The Amazon rainforest, as fascinating as it is deadly, has its own myths and legends.
A beautiful Native American that would drag you to the bottom of the river at dawn; a giant snake that would attack and eat you alive; the secret story of Botos, river dolphins that would shape-shift into charming human men and seduce women at parties to get them pregnant.
Those tales, part of the local culture for hundreds of years, were never proven to be true. And let’s be honest, they probably never will be. They’re nothing more than myths, stories passed down for generations.
The legend of a young boy from the rainforest, able to escape from death in the jungle and twist your limbs into different directions to conquer the world, that one was real.
Down by the river
Born in Manaus, an important capital city located in the middle of the world’s largest rainforest, Bibiano Fernandes never touched the jiu-jitsu gi that would completely change his life until he was 13 years old. His first real challenges happened outside of the gym.
Fernandes, who would become known as “The Flash” for his quick submissions decades later, enjoyed living in the capital of Amazonas. He reveled in the Amazon culture, growing up around giant forests and beautiful rivers. Childhood wasn’t easy, he says, but life was good.
As a young boy he lived in a small neighborhood called Coroado with his parents and siblings. It wasn’t a violent place, “but like every neighborhood,” Fernandes says, “there’s a good side and a bad side.
“When I lived was fine. It wasn’t violent, but had some wrong things going on, people smoking weed and things like that, but I never messed with them. But it wasn’t violent or anything like that."
Never tempted to use any drugs or drink alcohol, Fernandes, like any other Brazilian kid, only cared about playing soccer.
When he was seven, though, his world turned upside down.
Fernandes parents' relationship was never perfect. "They were always fighting," Fernandes says, and his mother wasn’t happy anymore. "I think she lost the desire to live. She was depressed, got real sick, and passed away."
The young boy had no idea what happened. Even today, he can’t explain what led to his mother’s death. A spiritual man, Fernandes believes everything that happens inside the human body is a reflex to how you deal with problems in life.
"I’m not a doctor, but I believe diseases start in your mind,” he says. "Distress, despair, anxiety, hatred, grudge, these are diseases. They bring the evil to your body and soul. If one day we learn that we are the ones who really bring these things to our own bodies, we will learn how to control ourselves and suffer less. I don’t know what was inside my mom’s head, I don’t know why she was suffering, but she’s with God now."
Losing your mother at an early age isn’t easy, and Fernandes’ father’s lack of ability to deal with the situation made things even worse.
"Daddy kicked us out of home. Everyone,” Fernandes recalls. "We were just young kids.”
Inacio, Fernandes’ father, found a new wife and “wanted to enjoy his life," Fernandes says. The young kids were sent to live with their aunt deep within the Amazon rainforest. "My dad didn’t care,” Fernandes says. “He just wanted to enjoy life.”
Fernandes and his siblings traveled by boat on the 400-mile long Ituxi River to arrive at their aunt’s house. After a five-day trip, they finally got there. It was a small piece of land, a little house surrounded by vegetable gardens, a few animals, and trees — countless giant trees.
For a seven-year-old, living in the middle of the forest can be an life-changing experience. The small house had no power. Their only source of water was the same Ituxi River they crossed days before. There was no market to buy food or anything like that, so they had to hunt their meals.
"I was too young so I couldn’t do anything by myself,” Fernandes says, "but I helped my cousins when they were out there hunting and fishing. And they were pretty good at it.
"You’d go to sleep early since there was no power, around 8 p.m., and wake up early, at 5 a.m. If you left a trap in the woods, you’d check it out in the morning to see if you caught some animal. My aunt had her little plantations, manioc, onions, a lot of things.
"Life was completely different than the city. You had to produce everything you needed. That’s why I think I got good at fighting, because I was carrying bags of manioc every day to help my aunt [laughs].”
A year passed after that five-day boat trip down the river, and Fernandes was getting used to his new life. The forest has dangers you can’t sleep on, though, and Fernandes learned that the toughest way.
He became infected with malaria, a dangerous disease that can ultimately lead to coma and death. So Inacio rescued his son from the forest right away to get him treated, and Fernandes never returned to his aunt’s little farm.
Back to the city — and once again under his father’s wings — Fernandes held no grudges towards the man that left him in the forest after his mother passed away.
"I will never be pissed off with my dad because I learned with that experience and grew as a man,” Fernandes says. "Everything in life is a test, you survive and learn. Did I have the best education in the world? No, I did not. Did I have the best dad in the world? No. But I made a choice in my life, to do my best and never take advantage of anyone. I’m graduated in the university of life, man."
Returning to Manaus gave Fernandes a chance to do things other “normal” kids were doing already for years. Things as simple as going to school. Fernandes was nine when he stepped inside a school for the first time and had to learn the basics. Kids of his age were years ahead of him, and it wasn’t easy to deal with it.
In his first day of school, when the teacher asked him to read a book, that was an impossible task. This young boy could hunt his own food, do things even those kids’ parents would struggle with, but he didn’t know how to read.
