My Life As An MMA Fighter: Leandro “Brodinho” Issa
Both my grandmother and my mom raised my brother and I; we never really knew our father. He left when my brother was four years old, and I was one. Although I never had a dad, my brother was always looking out for me, and I also had my friend’s dad who was a great father figure. But I never missed out on having a dad. Having my grandmother, my mother, and brother was enough for me.
My mother was always busy because she had two jobs. I knew it was tough for her because she had to support all of us, but she did what she could, working as a history teacher and as a clerk at a local government office. Because my mother was always working, my grandmother was in charge of watching us, making sure we had all our meals and that we went to school. To this day, my grandmother always prepares my favorite food when I come to visit. They did the best that they could to raise me and took care of me really well, even if I was a handful.
When I was a kid, I was always up to no good. I was getting into trouble left and right, and my mother was always receiving calls from school. My brother was the exact opposite. I was always out on the streets, having fun with my friends and getting into trouble. I don’t remember a time where I wasn’t doing something that wouldn’t result in my grandmother or mother scolding me. Thankfully, things started to change when Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu came into my life.
The decision to start BJJ was born out of my mother’s frustration with me. The calls from school were getting more frequent, and she was getting fed up. One day, she gave me a warning. “You need to do something with your life,” she said, “You can’t just keep on getting into trouble and expect me to help you every single time. Something needs to change or else nothing good will happen.” At that point, I was doing capoeira, some football, and judo, but I wasn’t taking them too seriously. My older brother had done some BJJ classes and taught me some techniques, and that got me interested. I was also watching the UFC, and Royce Gracie was ruling the octagon, so I knew that I wanted to start BJJ.
When I started training BJJ, I was immediately hooked. I wanted to spend all my time in the gym. I even stopped getting into trouble as often. It was then I realized what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to be a full-time BJJ athlete. It was at this point that I also became a teenage father. Finding out that I was going to be a 15-year-old dad shocked me to the core. I was competing a lot and winning some important competitions. How was I going to do all of that and become a father at the same time? Most importantly, I was just a kid, taking care of another kid – I was terrified. I consider myself extremely lucky that I had the full support of my mother and grandmother. They wanted me to pursue my dreams and never stood in my way. My grandmother took charge of my son and took care of him just like she took care of my brother and I. My whole family, even my brother, knew that I had the potential to make money from Jiu-Jitsu. They never doubted me for a second.
When I got my purple belt, I knew that I had to do something different to get better at BJJ. I needed a change from the relaxed lifestyle in Ubatuba, and I needed to move to a place where I could take my BJJ to the next level. At the advice of my older brother, I moved to San Jose Dos Campos, and I lived in the gym, which was in the garage of my professor’s house. He believed I had what it took to become a great athlete; he was always talking to my professors and asking about how I was doing in class. I had a small room there, and I could train and live there for free, on the condition that I helped him out during class and cleaned the mats after class. I was also lucky to have the support of some friends from Ubatuba, who helped support me financially to help me buy food and pay for my tournament fees. I didn’t make any money but I was able to train and compete, and that was enough for me.
In 2004, I won the Worlds as a brown belt, but the money still wasn’t good enough. I felt like I was just another World Champion without any prize money. My son was getting older, and my grandmother was getting worried about me because I still wasn’t earning money. “You need to start earning money, or else you’ll end up eating your medals. You’re already 20 years old, you need to start university and work on a good future for you and your son,” she told me. I asked her to give me a few more years. I moved to Rio De Janeiro to fight MMA; I knew that I could make some money that way.
It was tough moving to Rio, it was a big city, and I didn’t know anyone. I shared a room with another MMA fighter. In the off-season, during the summer, I would go back to Ubatuba and work with my friend selling coconuts on the beach, I also worked in the city hall with my mom as a tour guide. This money helped me survive the whole year. It was a rough transition from BJJ to MMA. I felt like a white belt all over again with new skills to learn. I didn’t know anything about striking, and my training partners took advantage of that. But I persevered – I knew that this was just something I had to get through to bring me closer to my goal.
From Rio, I moved to the US with a friend and fellow MMA fighter Braga Neto. Rent was expensive, so I had to sleep on the mats, and I folded newspapers to make money for food. The day before my first MMA fight in the US, I accidentally cut my chin wide open during training. The promoters asked me if I wanted to call off the fight, but I wasn’t going to give up. I didn’t fly thousands of miles just to let this opportunity pass me by. I handed my friend a tube of superglue and asked him to glue my chin shut. I’m happy my friend agreed to do it because I ended up winning that fight.
I’ve had some pretty interesting fights in my career. My favorite fight was when I first fought for the UFC in Brazil, when I beat Yuta Sasaki, a Shooto veteran. It was my third UFC fight, and I had lots of friends and family there to watch me. The last time I had fought a Japanese fighter in Sao Paulo, I was handed my first professional loss. My opponent had hit me very hard in the groin, but the referee did not stop the fight, even though it was a foul, and because of that he got the win. But this fight was different. I won with a submission in the second round, and I got to fulfill my dream of fighting in the UFC in Brazil.
No matter how tough my fights have been, it doesn’t change how I feel about being an MMA fighter. I love fighting; I like being in the cage, I love being challenged, and I love the adrenaline. I don’t fight for money. I’ve fought many times in Brazil for pocket change. It’s my job. I love training, and I love being in the gym and seeing my friends on the mat. To be a fighter, you can’t just love something. Passion is one thing, but hard work comes hand in hand with that. Talent is something that passes – there are many things that can change your focus along the way.
Nothing came easy for me. I got out of Ubatuba, my comfort zone, and challenged myself so I could fulfill my dreams. I don’t think it would have been possible without my older brother, Jorge. He was always there for me. He doesn’t understand anything about martial arts, but he knows a lot about what it takes to become a champion.
After almost 20 years of training martial arts, I can finally say that my mom is proud of me. In fact, if you ask her about me, she’ll probably cry a bit. I know I wasn’t the easiest son to raise. I know that I made her constantly worried because of all the trouble I caused. But I know that I’ve turned my life around and given my son the opportunities I never had. I can see in my mom’s eyes that she’s more than happy with the way things have turned out. And for me, that’s more valuable than any championship belt.
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