or grappling?

First I think that a beginner needs to find a good teacher – there are a lot of instructors in Brazil and throughout the world who aren’t legitimate instructors.

Secondly the guy needs to be interested in BJJ and learn about the history. If you don’t know about your history you don’t know about yourself. I now know lots of guys, old guys, who were important early in the development of BJJ. This is very important for your BJJ to grow.

Finally train hard. If you can, compete in a lot of tournaments. It doesn’t matter if you win or if you lose – you need the experience

What if you want to be successful at NHB?

If a guy wants to be a good NHB fighter one day he needs to train a lot of BJJ. When you start with BJJ then it is easy to go to another art like boxing or wrestling later. When I was young, my teacher would make us spar NHB with slaps and no gi after class. We got some experience with striking and wrestling this way, even though we were doing BJJ. Boxing, Muay Thai and wrestling don’t have this sort of cross training. So if you want to fight NHB go get your purple or brown belt in BJJ first, and then go train in the other arts too.

Shaolin finishes with an armbar
Technique 4: Rear mount to armbar

What are the most important attributes for grappling?

First is coordination, to move his body the right way. Then the guy needs strong legs, a strong lower back and endurance in the arms. And finally he needs a good mind so he doesn’t forget his techniques while he is in a fight.

What do you think about the level of BJJ in North America?

I think it’s good, but there is still a big difference. In Brazil you have a lot more people training, because they believe that if they train hard they will get their black belt some day and make their living with it. In North America people already have money and they train for pleasure – in Brazil the guys believe if they train hard they can improve their life, maybe go to another country or compete in Pride or the UFC

Is there anything else you want to say?

I want to say one thing about my team (Nova Uniao), because I think my team has a lot of good fighters, especially in the lightweight division. So I want to tell the promoters that I’m not the only one: there are a lot of good competitors interested in competing anywhere in the world.

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