But that wouldn’t stop him.
Fernandes studied. He worked hard. It took some time, but he made it.
"I’m a father today, I have three kids,” Fernandes says. "Sometimes I look at my kids and think, ‘how could [my father] do that?’ But I don’t know what was happening. If he hadn’t done that, maybe I wouldn’t be here talking to you today. I forgive him. He’s my father, I have to forgive him. To evolve in life, we have to learn to forgive people. That’s life.
"He had his reasons, I don’t know. Who am I to judge him? But being 37 now and a father of three, even if they drive me nuts sometimes at home [laughs], I say ‘no, let’s go. I’m your father and you have to listen to me.’ But I forgive my father because I have to forgive him. That's the only way to evolve.
"I started working when I was a kid,” he continues. "Life wasn’t easy, but I learned how to turn difficulties into opportunities. Back then I worked building houses, selling popsicles, washing cars, helping my neighbors. I’ve done it all. Now? Now I’m working hard to provide to my wife and kids."
Jiu-jitsu is far from being Brazil's most popular sport. With the vast majority of the young boys seeking a future as soccer players, investing money to train jiu-jitsu isn’t common, especially if you come from humble origins and can’t even afford a gi.
While doing everything he could to make money and help his father pay bills at home, Fernandes became curious when he heard about jiu-jitsu. Although he couldn’t buy his own gym membership, he bargained to train for free at a local dojo in exchange for work: cleaning the gym. It didn’t take long for his trainers to realize they were looking at someone special.
“When I entered the gym for the first time and trained, I felt so tired in the end,” Fernandes says. "My lungs expanded, that hot air coming inside of me. I felt this feeling, ‘what the fuck is this?’ It was so good. I never stopped training since.”
Fernandes started collecting first-place medals in Manaus, and the local circuit eventually became too small for a talent like him. Training with his masters Osvaldo Alves and Faustino Neto, Fernandes won his first world title in 2001 as a blue belt, but the road to world-class tournaments in Los Angeles wasn’t easy.
Jiu-jitsu is not a professional sport and competitors don’t make much money in local tournaments. Whenever Fernandes heard there was a tournament offering champions plane tickets as a prize, he would enter.
“I think I’m the guy that won most flight tickets in jiu-jitsu,” laughs Fernandes, who won many tickets to Rio de Janeiro to compete.
As he competed, Fernandes’ popularity grew. A jiu-jitsu apparel company started to sponsor him, and the Manaus sports secretary began to pay him monthly to support his training as well. The six gis he received monthly from his sponsor, he would sell a few to make some extra cash.
“When I was 23, I was selling gis to pay my bills,” Fernandes says. “That's how I was making a living."
In 2003, when Fernandes turned 23, he won his first world IBJJF championship as a black belt. And his camp for that tournament was one of his weirdest.
"There was a severe rationing program in Brazil that year,” he recalls. "The gym had no power, we had no lights to train at night. So what did we do? We trained in the dark. There’s so many opportunities today, you can compete in Los Angeles all the time, but you have no idea what we went through. Am I going to complain about life? No way. That made me who I am today."
Fernandes kept adding more titles to his resume, becoming a three-time world champion and three-time Pan-American champion in the black belt division in 2006. At the top of the world, he decided to challenge himself in a new way.
In the ring
The jiu-jitsu phenom had already tested himself in an MMA ring before, winning a fight in mere 31 seconds under the Jungle Fight banner in 2004, but he wanted more.
"I wanted the challenge. That's it,” Fernandes says. "I wanted to fight the best in the world, and the best at the time were Faber and 'Kid' Yamamoto.”
As simple as that, the decorated grappler with a 1-0 record in MMA hoped to jump into the sport against Urijah Faber and Norifumi Yamamoto, who at that time held 16-1 and 15-1 records, respectively. So he sought them out.
"I was coming from the jiu-jitsu world and wanted to challenge,” Fernandes says. "Jiu-jitsu gave me the opportunity to fight the best right away. No other Brazilian had done that before. With one MMA fight in my record, I was fighting a champion like Faber."
Faber already held the WEC featherweight championship at that time, having defeated names like Cole Escovedo, and Ivan Menjivar in his previous bouts. Yamamoto, who finished veterans like Royler Gracie and Caol Uno, also had a huge advantage over the Brazilian.
"I took Faber's back, but I didn’t have the experience,” Fernandes recalls. "I lost, but look what I gained? I started to understand the sport. The best in the world respect me now.”
After losing to Faber and Yamamoto, it took less than two years for Fernandes to regain a positive record again, winning a pair of bouts in Canada to improve to 3-2 in MMA. In 2009, at 29 years of age, “The Flash” then signed with Japanese promotion DREAM and entered its featherweight tournament.
Seven months later, Fernandes became DREAM’s 145-pound champion after racking up four straight victories, including a 42-second submission stoppage over future Bellator champion Joe Warren.
