Before Jose Aldo became a burgeoning superstar, he was a food-deprived teenager who literally lived in a Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym and slept on the mats. One man who has witnessed Jose Aldo’s extraordinary evolution up close and trained extensively with the champ is Robson Moura, Vice President of Nova Uniao, the Rio De Janeiro-based powerhouse that has produced many of the world’s top MMA and Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters.
For the uninitiated, Moura is universally pegged among the crème-de-la-crème in jiu-jitsu circles. He is, hands-down, one of sport jiu-jitsu’s greatest all-time innovators and competitors. Seven world titles validate that claim, though a conversation with the 33-year-old Brazilian reveals a supreme gentleman, not what some might expect from a man who himself survived the dog-eat-dog favelas that sabotage so many young lives.
A four-stripe black belt, Moura recently spoke with UFC.com about Jose Aldo’s training and matchup with No.1 contender Mark Hominick at UFC 129 in Toronto. Moura also discussed the quality of Aldo’s rarely seen ground game, his own MMA aspirations, as well as ranking the MMA fighters he believes have best adapted their BJJ to MMA.
Q: Robson, can you give us an update on Jose Aldo? When is the last time you saw him and trained with him?
Q: I saw Jose in January in Brazil around the time he suffered his injury. He was training in the gi. We trained a little bit and he was just returning and testing his neck injury. He had his gi on and trained really slow because he didn’t want to aggravate his injury. He was kind of sad because he couldn’t fight (in January 2011) so we tried to talk about something besides his injury.
Around the same time the flood happened near my hometown and a lot of people lost their homes. So me, Jose and a lot of other guys did a seminar to raise money for these people.
I spoke recently with people back in Brazil and they told me Jose has been training well and is ready to put on a good show.
Q: There has been a lot of speculation about Jose Aldo’s ground game. He’s an Andre Pederneiras black belt who owns wins over four-time world champion Roubens “Cobrinha” Charles, but to most MMA fans Jose’s ground game remains a mystery because he annihilates foes on his feet. How good is Jose’s ground game?
Robson: His ground game is amazing. When he came to Nova Uniao he trained three to four times a day in jiu-jitsu before he got into MMA. He competed twice against Cobrinha as a brown belt and won. When he gets the chance to show his jiu-jitsu, people will be very surprised. He could be a black belt world champion in jiu-jitsu if he wanted to.
Q: A lot of people are selling Mark Hominick short in this title matchup. What is Nova Uniao’s assessment of Mark Hominick as an opponent and a potential threat?
Robson: He’s a really dangerous fighter and the Nova Uniao camp knows that and respects him. Jose is focused and he knows this is not going to be an easy fight. It’s going to be a hard fight but I’m sure Jose will hold onto the title for the Nova Uniao family.
Q: Talk a little about Jose Aldo’s background growing up.
Robson: I remember Jose came from Manaus to the Nova Uniao camp in Rio when he was really young. Jose was living at the school and sleeping on the mats. He didn’t have money to eat anything. He was just hungry and training a lot. Everybody at the school helped him and other kids out, buying lunch for them and giving them clothes. He came from Manaus, a really poor family, a favela. He tried to be a soccer player – he’s a good soccer player – but he couldn’t become pro so he turned to fighting.
People know what he had to overcome to where he is today, and people appreciate that. The good thing is that he’s still the same guy he was in the beginning. He hasn’t changed. Just like me – I also grew up in a favela – and it makes us appreciate everything we earn in life.
He’s young – only 24 years old – but still very focused. I think he’s going to be on top for awhile. He’s not going to stop.
Q: Among fighters, where does Jose Aldo rank in popularity in Brazil?
Robson: I think he’s really close to Anderson Silva, Wanderlei Silva, Antonio “Minotauro” Noguiera and Vitor Belfort. I think eventually in Brazil he will be more recognized than everyone else because he’s so young (24). Anderson is a superstar everywhere, not only in Brazil. So is Belfort. I think Jose is headed in the right direction. He’s patient. He’ll wait for his time.
Q: When it comes to top MMA teams, Nova Uniao is often overlooked in the states. One gets the impression that Andre Pederneiras and his team don’t mind that at all.
Robson: I think more people are starting to notice the Nova Uniao camp. Many of our camps are held in Rio (de Janeiro) while Greg Jackson and ATT (American Top Team) are here in the states. Maybe that’s the reason a lot of people don’t know about Nova Uniao. But that’s starting to change. A lot more people are noticing Nova Uniao’s MMA and jiu-jitsu.
Q: How many BJJ black belts has Andre Pederneiras awarded?
Robson: Andre Pederneiras has given out like 100 black belts so far.
Q: What I find interesting is how Andre has so many BJJ black belts, and is a phenomenal jiu-jitsu instructor, yet for a long time he has allowed and even encouraged so many of his fighters to utilize standup strategies to win fights. He’s been doing that for years, long before it was fashionable for BJJ coaches to swallow their egos and steer their jiu-jitsu fighters toward stand-up as a primary blueprint for victory.
Robson: Andre always says, you can always look to win with jiu-jitsu but if something happens you might need to stand up and bang, so stand up and bang. He’s really smart and plays a lot of different strategies. So if a fighter says before the fight, ‘I feel good with my strikes’ then Andre will say, ‘OK, let’s do it, let’s beat this guy standing and make something happen.’ He doesn’t pressure you with ‘you have to do this.’ He just puts a lot of confidence in his fighters. He’s one of the best MMA and jiu-jitsu coaches in the world.
