Will Ribeiro was a bantamweight prospect back in 2008, but his MMA career was prematurely stopped days after his second fight at World Extreme Cagefighting. Six years later, he still battles to live a normal life in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
With a 9-1 professional overall record -- which included five knockouts and two submissions -- Ribeiro signed with the WEC and fought former bantamweight champion Chase Beebe in his promotional debut on June 2008. He won the fight via split decision, and immediately broke into the top 10 of the division.
The one-time Brazilian Olympic boxing team member returned to the cage six months later to take on rising star Brian Bowles, and lost via submission in the third round.
After the loss, Ribeiro said WEC officials were happy with the fight and promised him another bout in February. However, a tragic accident changed his life. Twelve days after the Bowles bout at WEC 47, Ribeiro was driving his motorcycle home in Vila Isabel, Rio de Janeiro, when he was a victim of a life-altering accident.
"I was going home, but I don’t remember much of what happened," Ribeiro, who wasn’t wearing a helmet when the accident took place, told MMAFighting.com. "I stopped at the traffic signal and two cars crashed at the other side of the street, and one of them came right in my direction. He ran over me and threw me on the sidewalk. I immediately went out, and woke up in the hospital."
Days afterwards, Ribeiro’s coaches were still holding out hope that he would one day be able to fight again, but the doctors weren’t as optimistic. It would be a miracle if he survived, and the chances of him competing again were almost nil. He had suffered head trauma and lost part of his brain. Ribeiro also cracked his skull and part of the skull hit his eyeball, making him blind in one eye.
"I wanted to leave the hospital and go back to the gym," he said. "I was like, ‘please doctor, let me go, I have a fight scheduled. I have to go now.’ But they didn’t let me go, and I had to stay in the hospital for three more months. I was basically in a coma for three months."
Six years later, Ribeiro still does physical therapy and rehabilitation to regain his ability to at least walk again without crutches, and he has made slow strides.
"I’ve been doing rehab and physical therapy for the last five years, and I feel way better today," he said. "I couldn’t even sit before. I fell down because I had no balance. But now I can walk a few steps without crutches. My body is stronger now."
Ribeiro’s fighting career is over, but he has found ways to stay in the fight game and bring him peace. He has become an MMA judge in promotions like Shooto Brazil and Bitetti Combat.
"I really wanted to fight again, but I can’t, so that’s the way I can get closer to fights again," he said. "Still, I wanted to be inside the cage. The first promoters that offered me an opportunity was Andre Pederneiras, Artur Mariano, and Amaury Bitetti."
When he’s not judging fights, Ribeiro, who is now hemiplegic, teaches martial arts to kids in one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Running a social project in Brazil isn’t easy without the support of good sponsors, and it becomes even worse when you’re in a situation like his.
"The project is wonderful," Ribeiro says. "I love being able to help more than 100 kids. I teach them, though I also learn a lot from them, too. They’re like sons to me.
"But I can’t teach them when it’s raining, because there are a lot of holes in the roof. The house I used to teach is exactly where the drug dealers used to stay in the past, so they were always shooting at the roof and the walls, things like that. So we can’t have classes because when it rains, it floods everything."
Ribeiro used to train at Black House and Boxe Thai for his MMA bouts, but he has no contact with most of his old training partners and friends, including former Pride and UFC champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who graduated him purple belt in jiu-jitsu.
"I always meet Jose Aldo, he treats me really well," he said. "He said he’ll give his UFC gloves next time we meet. He has a huge heart, a really humble guy. But I barely see Minotauro, he disappeared. I don’t care anymore."
"Be strong and believe, Matt," Ribeiro says. "Keep your treatment and thank God that you’re alive. "Be strong and believe, just as I believe that one day I’ll be able to fight again.
"I know it’s hard, that I won’t be the same again, but I believe. I’m not fighting today, so I’m teaching. Only God knows."