Fernandes lost his belt in a close decision in his second title defense against Hiroyuki Takaya, then decided to stop giving his opponents a weight advantage. Competing no longer as a featherweight, but instead as a bantamweight, the Brazilian scored three more wins in less than 100 days to add another belt to his collection.
One of the top fighters in the world and a winner of 10 of his last 11 bouts, Fernandes became one of the hottest free agents in the game once DREAM collapsed, and the UFC wanted to sign him.
Saying 'no' to the UFC
On June 4, 2012, the UFC announced that Fernandes had signed a deal with the promotion and was set to make his Octagon debut against Roland Delorme at UFC 149. It was a big signing, and Fernandes could immediately become a UFC contender with a single victory in Calgary.
The problem is, he actually never put ink to paper. The UFC jumped the gun on the announcement.
"I had the opportunity to go to the UFC and my masters told me it wasn’t worthy, the money wasn’t worthy,” Fernandes recalls. "It was pennies. They said, 'Are you crazy? Forget them. If they want you, they should pay you better.’ The UFC tried to sign me. If they really wanted to, they would have invested."
Fernandes was well-paid in his run as champion in Japan and Asia, so he decided to trust a new Asian promotion called ONE Fighting Championship. It seemed like a crazy decision, but Fernandes was happy about it. As for the fans who now won’t ever consider him to be one of the best in the game because he never fought inside the Octagon, he just doesn’t much care.
"It all depends on how you see life,” Fernandes says. "If you do your research, you’ll see I’m good. The UFC is good. The UFC isn’t bad. But the way they sell (fights), it’s too much drama. It’s a business. At the end of the day, they want (fans') money, they want you to purchase pay-per-views.
"It’s not like that in Asia. They want to put on good fights and will pay (fighters) what they deserve. The fans who watch the UFC are not the one who watch other promotions. If you ask me today ‘Bibiano, do you think you’re the best in the world?,’ I’ll say for sure, man. I’ll fight anyone, brother. But let’s talk business now. You want me to go there? Pay me. Fighting is not for everyone, but judging others and talking, anyone can do that. If people want to talk, I don’t mind. It doesn’t affect me at all.
"How many times have the UFC tried to enter the Asian market and got fucked? All the time,” he continues. "The last show they did in Singapore, ONE Championship destroyed them. Angela Lee put (thousands of) fans in the arena, and the UFC only put 8,000. I already fought all over Asia. If you get these UFC fighters and ask people in Jakarta or Manila who they are, they won't know. I can’t walk in the streets there. I’m worth what I’m paid. I was a two-division champion in Japan and fought all over the world."
Raised under the jiu-jitsu philosophy of respect, “The Flash” isn’t a fan of the method used by the UFC to sell fights.
"People say you have to be cocky to promote yourself now,” he says. "I’m not that guy. I believe in talent and potential. If someone enters the sport now and talks a lot of shit, they will make a lot of money, but people will forget him down the road. A true MMA fan will follow you forever.
"I’m not worried. I pay my bills."
Now, at 36 years of age and having recently re-signed an exclusive deal with ONE Championship that includes a career plan outside the cage for when he’s done fighting, the Brazilian doesn’t see himself competing much longer. His retirement plans include opening a jiu-jitsu gym in Canada, when he lives with his wife and kids, or in his native Brazil.
For now, though, his focus is singular. A winner of seven straight title bouts under the ONE Championship banner, “The Flash” is set to return to the cage on Aug. 5, when he meets 27-year-old Andrew Leone (8-2).
"I fought several generations of fighters,” Fernandes said. "I fought Faber, Yamamoto, Takaya, Joachin Hansen, Ueda… I’m fighting this kid now. He’s a wrestler, a wrestler like Joe Warren. He’s explosive, likes to attack the single leg and take the back. He does that really well. I think it will be a good fight to watch because he has some surprises, but I’m aware of that.”
Fernandes compares his next opponent to Warren, the same man he finished in 42 seconds long ago, but that doesn’t means he expects another quick submission at Macau’s Cotai Arena in China.
"It’s different now,” he says. "Joe Warren didn’t respect my jiu-jitsu because he thought wrestling could beat everyone. He had to change this mindset. But I think (Leone) will try to take me down. He has two options: take me down or work in the long distance, and I’m ready for everything he does."
If he’s successful in another title defense — and manages to continue like that until the day he hangs up his gloves — will Fernandes be considered one of the best to ever do it, being included in a class that has names like Anderson Silva, Fedor Emelianenko and Georges St-Pierre?
"I’m a good fighter. I know that,” he says. "That class right there, only fans can say. I work hard, do my best, but MMA fans are the ones who can put you in this class.
"I’ve rowed canoes, I’ve driven Ferraris and Bentleys. If I drive a Ferrari or if I own a canoe, brother, I won’t change who I am. I never thought I’d get where I am today, but I believe in hard work. I never had the opportunity to study in an university, I wasn’t born in a wealthy family. My father was a security guard and my mother passed away when I was 7. Everything I have today, I worked hard for it."