Q: It seems like all of Nova Uniao’s camps are in Rio, not in the states. Do you think that will change and that maybe Nova Uniao will set up a lot of its camps in the U.S. in the future?
Robson: It’s hard to say. A lot of guys – myself, Bruno Bastos, Shaolin, Gustavo Dantes and Wagnney Fabiano in Canada – are already in the states, so you will probably see more guys training here. But we have great camps in Brazil. I think Andre keeps it there because that’s all the kids do all day long over there. I think he likes it that way because he has more control there. But I’d love to see us set up a strong MMA camp in the states. That would be great.
Q: What’s your theory as to why Brazil has produced so many great fighters?
Robson: A lot of kids start training really young and there are jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai schools everywhere. A lot of kids start with no money, no family support to help them get a college degree or become a doctor, so they need to make money and they’re fighting for money. The mentality is, ‘If I don’t fight then I’m going to be in the streets doing whatever I have to do to survive.’ When kids get this opportunity to train a lot of them hold on to it like it’s going to be the last chance they will ever have in their life.
Like Jose Aldo, fighting is natural for him because he used to fight in the streets to survive. So to step in the cage to make money is natural for him.
Q: You rarely see fighters leave Nova Uniao. What’s the secret to Nova Uniao’s loyalty?
Robson: Jiu-jitsu makes you feel like you have a family outside of your family. Andre is the father and everybody follows him. He’s helped his kids get jobs, get sponsorships, have a place to live. He helps them in any way he can and he’s been doing it for over 15 years with Nova Uniao. If Andre says ‘yes’ then it’s yes. If he says ‘no’ then it’s no. And everybody follows him. A lot of MMA schools do a great job as a team but I think they lose the loyalty. You have to be loyal to your team and training partners. At Nova Uniao we do that really well.
Q: Can anybody who wants to train with Nova Uniao just crash the school and train? Is it ‘come-one-come-all’?
Robson: Andre’s very selective. I’ve seen a lot of big-name MMA guys try to join Nova Uniao and Andre will say to them, ‘Look, I like you and you do a great job, but I don’t want to be involved with you and I don’t think it will good for my guys to train with you.’ I’ve seen him do that more than once and I learned from that. But everybody can come and train as long as you’re respectful and really want to be part of the family. But if you just want to check it out, no, we don’t need that because we already have so many good guys there. We want people that want to be part of the family and loyal to the team.
Q: Let’s talk about your jiu-jitsu career, one of the sport’s most distinguished. You started training when you were 10 years old. What caused you to become so addicted to BJJ?
Robson: Like Jose Aldo I also came from a bad spot in the favela. I asked my Dad if I could do Karate and he chose Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He took me the next day to a Brazilian jiu-jitsu school and the first time I stepped on the mat I decided, ‘Man, this is what I want to do with my whole life.’ I was in love right away.
Q: You witnessed a horrific act of violence one day in the favela. Talk about that incident.
Robson: I was probably 13 or 14 years old at the time. My father asked me to buy some stuff for him. I was walking and I saw a guy sitting on top of the hill. He was harmless, just a nice guy that you always see in the favela. I walked by him and he said, ‘Where are you going?’
I said, ‘I’m going to buy something for my father.’
He said, ‘OK, I’m going to make a kite for you to play with. As soon as you come back it will be ready.’
I went and bought my dad’s stuff and came back two minutes later; somebody had shot him in back of his head. I saw him laying there dying. It shocked me. That’s what made me say to myself, ‘Man, I’ve got to get out of this place.’ That gave me a lot of power and energy to stay focused on training and my life goals. When I was 16 I was able to move to Rio to train as a purple belt. I would sleep on the mats with the other kids. When I turned 18 I moved to Sao Paolo and started my school there. I was eventually, a few years ago, able to move my family out of there (the favela).
Q: You live in Tampa, Florida now. Do you still visit the favelas when you return to Brazil?
Robson: Every time I go to Brazil I go to the favela. It’s a fun place to be. A lot of people don’t want to go to a favela because they think, ‘Oh, somebody’s going to rob me, somebody’s going to kill me.’ No, it doesn’t work like that. You can go to a favela and nobody will mess with you. I still go there and see the people that I knew and play soccer with the kids. If you go there and don’t bother them, you’re fine.
Q: You have fought professionally and posted a 2-1-1 record but have been inactive in that realm since 2004. You’re only 33 years old. Would you like to return to MMA?
Robson: I would like to go back and do it again. I did really well in Japan. I would like to do a few more fights but it’s not something I want to do for too long because I would like to focus on my jiu-jitsu and growing my (Robson Moura) Association and schools. But right now I’m training for the 2011 Jiu-Jitsu World Championships. That’s my main goal right now.
Q: In your mind, which fighters have best adapted their BJJ for MMA?
Robson: I like BJ Penn, his jiu-jitsu is amazing. Kenny Florian’s jiu-jitsu is amazing. Minotauro, he knows how to adapt his jiu-jitsu for MMA. Roger Gracie, too. I always pull for the jiu-jitsu guys in MMA.
Q: Prediction for the Aldo-Hominick matchup?
Robson: First round, I see Jose throwing some leg kicks. Maybe he’ll throw a nice flying knee and catch him early for the finish. Who knows? I just hope Jose keeps the belt in the family.
Legendary Moura Discusses Aldo's Evolution
"When he (Jose Aldo) gets the chance to show his jiu-jitsu, people will be very surprised. He could be a black belt world champion in jiu-jitsu if he wanted to." - Robson Moura